By Seán Hall
Cnoc Mhuire is a holy site located in south-west Mayo, known locally as Knock. It gained its name due to the Virgin Mary, because of her appearance there alongside Saints Joseph and John the Evangelist to a group of locals on 21st August 1879. An ecclesiastical enquiry was called by Dr John McHale, the Archbishop of Tuam, and it was determined that the site was indeed holy in the eyes of the Catholic Church and it became a place of pilgrimage. As time passed, despite the popularity of Knock among pilgrims of the Catholic faith, the economy of the West Coast remained stagnant with emigration rampant, a lack of employment and infrastructure.
The ravages of this economic stagnation were seen first-hand by Monsignor James Horan, from an early age growing up in Co. Mayo. His vocation as a priest brought him to parishes throughout Ireland and Scotland before he finally settled in Knock in 1967. He lobbied the Church hierarchy to build a new church at Knock Shrine to prepare for the papal visit scheduled for 1979, which was for the centenary of the Knock apparitions. After seeing the potential to regenerate the area through tourism brought about by the Papal visit to Knock, Monsignor Horan became dedicated to the establishment of an International Airport in Connaught, as in the other three Irish provinces.
The site he chose was near the village of Barnacuige, near Charlestown in Mayo. Here, during building work with some parishioners, Horan was approached by Jim Fahy, veteran reporter for RTÉ. Horan famously said in reply to Fahy’s queries; “We’re building an airport, now don’t tell anybody. We’ve no money but we’re hoping to get it next week or the week after.” The optimism of Monsignor Horan did indeed lead to the construction of an airport in that location, and his crusade for the airport began to economically regenerate the area once again. Fahy reported on this priest’s endeavour straight back to RTÉ, with Horan having claimed he had no idea whether he had planning permission or not as of yet from the government, but boldly stated; “I’m going ahead anyway, just taking a chance.” Around this time, Horan had corralled then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey at a funeral in the area which he had attended and Haughey had given unofficial support for the project;, however members of the government at the time who knew of this promise claimed Haughey only thought he would be granting a “grass strip” for the project! This conversation is what apparently sprung Horan into action on the day he was spotted by Jim Fahy.
With the end of the Fianna Fáil government in 1981 and the beginning of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition led by Garret Fitzgerald, a political crisis of revolving governments began with three elections held in eighteen months, and weak administrations barely asserting themselves in Leinster House, so Knock was all but discarded by Haughey and Fianna Fáil. Horan’s determination drove him to run parish fetes and small concerts, which delivered several charitable donations including one as large as £10,000, according to the Monsignor himself. Political lobbying continued with Horan proclaiming, in a documentary released by RTÉ in 1985, “I’m dreaming of a great airport, With all the politicians that I know,” as a parody of the holiday classic, White Christmas.
In 1986, construction of the airport was complete and Monsignor Horan’s ambitions had been achieved, however tragedy struck when he arrived at Lourdes from the airport on pilgrimage and suddenly collapsed dead at the age of 75. In 2013, the people of Knock erected a nine foot statue in his honour to commemorate his work for the parish and the province. A year after his death, in 1987, which was declared a Marian year in honour of the Virgin Mary by Pope John Paul II, a Marian shrine was dedicated at the Basilica in Knock, which had been another of the Monsignor’s ambitious projects completed in 1976 in preparation for the Papal visit, where Horan himself is buried in the cemetery outside.
In 2011, a small musical film was completed in honour of what would have been the Monsignor’s 100th birthday, starring Ballina businessman, Ollie Rouse as Monsignor Horan, called “On a Wing and a Prayer.”
A DVD was even released with Taoiseach Enda Kenny in attendance at its premiere, and all proceeds from the sale went to the Mayo and Roscommon Hospice where Monsignor Horan had dedicated much of his work for his sick parishioners. Christy Moore famously composed a song inspired by Monsignor Horan and his parish’s history in 1983, called “The Knock Song,” containing the legendary lyrics, “I’ve never seen a miracle like the airport up in Knock.” Today, Knock welcomes over 1.5 million pilgrims and the airport flew 700,000 passengers in 2014 to various British airports, as well as Portugal, Spain, Italy and Croatia, with pilgrimage flights to Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje.