Papal indulgence – Frank McNally on the social side of the pope’s 1979 visit to Galway
An Irishman’s Diary
Pope John Paul II in Ballybrit in 1979
Historic as Pope John Paul II’s 1979 Mass in Galway was in its own right, it also marked the occasion of my first ever hangover. Please don’t judge me harshly, reader. The hangover hadn’t taken much. Two bottles of Carlsberg Special at a party the night before, then no sleep as we walked in darkness the several miles to Ballybrit, arriving before dawn.
The sun didn’t appear that grey morning. What did rise, steadily, during the purgatorial wait for the papal helicopter, was a pain in my head.
Remarkably, one of our group had been thoughtful enough to bring a packet of Anadin. What we didn’t have, unfortunately, was water – this was still years before anyone in Ireland had the mad idea of selling the stuff in bottles. So I had to swallow the tablets dry. I can still taste them, stuck in my throat, like Catholic guilt.
The party was half the reason some of us had gone to Galway, first on a bus down to Dublin, then by train.
Our former schoolmate Gary had a job over there, with Wrangler, and was sharing a house in Newcastle, living the dream.
This gave us a place to crash for the weekend, free of adult supervision. Meanwhile, every other young person in the country had also descended on the city, or so it seemed. And crucially, I noticed, half of them were female.
At first, there was an embarrassing shortage of that gender at our party, despite an extensive word-of-mouth advertising campaign around town earlier. Then, around midnight, a group of women turned up from somewhere and saved the day.
One of them was a member of the diaspora, which had also gathered in Galway in vast numbers. She was a nurse from Manchester, I learned, but had family in Knock. When we discussed music, she said she was into “Northern Soul”. And I had no idea what that was, but told her I was a bit of a northern soul myself, so she must have taken pity on me.
There was plenty to pity. Of all the miserable summers of my teenage years, 1979 was the worst. Until then, at least. I don’t know whether it was her nursing experience or the Knock thing, but she definitely cured me.
It wasn’t a rowdy party, I don’t think. But I seem to remember a small bathroom window falling out at one point. And there must have been a complaint about noise, because a garda turned up at the door later, so that Gary had to assure him everything was under control: something that, as a former class prefect and natural leader of men, he was able to do.
Poor Gary. Only four years later, I would attend his funeral back in Carrickmacross, as would TV cameras, Government politicians, and the Garda band playing the strains of Going Home. Elsewhere that weekend in 1979, John Paul II had appealed “on my knees” for an end to violence in the North. But for Gary and so many others, it would end too late.
As for the Mass in Galway, I struggle to remember much else about it now. At the back of the stand in Ballybrit, we were too far from the stage to see anything, and it was hard to hear the echoey PA, with an added delay for processing the heavily accented words of such now-famous sentences as “Young people of Ireland, I loff you”. The tragicomic element that videos of the event have since taken on, thanks to Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary, was lost on us then.
One of the downsides of being in Galway was missing the extraordinary gathering in the Phoenix Park. But even passing through Dublin briefly, as we did, you got a sense of it. It felt like an entire nation was on the move.
And despite the world-weariness and cynicism with which we might look back on it now, my other general memory of that weekend is how happy even adults seemed to be, with strangers smiling and saying hello to each other everywhere.
It was quieter on the way back, as I trekked across the city to Connolly Station on Monday. There had been dense fog earlier, delaying the pope’s departure from Dublin for his last events. But he was well gone by then and the weather was sunny as I caught a train north. Then the sleep deficit overtook me.
I woke with a start, in an empty carriage, relieved to find the service had terminated in Dundalk, and that I didn’t have more than 14 miles to hitch a lift home.