When the Pope came to Ireland

by Kieran Healy on April 3, 2005

Pope John Paul II came to Ireland in 1979. It was the first time a reigning pontiff had visited the country and the nation went crazy. I was six. My father, my younger brother and my uncle Donal drove to Limerick to see him, along with about 300,000 other people. He faced a similar-sized crowd in Galway, and filled the Phoenix Park in Dublin with nearly a million people, by some estimates. This in a country of about three and a half million people. I went to bed at six o’clock the night before and my father woke me up at midnight. I was put in charge of the torch. We drove up to the Northside to pick up my uncle. Then we hit the road at about half one in the morning, along with most of the rest of Munster. There were helicopters overhead, monitoring the traffic. It was the first time Radio 2 broadcast all the way through the night. It’s sixty five miles from Cork to Limerick. We parked the car a mile or so from the Mass site at about seven o’clock in the morning. Then we got out the deck chairs, settled down and waited for the Pope to arrive.

We were lucky; he wasn’t that late. In Galway, because of bad weather, the crowd was kept waiting for hours in the rain. They passed the time singing and looking up into the sky for the orange helicopter that was supposed to bring him into the West. Limerick was muddy but the weather wasn’t too bad. I remember almost nothing of the Pope’s arrival or the Mass that followed. Instead, I remember the crowds and the disgusting latrines. There was an old woman who shouted at me because I was shining my torch on things (cars, banners, the backs of people’s heads) even though it was broad daylight. “He knows, Mam, he knows,” her daughter said.

People believed the visit would catalyze a great renewal of faith in Ireland, especially amongst the young. The Galway Mass was dedicated especially to young people, and the great hope was to boost vocations to the priesthood. “Young people of Ireland, I love you!” he said at the end of his address there, to cheers. It proved to be the old guard’s last golden moment rather than a new dawn. Vocations jumped that year, for the first and only time since the early 1960s, but after that, in the 1980s, Catholic Ireland started to crack and fracture. In retrospect, it’s amazing that it took so long to fall to pieces. In my memory, the decade’s events are like a sequence of slides that pop up images alternating between tragedy and farce. The “Kerry Babies Case”:http://www.ucdpress.ie/ucdpress/socialsciences.asp. The opening of “Knock Airport”:http://mysongbook.de/msb/songs/k/knock.html. A fifteen-year-old Ann Lovett, dying alone in childbirth in the middle of the night, at the foot of the grotto of the Virgin Mary in Granard, County Longford. The “moving statue of Ballinispittle.”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/694799.stm (I went to see her, too.) The contraception wars of the early 1990s, when the Virgin Megastore in Dublin began selling condoms in contravention of Family Planning laws.

And then, in the space of a month in 1992, the “X-Case”:http://www.ifpa.ie/abortion/hist.html broke — the Attorney General was granted an injunction preventing a pregnant 14-year-old rape victim from leaving Ireland to have an abortion in England — and the popular and charismatic Bishop Eamon Casey turned out to have a 17-year-old son by an American woman. In 1979, the boy would have been about the same age as my brother was when we piled into the car for that long drive to Limerick. As the country was coming to terms with Annie Murphy’s story of sex and the single Bishop (not all that charitably, it must be said), Fr Michael Cleary died. He was “the singing priest”, a popular TV and radio personality with his own show on RTE. He was an outspoken advocate of traditional Catholic values and he delivered his message in a direct Dublin style. The punters liked it. After his death, people learned that he’d had a long-term relationship with his “housekeeper,” fathered two children and forced her to give the first one up for adoption. After that came an avalanche of cases of physical and sexual abuse, the appalling “Fr Sean Fortune”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/correspondent/2681141.stm, the “Magdalene Laundries”:http://www.netreach.net/~steed/magdalen.html — and on and on. Something similar happened in the political sphere too, as over and over things that had been open secrets became common knowledge.

It didn’t take long for people to remember that, back on that rainy Galway day in October 1979, as they waited for the Pope to arrive, the young people of Ireland had been entertained for hours by the easy charm of Bishop Casey and Fr Michael Cleary’s songs. Back then they’d been up there on the stage — the altar, rather — running the biggest parish social the world had ever seen. And now — well, you couldn’t have written it better. Or if you’d written it that way it would have seemed too contrived. The audience would roll its eyes. But there it was all the same. Casey and Cleary are clerical bookends on either side of the Ireland of the 1980s. They embodied the optimism of the faithful in 1979 and they precipitated its final crisis in 1992. I imagine that orange helicopter appearing out of the mist. The crowd is cheering. Bishop Casey and Fr Cleary are smiling and laughing. They have waited a long time for this. They are ready to greet the Holy Father. Who better than they to introduce him to the young people of Ireland?

{ 3 trackbacks }

Crooked Timber » » The Pope in Ireland III
04.05.05 at 7:30 am
Holy Shmoly! :: “Young People of Ireland, I Love You”
04.08.05 at 7:06 am
Crooked Timber » » Unsolicited Advice for Benedict XVI
04.19.05 at 11:58 pm



Erik 04.02.05 at 8:32 pm

The pope came to Holland too (in 1985 I believe). Funny though that I, and I suspect many of my contemporaries, remember little except the hugely popular satirical song that came out of it called “Popie Jopie” : http://www.koudhe.nl/Audio/Pisa%20-%20Popie%20jopie.mp3


Walt Pohl 04.02.05 at 8:32 pm

I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood in Philadelphia, which as a child made me defensive of my family’s Protestantism. I remember vividly when the pope actually came to visit Philadelphia, the streets in my neighborhood became totally empty, even of children, as everyone stayed in to watch the pope on TV. One of the neighborhood mothers saw me, and scolded me for not being at home watching like everyone else. I was very outraged by the assumption that I must be Catholic.


