Flashback to 1979: Remembering when Pope John Paul II came to Ireland

‘Not even on Christmas Day have I seen roads so empty; it was as if the city has been cleared due to a nuclear threat’

His Holiness Pope John Paul II departs Ireland on an Aer Lingus plane at Shannon Airport following his papal visit  in 1979.Photograph: Dermot O’Shea/The Irish Times

His Holiness Pope John Paul II departs Ireland on an Aer Lingus plane at Shannon Airport following his papal visit in 1979.Photograph: Dermot O’Shea/The Irish Times

 

Below are the recollections of a number of Irish Times writers of the papal visit by Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979.

I was studying in Trinity in 1979 and went up for the weekend to visit my mother Nuala in Belfast, where I grew up. She ran a shop on the corner of Rockville Street and the Falls Road. I arrived on the Friday. West Belfast was empty, eerily vacant.

On Saturday there were no cars on the Falls. Aldo’s chipper across the road at the top of the Donegal Road was silent. The Rock Bar close by, nobody was there. There were no bottles crashing against the side of army Saracens driving past, no paint bombs fired at the Brit jeeps, no foot patrols stoned. Just nobody there. A clear out for the pope in the ‘Free State.’ WTF. That must have been some sort of a miracle. – Johnny Watterson

Our class in Salerno in Galway in 1979 was told we were honoured to hold large black and white golf umbrellas over some of the hundreds of priests distributing communion at the youth mass in Ballybrit (they were to identify communion locations rather than for shelter).

So a small army of schoolgirls (in our dreary bottle green uniforms as far as I remember) was bussed out to the race-course at 4am.

I remember trekking through fields in the night to our designated pen. The wait for hours in the dark and cold was long but it was exciting to be out and about in the middle of the night among thousands arriving in the dark.

The expedition was great crack, with an edge; I remember whispers about shenanigans and seminarians in tents nearby (maybe they were practising confession). By the time Mass started we were tired but the infamous double-act whipped up excitement.

The man himself was on a distant platform, and between the echoey PA and the accent I barely heard what he said. Still, we roared and cheered and were thrilled: the hysteria and the crowds were like a rock concert, though we hadn’t been to one yet. I kept the black and white umbrella for years afterwards. – Deirdre Falvey

I have two abiding memories from the pope’s Mass in the Phoenix Park. The first has to do with the Aer Lingus 747 that brought John Paul II from Rome. On its way to Dublin Airport it flew over the fifteen acres area of the Phoenix Park where the one million or so people were gathered (in corrals for safety reasons). The assembled faithful looked up to watch the plane carrying the pontiff fly low overhead.

What struck me was the sense of rapture on so many faces, as if they were witnessing a type of reverse ascension. One elderly women (at least she looked old to my nineteen year old brain) in particular caught my attention. She had her rosary beads in one hand and a picture of the pope in the other, and she held both up directly at the aircraft as if they might act as lightening rods for the sense of spiritual intensity that had so obviously possessed her.

My other abiding memory is of after the mass, when the crowd was dispersing. A huge number of portable toilets had been put in place but not nearly enough for the women, long lines of whom stood patiently waiting their turn. I don’t remember the mass, or the pope. – Colm Keena

Pope John Paul 11 disembarks from a helicopter after his arrival at Knock, Co Mayo in 1979. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times
Pope John Paul 11 disembarks from a helicopter after his arrival at Knock, Co Mayo in 1979. Photograph: Pat Langan/The Irish Times

Almost 40 years on from the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II, it’s time I made a full confession. With the buses due to leave for Galway for the young people’s Mass at an ungodly hour the following morning, my parents had given their 16-year-old a free pass for the Phoenix Park event.

Once my parents and the rest of the locality had gone to the papal Mass, and with little else to do, a strange thought came over me – maybe now was the time to accelerate my nascent driving career. I’d had a few lessons from my dad, so what better time to practise my skills behind the wheel but the one day when the streets were deserted?

Lacking confidence in my ability to reverse the family Morris Minor Traveller out of the garage, I released the hand-brake and simply pushed it down the driveway. And off I went. Hesitantly at first, as I refamiliarised myself with the rudiments of driving, then more confidently as it became apparent that I really did have the place to myself.

Not even on Christmas Day have I seen roads so empty; it was as if the city has been cleared due to a nuclear threat. I can recall pootering up the Dublin mountains with just the sheep for company then, at a loss to know where to go and fearful of running out of petrol (people worried a lot about running out of fuel in the 1970s), turning back to a city that had moved en bloc to the Phoenix Park.

Finally, I made it back to our suburban estate, and rounded the corner for home. And there, standing sternly by the road, stood our neighbour. Our Garda neighour, his beady eye trained on me.

Ashen-faced, I sailed past him, not daring to look in the rear-view mirror. I managed to manoeuvre the car halfway up our driveway, then pushed it the rest of the way into the garage. I only slightly scratched the side.

That evening, my parents returned home, exhausted but contented after their link-up with the pontiff. “And how was your day,” my father asked. “A bit boring, I suppose.”

“You could say that.”

And so I remember Pope John Paul II not for his profession of love for young Irish people, but because it marked the start of my career as a lawbreaker. And its end, thanks to the fear induced by my run-in with our local sergeant. – Paul Cullen

I can only remember two things about going to Ballybrit Racecourse in September, 1979, neither of which had anything really to do with the pope being there too. One was the helicopter – I remember it so vividly that, over the years, I have gotten closer and closer.

In fact, I could well have sat in the seat beside the pope on the trip from the monastery of Clonmacnoise to the Galway field where 300,000 people waited. The other thing I remember is that I proudly displayed a label on my jacket sewn there by my grandmother. It read: “My name is Damian Cullen. If you find me, please return me to . . .” To be fair, I was only four years old, and it was my father that had been given charge of me for the day. – Damian Cullen

Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ireland in 1979. Photograph: Agencies
Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ireland in 1979. Photograph: Agencies

In 1999 on the 20th anniversary of the first papal visit to Ireland I outlined why I did not go to see John Paul II. The piece is critical not only of the triumphalism of the 1979 visit, but also of the “wistfulness for a golden age” of 1999. As it turns out it is an interesting comparison of attitudes through time. - Tim O’Brien

An RTÉ radio commentator, carried away by the Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary build-up to the youth gathering in Ballybrit, described the event as a great spiritual céilí! - Michael O’Regan

In 1979 I was living and working in London. I remember going into the Aer Lingus office in Regent Street to book a ticket home (there was a discount if you were under 23). I was buying a ticket home and was stunned when the assistant said the pope was coming to Ireland! – Joan Scales

I was living in the countryside, and the bus going to Galway for the pope’s visit was meant to stop at the end of the road and pick me up. So I waited … and waited in the early hours of the morning as dawn broke.

Minutes past, the traffic picked up, the birds were singing. After an hour or so, I realised the bus wasn’t coming. I eventually went home, only to discover from a neighbour that the bus had gone early. We had no phone at the time, so I hadn’t got word of the change. It wouldn’t happen today… - Fionnuala Mulcahy