Pilgrim finds his calling as tour representative in Medjugorje


WILD GEESE:Philip Ryan, Senior representative for Joe Walsh Tours in Medjugorje, Bosnia

“Where we sit now were only vineyards. It was fields and stone walls, and family, faith and friends were what sustained people – like the west of Ireland,” recalls the senior representative in Medjugorje for Joe Walsh Tours, which brings thousands of Irish people here each year.

Ryan first came from Tallaght to this remote village as a pilgrim in 1986, when he was recovering from a bicycle accident that left him with severe spinal injuries.

He returned here to work three years later, just as rising tension and growing nationalism were tugging at Yugoslavia’s fragile seams.

“I’d worked with young people back in Ireland and that’s why they asked me to come out here,” he says of his first job in Medjugorje with a company called Marian Pilgrimages.

“I was crippled by shyness when I was young and couldn’t imagine taking a microphone or speaking to a group as I do all the time now. But I found my feet.

“We were already getting huge numbers of Irish coming here, 600 or 700 a week. But people expected and demanded less and there was a stronger focus on the simple things.”

Then, he says, the Celtic Tiger came and the Irish “got complicated”.

“We went from wanting three- to four- to five-star service and that affected what Irish people expected from the accommodation and food in Medjugorje,” he says.

“In the communist times, Yugoslavs were not encouraged to think for themselves or show initiative or creativity. People here had to learn all that. But they have met the challenge and standards have risen.”

Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito suppressed religion, fearing among other things that it would fuel tension between the country’s Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim believers.

When six local children claimed to have seen and received messages from the Virgin Mary on a hill in Medjugorje in June 1981, the Yugoslav authorities swiftly moved to prevent the Catholic Croats who dominate this part of Bosnia from gathering at the site. Local priests who declared their belief in the supposed visions were jailed, but the phenomenon refused to fade away.

By the mid-1980s, the cash-strapped Yugoslav government began to loosen controls on Medjugorje and its now famous apparitions, and encouraged the development of the pilgrimage industry to bring in much-needed hard currency from foreign visitors.

As communism collapsed around eastern Europe, however, the latent nationalism that concerned Tito was stirred up in Yugoslavia by populist leaders such as Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman. War broke out when Serbia tried to stop Croatia becoming independent in 1991, and it engulfed Bosnia a year later.

Then, as now, most foreigners arrived in Medjugorje from the international airports at Split and Dubrovnik, a three-hour drive away on the Croatian coast, so fighting in Croatia had a heavy impact on the village even before Bosnia collapsed into conflict.

“In August 1991, from one day to another, suddenly the arrivals dropped off. We could hear bombs exploding, there were military jets overhead and the atmosphere was intimidating,” says Ryan.

“We got a call from Belgrade saying all pilgrims had to leave. They would give us safe passage only for a certain amount of time. Only a Romanian airline was willing to fly in, so we took a group to Dubrovnik airport, drove the bus on to the runway right up to the plane, threw the bags in as the passengers jumped on, and the plane took off.”

Ryan eventually left with most other foreigners in October 1991, on a “rust-bucket” ferry across the Adriatic Sea from a port in Montenegro to Bari in Italy.

He later returned to work in Medjugorje once more, and in 2003 he joined Joe Walsh Tours when it decided to set up there. “There wasn’t a long line of people for the job,” Ryan jokes.

“We invested in the guest houses we use, putting in lifts and air conditioning to make Medjugorje accessible to older people, invalids and families who couldn’t come before, when it was just too hot in the summer.”

Now Ryan’s team of 14 guides welcomes some 200 to 250 Irish pilgrims every week for most of the year, and he spends about nine months annually in the village. When not in Bosnia, he gives talks about the Medjugorje phenomenon to schools and conferences in several countries.

Irish people kept coming here in small numbers throughout Bosnia’s 1992 to 1995 war, some bringing humanitarian aid.

Ryan says the recent economic crisis seems to have increased the number of Irish pilgrims to Medjugorje. “Lots of men and young people are coming to Medjugorje, those who might not normally come here. In times of crisis Irish people seem to spend their money more meaningfully.”