Pope Francis: Knock shrine, bedecked in Vatican colours, remembers 1979

There was little health and safety during previous visit, and no airport

When Pope Francis flies into Ireland West Airport for his brief visit to Knock shrine on Sunday week, he will have to atone for past sins, not least that of Galway's "betrayal" of Mayo.

Even as the village prepares with bunting and flags and floral tributes, memories are still fresh of what happened the last time a bishop of Rome arrived – in 1979.

"People had been up all night waiting for Pope John Paul 11, and then so many of us never got to see him," Knock resident Seamus Heneghan remembers.

"The visit had to be cut short, because Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary had delayed him in Galway . . . and then the weather closed in . . ."


Little did anyone know that both Casey and Cleary were fathers of children already by then, and that the facts of their private lives should pale into into insignificance when set beside the revelations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

“So much has changed,” Heneghan mused.

An estimated 400,000 people located spots on gorse and bog around the shrine back then to view the pontiff. This time around, Knock shrine’s audience is restricted to 45,000 ticket-only holders.

Back in 1979, there were few health and safety restrictions, and no airstrip. This time, Ireland West Airport is set to host the pope’s touch down on a runway used for private flights, and an associated hangar for VIPs and media.

Well tested

The facility has already been well tested with former US vice-president Joe Biden landing in a hefty US Air Force C17 plane for a family visit to the west in 2016. The Aer Lingus A321 transporting Pope Francis and delegation will be one of two guided on to the apron by air traffic control.

"Like popemobiles, papal aircraft also have to have a backup in case of any technical difficulties," the airport's chief executive officer Joe Gilmore explains.

A group of 100 students from local schools will greet the pontiff as he steps onto a red carpet and is then whisked away in a “modest car”, followed by a not-so-modest cortege on the 10-minute journey to Knock shrine.

Gilmore remembers he was a school student selling Mass booklets in 1979. He was so exhausted by the all-night work that he found it hard to keep his eyes open for the actual visit.

This time, any red eyes will relate to ensuring that the airport functions as normal. Ireland West handles almost 800,000 passengers annually – mainly on commercial, rather than pilgrimage, flights. Some 5,000 passengers on 20 flights between Britain and Europe on that day have been warned of extensive road diversions, as the main N17 will be closed from midnight on Saturday.

“If it is a beautiful day, he will able to see Croagh Patrick and Nephin,” Gilmore says. “He may get to see the statue to Monsignor Horan on his way out.”

The late monsignor, then parish priest at Knock, used Pope John Paul II's trip west to badger politicians to support his airport plan. After Fianna Fáil lost the November 1982 general election, Fine Gael communications minister Jim Mitchell dismissed the project as unrealistic, stating the location was "far distant from any sizeable town, high on a foggy, boggy site".

To make up a £4 million funding shortfall, the monsignor initiated a lottery, or "jumbo draw". By October 1985, the airport was marking an inaugural flight to Rome, and was opened by Fianna Fáil leader Charles J Haughey in 1986.

Louis Gunnigan’s ballad in Knock shrine museum recounts the battle, concluding “and who is to say but that soon one fine day/the Pope just might fly in from Rome”.

Papal flags

Bedecked with Vatican colours, Knock village shops are now selling papal flags and fridge magnets and car fresheners and Pope Francis T-shirts. Road diversions are already in place for the annual novena. A Garda presence at the roundabouts is "a not-so-subtle hint to the Travelling community to keep trailers and campervans out", one resident who did not wish to be quoted said.

“Yet Travellers are so loyal to this novena,” she added. “The church would be lost without them.”

In the basilica, hardly a seat was free as more than 3,000 people participated in a Mass for the Feast of the Assumption led by Archbishop of Tuam Dr Michael Neary.

On a day when Leaving Certificate results were issued, Dr Neary spoke of the challenges posed by contemporary culture where “success requires competition rather than collaboration, resulting in a deterioration of human relationships”.

“ It used to be claimed that the undermining of religious values contributed to an undermining of the family,” Dr Neary said. “ Today we are becoming more conscious of the fact that the undermining of the family has further eroded religious faith.”

“Prejudice dominates,”he continued. “There is an urgent need to become more conscious of some of the good which religious faith, the church and Christianity have done and continue to do in our world.

“In a few days we will welcome the successor of Saint Peter, the Bishop of Rome, as a pilgrim to Our Lady’s Shrine at Knock.

“He is coming to pray for the success of the World Meeting of Families. In doing so, he is praying for all of us and the families that we represent. May his visit and this shrine continue to be a beacon of hope for all who are struggling and for those who may have abandoned hope . . . ”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times