Knock airport’s success built on a wing and a prayer

People gather to celebrate and reminisce about airport’s 30 years in business

It was nearly strangled at birth, the preposterous notion of an airport on the top of a mountain that was shrouded in mist. Urban Ireland spluttered into its cappuccino and harrumphed at the mere idea of it.

But Mayo had the last laugh and on Friday night, Knock airport celebrated its first 30 years with a fine dinner, a gala concert, sing-song and storytelling session, secure in the knowledge that Knock's 10 millionth passenger will pass through the terminal building in 2016.

"The monsignor had a vision and 30 years later, let's hope he's proud," said Donal Healy, head of marketing at Ireland West Airport Knock, to give it its expanded formal title.

Healy was recalling the role of the late Monsignor James Horan, the priest whose determination got up the nose of politicians . . . but who got his way in the end.


Some 150 guests dined upstairs in the airport terminal, enjoying local beef and salmon.

Afterwards in the main concourse of the building, 500 were seated for the gala concert and evening of reminiscences broadcast live by Midwest Radio. Tickets were just €15, with proceeds going to Cancer Care West, MS Ireland and Pieta House.

“We could have sold five times 500,” observed Healy.

Guests were entertained by local former TD Pádraig Flynn, who recalled his role as junior transport minister ("He opened doors with Charlie Haughey," according to Healy) and Terry Reilly (maker of the celebratory film, On a Wing and a Prayer).

Niall Gibbons of Tourism Ireland was the main guest speaker. Michael O’Leary sent a video message of congratulations, and there was music from Tommy Fleming, Christy Moore and the Rejoice Gospel Choir.

Clerical cape

Retired RTÉ western correspondent

Jim Fahy

recalled his famous January 1981 interview with Horan, his clerical cape flapping in the wind as earth movers lumbered across the bog behind him at the start of construction.

“Monsignor,” said Fahy, “what exactly is going on here?”

“What do you think is going on! We’re building an airport,” the priest shot back. “And I hope the Department of Transport doesn’t hear about it. Now don’t tell them . . . We’ve no money, but we’re hoping to get it next week, or the week after.”

And build it he and they did.

Today Knock links the west of the country with 23 destinations in Ireland, Britain and mainland Europe. Contrary to Horan’s expectations, commuting and ordinary tourism, as opposed to religious pilgrimages, are now the mainstay of the airport.

Foreign pilgrims

The airport is used heavily by people who live in Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Roscommon and is an important magnet for foreign tourists. Hopes are running high for a trans-Atlantic route; the first pilgrimage from Boston is due to land in July, following last year’s first from New York.

The first plane to land, Aer Lingus flight 4962, touched down in October 1985. The following year, when it officially opened, Knock catered for just 9,200 passengers.

This year’s numbers will hit 750,000 – among them that 10 millionth passenger.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times