A generation of John Pauls: growing up the pope’s namesake

One in 10 Irish boys born in 1980 was named after the former pontiff. We catch up with some

When photographs of three newborn baby boys with nothing in common but a Christian name appeared side by side on the front page of the Evening Herald in September 1979, Dana was riding high in the charts with her paean to the papacy Totus Tuus (Totally Yours). Divorce was illegal, homosexuality was a criminal offence and contraception had just been legalised but only for married couples with the backing of their doctor.

Bishop Eamon Casey was in his Galway palace and Fr Michael Cleary was all over the airwaves peddling a new brand of informal, open collared priestliness. Magdalene Laundries across the State were still washing their dirty linen in private and teachers hit children with thick leather straps and closed fists with the approval of the State.

An almost endless litany of clerical sexual abuses remained a closely guarded secret with only the perpetrators – a tight circle of priests in positions of power, and the victims, truly aware of the horrors unfolding.

Of course, the three infant John Pauls – named in honour of the three day visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979 – on the front page of the Herald that autumn evening knew nothing of such things. Nor could they have possibly known how their lives would be shaped by a rapidly changing and increasingly flexible Ireland just as surely as their parents' lives - and the lives of the parents of 10,000 or so other infant John Pauls soon to be born - had been shaped by an Ireland in thrall to the power of the pulpit.


The three John Pauls - John Paul Fitzgerald, Sean Paul Cafferty and JP Saunders - are now nudging 40 - and the first thing they agree on when they meet for the first time in The Irish Times is the unique bond their name gave them.

“There’s this little club of John Pauls, boys born in 1979 and 1980, and when we meet each other, it means something different,” says Fitzgerald, before Saunders jumps in. “We do get asked about our names and people always know exactly how old we are,” he says.

Cafferty nods too, although he adds with a hint of relief, that he has “never been in the John Paul club. I just became Sean and then Shane so I was spared”.

‘It was very stressful’

Fitzgerald, from Clondalkin, says his family “was very religious, as most families were. Religion dominated not only at home but in the community. Everyone went to Mass and if you didn’t, people would know.”

While Saunders’ family in Walkinstown weren’t “overtly religious”, his mother “had a particular affinity with Pope John Paul and still does”.

Cafferty, who spent his early years in Mayo and Malahide, says that in late 1970s Ireland “if you didn’t go to mass you were basically as bad as the Protestants, there was basically something wrong with you”.

While the three had different upbringings, the similarities are striking. Both Cafferty and Fitzgerald’s parents’ marriages both broke down when they were under eight and both speak of the shame they felt because of that.

Fitzgerald's mother was 18 when she married and by the time she was 22 had four children. 'She was still a child herself but that was the thing, people got married young'

“We were shunned at the time,” Fitzgerald says. “And as a kid it was all turmoil and a bit scary.” He says his parents “just weren’t compatible” and were “very, very young”. His mother was 18 when she married and by the time she was 22 had four children. “She was still a child herself but that was the thing, people got married young .”

He says gossipy neighbours meant he was “very, very aware” his family was different after the break-up and the children on his road “were cruel” and would call him a “bastard” because, they said, he’d no father. He recalls coming home one evening to ask his mother if he was a bastard now. “And I was constantly listening to the adults asking how they were going to pay bills. So I just worried about everything, the whole situation, it was very stressful.”

A couple of years after his parents split his mother met a man called Pat who was “a bit of a legend”. By contrast his biological father “would dabble in being a father”. He has not spoken to him for over 10 years and struggles to understand “how a man could not move heaven and earth to be part of his children’s lives. It doesn’t matter what the situation was between him and my mother, being a father is very different to being a partner and as far as I am concerned you can’t opt in or opt out of it.”

‘Fairly glitzy’

Cafferty’s parents marriage broke down in somewhat different circumstances but the impact it had on him was as profound. When he was born his parents were living in Charlestown, Co Mayo and owned a bar called the Inn Place. When he was two-year-old his family moved to Dublin where his mother worked as a model while his father became Joe Dolan’s promoter. He also worked with the Dubliners and the Fureys.

Cafferty describes his early years as “fairly glitzy”. His family hung out with Dolan, Luke Kelly, and the Haugheys. “But they had a fairly turbulent relationship.” He was seven when his parents separated and “even to this day I thought I was the first kid in Ireland to have his parents separate because it was so rare”.

The break-up happened just as the family planned to emigrate to Boston. "Everything went then, the glitzy lifestyle went. I moved in with my granny in Galway with my mother. I still didn't know what was going on. I wasn't allowed see my father and it was in the courts and there were custody battles and it was like something you'd see in Dallas. It was awful, it really was horrendous," he recalls.

Eventually the tension dissipated and he travelled to Boston to see his father regularly. That, he says, “was great”. Then his father moved back to Ireland in 1990 and they used to meet at weekends. “My mother found a place to live on the South Circular Road and it was so different to Malahide where we had been living. I’d never heard a working class Dublin accent until I was nine, that’s how sheltered I was. I was going to school in Synge Street and it was a tough school,” he says.

