Flogging Pope Francis: hats, headbands and a banner for €1,500

Six months ahead of the Pope’s visit, publishers and flag-makers get ready for a merchandise bonanza

Ken Cairns and Marion Redmond at Prospect Design Flag Manufacturers prepare yellow and white papal flags at the factory in Montague Lane. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Ken Cairns and Marion Redmond at Prospect Design Flag Manufacturers prepare yellow and white papal flags at the factory in Montague Lane. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

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Above the hum of the machines at his Dublin factory, Ken Cairns tells me this is the calm before the papal storm.

“Flags are the last thing people think of. In the last few weeks before the pope arrives, we’ll start getting orders, from churches, parishes, councils and individuals. All different types of groups. You’ll see. It’s what happened in 1979 and we expect the same to happen now – all be it on a smaller scale.”

Here on the factory floor of Prospect Design off Camden Street, machinists – now aided by digital design technology – still have to manually insert those hems and work their magic. We’re in a timeless building with natural sunlight flooding the room and adding life to the gold material that forms half of the Vatican City flag.

“We’ve staff who’ve been with us for 30 and 40 years,” explains Cairns, head of the family business which was started by his father Ernest in 1947. During a lull in proceedings he jokes in earshot of his long-term employees: “the problem is once I get them [the staff] in, I can never get them out.”

They’ve produced flags which have ended up on Mount Everest, in the North Pole, in the palaces of Arabian princes and even in outer space. Government departments regularly use the company and their Tricolours fly from the top of the GPO.

Marion Redmond is one of those machinists for whom flag-making has become an art form. She’s worked here for 45-years. And she remembers that autumn of 1979 when Ireland went Vatican-flag crazy.

Intense demand

“We were working seven days a week just to keep up with the orders. At that time everything had to be stitched together. Even the coat of arms would have to be added manually. We couldn’t make the flags fast enough when Pope John Paul II came to Ireland.”

Indeed, so intense was the demand that Cairns says there were queues of people down Montague Lane.

“They were lining up from morning to night. It seemed never-ending. Eventually we had to sell the gold and white material with the crossed keys separately and people were actually sewing them together at home.”

That won’t happen this year if, and when, Pope Francis fulfils his promise to visit Ireland where the World Meeting of Families event will take place between August 21st and 26th.

Despite his appeal, Pope Francis is unlikely to draw the multitudes John Paul II did in 1979 when over one million people attended an open-air Mass in the Phoenix Park.

Despite his appeal, Pope Francis is unlikely to draw the multitudes John Paul II did in 1979 when over one million people attended an open-air Mass in the Phoenix Park

But still the flag-makers, merchandisers, publishers and retailers are preparing for a frenzy of sorts.

Indeed the World Meeting of Families in Ireland has already established an online shop. A spokesperson told The Irish Times: “The materials available to order at the moment on our website are produced in-house by ourselves. There is no profit on the sales from our shop. Items are sold at cost.”

These include banners, prayer cards, flyers, candles, pins and a CD with the official hymn of the event. One “Standard Curved Banner”, three metres in width and 238cm in height, has a listed price of €1,500. The image of Pope Francis appears on the banners while prayer cards are available in either English or Irish.

Aramark in US

At the last World Meeting of Families event held in Philadelphia in 2015, the US food service, facilities and uniform services corporation Aramark was chosen as the “official retail vendor of event merchandise”.

Offering a “vast catalogue of more than 200 official products memorialising this global event” the merchandise on offer ranged from T-shirts to knit scarves, keychains and coffee mugs. Pope Francis-inspired faith-based merchandise was also for sale including rosaries, holy medals and pectoral crosses.

At the last World Meeting of Families event held in Philadelphia in 2015, merchandise included a pope doll for $20, a life-sized cutout of Francis for $160 and a papal bobblehead.
At the last World Meeting of Families event held in Philadelphia in 2015, merchandise included a pope doll for $20, a life-sized cutout of Francis for $160 and a papal bobblehead.

Among the more high-profile items sold was a pope doll for $20 and a life-sized cutout of Francis for $160. Items also included a papal bobblehead.

When asked if Aramark would once again be its “official retail vendor” a spokesperson for the World Meeting of Families told me: “No decision has been taken yet about vendors or merchandise providers.”

Aramark Ireland, with a base in Dublin 17, owns the Avoca chain but also operates three State-owned direct provision centres in Cork, Athlone and Knockalisheen in Clare.

In 2016 alone, Aramark was paid €5.2 million by the State for contracts to operate the centres which have received repeated criticism for their structure and the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees caught in the system.

Brandishing banners which read “Aramark profits from human suffering” students recently staged a protest against the company’s ties to the direct provision system and their presence on college campuses across Ireland.

And in 2014, Msgr John Byrne, the parish priest in Portlaoise, described direct provision centres as “open prisons”.

Against such a backdrop, it is likely any decision to award Aramark a potentially lucrative contract to capitalise on a papal visit to Ireland may backfire.

In the Veritas store on Carey’s Lane in Cork this week, Pope Francis was almost conspicuous by his absence.

Scant paraphernalia

While a few shelves were devoted to books by and about the popular pontiff, ranging from Pope Francis Family Devotional to With the Smell of the Sheep, which he penned himself, it is a struggle to locate his face elsewhere.

Pamela McLoughlin, the marketing and events manager for Veritas Publications, explained why, for now at least, the market hasn’t been flooded with Pope Francis paraphernalia.

Since last year our gift buyers have been preparing. So that includes ordering calendars, medals, prayer cards and cups bearing his image

“As the focus is on the actual World Meeting of Families I think many don’t want to distract from that. Pope Francis himself said he didn’t want this visit to just be about him.”

She continued: “But, of course, since last year our gift buyers have been preparing. So that includes ordering calendars, medals, prayer cards and cups bearing his image. And a number of publications about Pope Francis have been commissioned by Veritas.”

But she warned: “Officially, of course, this is just a proposed visit. Until its confirmed we’re all holding back. But once we know he’s coming for sure, I expect things to move up a gear.”

Back on the factory floor in Dublin Marion Redmond has finished her teabreak and must tackle a new bundle of flags. Is she looking forward to the visit of the man himself and will she abandon her post to see Pope Francis in the flesh? She pauses for a moment and replies: “Ah look, I’ll probably see him on the telly.”

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