More than two million Irish people turned out to see Pope John Paul II during his three-day visit to Ireland in September, 1979. He was the first Pope to visit Ireland and it seemed that the entire nation wanted to be involved in what was one of the most significant events in the history of the country, writes Gerry Breen.
Huge numbers of people gathered at the ceremonies presided over by the Pope, and he was greeted by vast crowds of enthusiastic people in Dublin, Drogheda, Clonmacnoise, Galway, Limerick, Knock and Maynooth as he struggled to complete a rather hectic schedule.
His visit to Drogheda was the closest the Pope got to Northern Ireland. There were well-founded fears that a visit to Northern Ireland could make him a target for loyalist paramilitaries and could heighten tensions between Catholics and Protestants.
Just a month before the Pope’s visit, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed in an IRA bomb attack on his boat in Co. Sligo. Shortly after that, eighteen British soldiers were killed near Warrenpoint, Co. Down.
These events reinforced the decision to restrict the Pope’s visit to the Republic, and a Mass that had been planned for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh, was cancelled.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, 29th September, 1979, people from all over Dublin were converging on the Phoenix Park to attend the Papal Mass.
Thousands of parish stewards, more than a thousand volunteer medics, as well as caterers had already taken up their stations. Dublin’s milkmen made sure they would be free to attend by delivering double the usual number of bottles the day before.
Members of sporting, social, religious and cultural clubs from all over the country had spent the night in temporary accommodation and were now joining the mass movement to the Phoenix Park.
Parishioners throughout Dublin had been asked to assemble at their churches at 6.45 a.m., and their priests would lead them in procession to the Papal Mass. At the Phoenix Park, a designated corral awaited each group.
People had been advised that only invalids and the aged would be provided with seats, so many had taken the hint and had brought their own fold-up chairs.
Seven hundred CIE buses delivered thousands of people to the park beginning at 5 a.m. The event provided a golden opportunity for hawkers who took full advantage to sell cardboard periscopes, ‘papal chairs’, as well as all kinds of memorabilia like medallions, mirrors, broches, posters and mugs adorned with the Pope’s image.
The Pope’s visit to Ireland was seen in Italy as a dangerous mission. The influential Italian newspaper, La Stampa, carried a headline on the day before the Pope left Rome for Ireland: ‘A Trip to the Edge of a Volcano’. His journey was considered to be one of the most dangerous a modern Pope had ever undertaken.
A hundred journalists travelled with the Pope and strict security precautions were observed at Rome’s Fiunicino airport. Many of the journalists had to check in four hours before departure. The Pope arrived from the Vatican by helicopter. An Aer Lingus Boeing 747, named St. Patrick, brought the Papal party to Dublin. The Pope kissed the ground as he disembarked at Dublin Airport and was greeted by Dr. Patrick Hillery, the Irish President.