Weary but happy pilgrims delighted to witness Pope Francis' visit to Knock Shrine
Hundreds of pilgrims from Sligo rose in from their warm beds in the dead of night, pulled on their wet gear and braved the lashing rain to travel to Knock to see Pope Francis on Sunday.
"I was glad I went, it wouldn't be the same watching it on telly. We got a glimpse of him," said Eileen Gaughan.
"It's a different kind of a day and it's unlikely to be repeated in my lifetime," added her husband Eamon.
They were among the pilgrims on board the 5.30am bus from St Patrick's Church in Strandhill, one of several from the Elphin diocese which visited either Knock or Dublin to see Pope Francis first visit to Ireland.
Our Furey's bus driver Declan was diverted off the N17 at Charlestown via Bohola, Balla and emerged at Claremorris faced with an 8km tailback south of Knock Shrine.
The bus parked up around 9.15am on the N17 and we joined the crowds marching through a field and down a boreen into Knock village just in time to hear hosts Una Nolan and Summerhill College Principal Paul Keogh lead the congregation in rehearsal of Dana's song, 'Lady of Knock'.
All at once he was among us. Cheers of excitement rippled through the crowd.
We saw the famous popemobile moving through the crowds on the big screen and ran to the barriers to catch a glimpse.
"Here he comes!" someone cried and then there he was. The white car drove past and Pope Francis beamed down at us, a hand raised in blessing.
And in a flash he was gone.
Once he had satisfied everyone with his tour of the grounds, the pope was greeted at the newly refurbished (by Sligo firm Kilcawley Construction) Apparition Chapel by the Rector of Knock Shrine Fr Richard Gibbons.
Bells rang out three times calling everyone to silent prayer along with the pope as he lit a candle and sat down before the statue of Our Lady.
The silence was extraordinary given the 45,000 strong congregation. It was only broken by babies crying or the odd ping of a phone.
Blue flags fluttered, the rain drizzled down and everybody stood and watched.
After five short minutes, the pope rose to his feet and presented the Shrine with a Golden Rosary in recognition of the devotion of the Irish to the rosary.
He blessed the sick and moved to the main stage where he addressed the crowd in Italian.
"None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, who were robbed of their innocence and left scarred by painful memories.
"This open wound challenges us to be firm and decisive in the pursuit of truth and justice,"he said, to applause.
"I beg the Lord's forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God's family.
"I ask our Blessed Mother to intercede for the healing of the survivors and to confirm every member of our Christian family in the resolve never gain to permit these situations to occur," he said.
Pope Francis then shared with us what he was praying for inside the chapel moments earlier: "In my prayer before her statue, I presented to her in particular all the victims of abuse of whatever kind committed by members of the Church in Ireland," he said.
Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary presented Pope Francis with a beautiful mosaic of Our Lady as a parting gift.
The crowds joined the Knock Parish Choir in singing 'Lady of Knock' as God's representative on earth left for Knock airport.
As soon as the pope was gone, roughly half the congregation didn't wait for mass and filed out of the Shrine.
"I really enjoyed it," said Evelyn Cunnane, who was up since 4am.
"The big screens were great. We got a view of him in the distance and it was as good as if we were near him," said
"He's just very likeable. The atmosphere was great," she said.
Retired priest Fr Farrell Cawley from Ballinacarrow was one of the lucky ones invited to sit in the Blue zone in front of the main stage.
"It was great to see the pope up so close and personal," he told The Sligo Champion. " I was delighted and the weather was very kind to us and it eased off through the Angelus," he said.
"I think he touched on the issues that are important, protection of children and so on and justice for those who have been hurt so badly. He got a clap for that," he said.
"I was curate in Charlestown in 1979. There was a great spirit there that time even though the weather was bad and he didn't get around to the corals like he did today. Everybody got a chance to see him," he said.
Retired teacher Gabrielle Finan from Strandhill thought the most extraordinary moment was when Pope Francis prayed in the chapel.
"Just the silence. For the crowd that was there, you could hear a pin drop. We heard then what he prayed for, which was wonderful. It was just an incredible silence. I liked that. The orderliness of it all. The whole event was full of gentleness and faith," she said.
Sligo Tidy Towns Chairman Peter Tiernan and his wife Terri were thrilled they went. "My favourite moment was the feeling of peace that went throughout the Shrine when he was contemplating in the Apparition Chapel. That peace and power went around the whole site.
"I like him generally. He has great charisma. Seems to be a lovely man. His speech was good and he went a little bit farther on the abuse issue," he said.
They too were in Knock for Pope John Paul II in 1979, almost in the same spot. "We were about the same distance from the Basilica and there were no big screens then,"said Terri. "The weather was also identical. I don't know what She has about rain!" she laughed.
Retired Strandhill NS Principal Manus Shields caught a glimpse of him as he drove past "at speed." "I enjoyed it now, happy I came," he said.
Co-ordinating the trip to Knock for PP Fr Niall Ahern was Kathleen Brennan. "When the Pope arrived, the tears started to come because I was thinking of 39 years ago. I was in Knock as well. When he went away, there was a sense of loneliness like you were saying goodbye to an old friend. He's like anybody's Granddad. He radiates love and simplicity," she said.