Laon 04.03.05 at 2:58 am

This probably isn’t a very important observation, but it’s a reason why I love New Zealand. The pope visited New Zealand some time in the 1980s, and there was supposed to be a huge open air event in which his fans would come out to, you know, do religious stuff, in the Auckland domain.

That same night, Phil Collins (a singing drummer; some sort of 1980s thing) played the Western Springs stadium, also in Auckland.

Point is, that night Phil Collins outdrew the pope. And his audience had to pay to get in.

I’m no Phil Collins fan, but I thought that was cool. As I say, not an important observation.




Young Irelander 04.03.05 at 6:01 am

The Catholic Church in Ireland has certainly been through alot since the Pope’s visit in 1979.
The visit of the Pope perhaps came at a time when Catholicism reached its zenith in Ireland.

Ppe John Paul II was a great man though and he will be missed.


david 04.03.05 at 10:05 am

Thanks for that.


carla 04.03.05 at 12:15 pm

A wonderfully written piece. Thanks for offering it.

I’ll be citing it on my blog today along with several other well done pieces on JP2.


SV 04.03.05 at 1:31 pm

As awful as they were, the kinds of scandals and abuses that took place in Ireland are not exclusive to Ireland or to the Catholic church . It is the inevitable result when an organized religious institution becomes so thoroughly intertwined in the national power structure.

The liberal notion that church and state should be separated is as much for the protection of the church (from corruption) as it is for the individual.


Clark 04.03.05 at 2:34 pm

What, no mention of Father Ted?


Progressive Pinhead 04.03.05 at 6:07 pm

For 2,000 years the Roman Catholic Church has expanded throughout the world, inspiring some of its greatest art, music and philosophy, cheering the living and consoling the dying, until today it claims the allegiance of 1,000,000,000 souls.

But, hey, some priests were kiddy fiddlers and John Paul II said disobliging things about queers. So let’s scrap the whole thing and start worshipping Evolution instead.


nick 04.03.05 at 8:16 pm

What, no mention of Father Ted?

My thought exactly.

Heck, can we count it along with the great creative works inspired by the Catholic Church? And throw in Dave Allen as well? And Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?


Uncle Kvetch 04.04.05 at 8:13 am

So let’s scrap the whole thing and start worshipping Evolution instead.

OK with me.


Tom 04.04.05 at 11:55 am

Re: progressive pinhead –

don’t know how tongue-in-cheek you mean to be, or for that matter which of the extremes you’re trying to satirize (those who would toss out the catholic church entirely, or those who would trivialize the sexual abuse of children and other large-scale, systemic abuses of power). suffice to say that the perennial challenge for the catholic church is saving itself from philistinism. the church in ireland was too slow to confront this challenge by a century or so, and has paid the price (as the church in the US seems destined to do as well) – and those of us who love the church despite its flaws can only hope that it starts learning from this crack-up before it loses its connection to the people entirely.


Steve LaBonne 04.04.05 at 12:31 pm

Pinhead, the greatest artwork it inspired was a long poem by some Italian guy- you might have heard of him. As I recall he didn’t have very nice things (to put it mildly) to say about the church hierarchy of his time.


Tom Doyle 04.04.05 at 7:19 pm

“One of the neighborhood mothers saw me, and scolded me for not being at home watching like everyone else. I was very outraged by the assumption that I must be Catholic.”

Walt Pohl:

I’m a Catholic, and regret any outrage or insult that you experienced are a result of the incident you describe. Please accept this apology, given unconditionally, and without reservations. I have no authority to speak for the Catholic Church, or any of its subdivisions. Neither did the individual who accosted you. I hope you accept this unauthorized apology for the unauthorized insults you were subject to.

It occurs to me that your misidentification as a Catholic had a relatively benign outcome. It might have been worse. As I’m sure you know, the pedophile priests problem was mishandled by the Church in the US as well as Ireland. It was certainly being mishandled when the pope visited Philadelphia.

Had one of those priests mistaken you for a Catholic, rather than the “neighborhood mother,” …well, lets just say that the outrage might well have been of a different order of magnitude altogether.


paul 04.05.05 at 6:31 pm

…that night Phil Collins outdrew the pope…

Fortunately, Phil Collins’ popularity also entered a long period of decline, probably quite soon after that Auckland concert…


Jeff 04.07.05 at 10:38 pm

[aeiou]God bless you Pope John Paul. May Christ welcome you home. You will be greatly missed.
P.S. Progressive Pinhead: Actually John Paul excommunicated 400 Preists last year for “kiddie fiddling” and was apalled by such acts. As far as homosexuality goes, I happen to know 45- 50 “queers” personally (I’m hetero). All of them are permiscuous, self-centered, and self- absorbed. THAT is why they are disobliged. And FYI: Consider this- God CREATED evolution!!! I don’t see who else could.


seamus donohoe 04.08.05 at 2:08 am

Nice article. I remember when he came to Dublin. Myself and the eight other kids packed into the top of a double decker bus to the park. I had never seen so many people in one place and still have not since. It was a wonderful day, one I’ll not forget soon.

God Bless St John Paul 11


Sean 04.08.05 at 1:54 pm

Hiya my dad was one of the guards that looked after the pope in ireland 1979 september he was 17 i was wondering if you had a picture of the stage if you do please send me it thank you!



Sean 04.08.05 at 1:55 pm

sorry forgot to put email addresse thank you!

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