Eventually he was moved to a boarding school for his Leaving Cert cycle and was just weeks away from his exams when his mother had a stroke. She was 48. “I was in boarding school and my parents were separated so she was on her own in the house for two-and-a-half days,” he says.

The stroke left one side of her body paralysed.

“Then, last January she had a brain haemorrhage and lost her speech so I moved back home to look after her. At the end of the day I am an only child. She is my mother and I don’t see it as a hindrance I’m just doing my job.”

A ‘militaristic and brutal’ school

Saunders, by contrast, had a more conventional childhood and adolescence. “I’d a secure and loving upbringing and never wanted for anything,” he says. “We didn’t have luxuries or foreign holidays but in terms of the basics, food, shelter love, education and security I had everything. I’m very lucky and don’t have a tragedy or a story to tell like a lot of people.”

He went to a “militaristic and brutal” Christian Brothers school and on to a fee-paying school which his parents could only afford “through sacrifices”. From there he went to UCD, where he studied Economics.

He is married and has two young children aged 4 and 18 months and works as an accountant in the public sector. Fitzgerald also has two children aged nine and one, with a third due in January. He owns a tile shop in Dublin. Cafferty is unmarried and has become a fulltime carer for his mother.

I recall the Bishop Casey situation and the abuse stuff but it didn't really play a big part in my life as a child. I was more interested in playing football and climbing trees

While all three have followed the arc of the Catholic Church’s downfall in Ireland it did not have a huge impact on them as young people. “I recall the Bishop Casey situation and the abuse stuff but it didn’t really play a big part in my life as a child,” Fitzgerald says. “I was more interested in playing football and climbing trees and acting the maggot and it went over my head. I didn’t really realise the significance of what was happening to the church and to Irish society until I was older.”

Saunders says the declining role of the church and the rise in technology are the biggest change in his lifetime and he suggests the declining authority of the church is “a double edged sword”. He’s not religious but misses the comfort and the milestones for the children. He laments the loss of those things.

‘I don’t think being gay is a sin’

There are a lot more John Pauls out there - one in 10 Irish boys born in 1980 were given the name. It doesn’t even feature in the top 100 names now, according to the Central Statistics Office.

JP McCauley is another John Paul. He grew up in Sion Mills in Strabane, Co Tyrone and works as a graphic designer and a Johnny Cash impersonator. His was a very Catholic family and his uncle was a missionary priest. He ended up with the name John Paul as his grandfather was called John and his father was called Wee John. “My parents didn’t want me to be called a Wee Wee John,” he laughs.

John Paul Tobin is from Co Meath and was born in 1980. “I think for my parents it was a no-brainer to call me John Paul,” he says. “In my class in secondary school there were five or six people out of 30 who shared my name. I call myself Paul but John Paul is the name on my passport. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to go back and change a flight booking.”

He has been a hairdresser since he left school after his Junior Cert and he now owns the Shabby Chic salon in Trim. While he says his family “wasn’t particularly religious” he adds that they “went to Mass every Sunday and said the rosary every night”.

For much of his life he has struggled with his sexuality and he refused to admit to himself he was gay until he was in his late 20s. He had built a house with his long-term girlfriend and then, two weeks before they were due to marry, he called it off. “I always knew,” he says. “I was just trying to be heteronormative until eventually I plucked up the courage. After that life picked up big time. I think the problem was I thought people wouldn’t accept me for who I was when the reality was I wasn’t accepting myself for who I was.

He is completely unconcerned about the Catholic Church’s view of homosexuality. “At the age of 38 I’m too old to give a damn what anyone thinks about me and I don’t think being gay is a sin or will see me in hell. I’m gay and I don’t need anybody’s approval for that.”

He will be at the papal Mass as a volunteer for the Order of Malta. McCauley won’t be as he has a show as the Man in Black the night before “and the start would be far too early for me”.

Fitzgerald is going. “This is a big event in Irish history and my mother-in-law who is from Peru is going to be here and she’s quite religious,” he says. “I’m not a big time Catholic or anything but this is a big event and I think this guy [Pope Francis] is a decent skin and seems interested in reform. He talks the talk so I hope things are changing.”

Saunders is undecided. “My wife’s sister has tickets so I’m probably going. I don’t have the belief and that but I’ve no ill will towards the man. Let’s put it this way, plenty of people in the world do bad things and I do believe his heart is in the right place and I may well end up in the park but I wouldn’t be breaking my neck to get there.”

“I see the guards have set up a morgue so that’s not really selling it to me,” Cafferty says with a wry smile. “I’ll probably watch it on the telly, that’s easiest,” he adds. And when questioned just a bit further he says he probably won’t do that either. “I might watch bits and bobs on the news,” he finally decides. “Maybe.”

The John Pauls, a documentary about some of the boys named in the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland, is on RTÉ One at 9.30pm on Monday, September 10th