It is 30 years since the papal visit of 1979, in which 2.7 million people came out to see the Pope across the country, 1.2 million in the Phoenix Park. Logistically it was an incredible event – the church took out a £5m insurance policy, CIé moved more people in one operation than had ever been done in Europe before, and church collections pulled in record amounts of money from well-meaning congregations.
The Pope visited sites in Dublin, Drogheda, Galway, Knock and Limerick – the most iconic being the gathering at the Phoenix Park and the Youth Mass in Galway (at which the subsequently disgraced Father Michael Cleary and Bishop Eamon Casey held sway).
Most people who attended these events remember them as great days out flavoured by good behaviour, tea and sandwiches. But beyond this, given the slow and steady march of secularism and the subsequent drip feed of revelations about un-celibate priests, industrial schools, Magdalene laundries, child sexual abuse and an institutional cover up, it's hard to understand what the visit meant and what its legacy was.
So here at the Sunday Tribune we asked a variety of people with strong memories – Bishop Michael Smith, who was then on the organising committee, former "youth" priest and journalist Father Brian D'Arcy; historian and author of Occasions of Sin Diarmaid Ferriter; writer and feminist activist Nell McCafferty; artist, Dublin city councillor and one-time resident of an industrial school Mannix Flynn; historian Father Iggy O'Donovan (who recently told the Humbert Summer School the anniversary should be designated "a day of atonement" for clerical abuse) and author Joseph O'Connor (who attended the Galway youth mass at the age of 16) for their memories of that weekend in 1979.
Bishop Michael Smith: "He'd been invited to mark the centenary of the apparition at Knock. I was executive secretary of the Bishops' Conference and I went to a meeting in Rome with four of the bishops, where we expected him to pat us on the head and say "I'm sorry I can't be with you", but in fact he said the opposite. We didn't have much time to prepare. Cardinal O'Fiaich was getting the red hat the following week and I went to meet Archbishop Paul Marcinkus and others who were responsible for the visit. Marcinkus became famous later because he was in charge of the Vatican bank… not very successfully. [Marcinkus's tenure was marred by serious financial scandals]."
Diarmaid Ferriter: "He came to halt the slide to materialism and secularism and apparently he gave the bishops a right bollocking behind the scenes. There was a lot of talk about Ireland as the jewel in the Catholic crown, but it was the same year we'd prepared our first legislation regarding contraception, which went totally against the Vatican encyclical of the late '60s. An element of a la carte Catholicism had crept in and people were making their own decisions. But what we see in Ireland throughout its history is an emphasis on outward devotion. Events like the papal visit can give off a very strong image of a country united in faith, but when you start digging you find it wasn't that simple."
Father Brian D'Arcy: "I would say the more conservative part of Irish Catholic hierarchy saw it as an opportunity for a repetition of the Eucharistic congress of 1932 – a big religious event to bring people back to the church in the way they had been before."
Mannix Flynn: "It was a church-state pageant, when everything was suspended and the country went into a trance around the symbolic head of that Catholicism. For me viewing them, knowing what they'd been up to, it was like that verse from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol: 'The warders strutted up and down/ And kept their herd of brutes/ Their uniforms were spick and span/ And they wore their Sunday suits/ But we knew the work they had been at/ By the quicklime on their boots.'"
Father Brian D'Arcy: "I was 2FM's 'Pope correspondent' and I was also tasked with coordinating the Sunday papers. People couldn't believe he was coming first of all. Nobody even understood what a million people were going to look like. At one stage about two or three weeks before, they began saying that it might only be a quarter of a million. But in the end the numbers surpassed all expectation; people as far as the eye could see. My abiding memory is of the Aer Lingus jet coming in, with everyone realising that the Pope was here, that he had arrived… all so enthusiastic and happy."
Bishop Michael Smith: "Aer Lingus were represented on the organising committee. They were mad keen to ensure he flew on an Aer Lingus plane. Air Italia were less keen. Anyway it happened."
Diarmaid Ferriter: "I was six. We left Dundrum at five in the morning. We were bussed into the Phoenix Park and I'll never forget it. Myself and my youngest sister fell asleep during the mass because we were so exhausted. People remember it as a big day out. My family weren't even particularly religious. I remember the pope-mobile. And I remember being hauled up on someone's shoulder to see a small dot in the distance who someone told me was the Pope."
Nell McCafferty: "I was part of a group called Irish Women United. They opposed the visit. I did not. They opposed it because of the Pope's stand on women's issues and contraception. Their protests mainly took the form of abstentionism. Given Irish history back to the penal laws and back to Cromwell, I was quite determined to see him. For those historical reasons, but also because I'd never seen a Pope before. And it was one of the great highlights of my life. I went along with my mother and my sister, both practising Catholics. It's very seldom that you see a nation in its entirety promising to be good. And I like to see people happy and I loved the colour and the whole notion of Ireland closing down; no plane flew in the sky, no boats on the sea, and no cars on the road. Dublin was abandoned and it was one of the most memorable sites in my life to see his plane float in over Howth Head. It was astonishing."
Father Brian D'Arcy: "I'd been on duty all day and when the Pope had finished I was bursting for a pee. So I went down to where he'd been, burst into what I thought was the toilet and found myself faced with the Pope having his dinner. Cardinal O'Fiach and Ryan the archbishop were beside him, and on the other side of the table was Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Maureen, President Paddy Hillery and Maeve. I just froze. Archbishop Marcinkus then rushed in to hurry the Pope because the helicopter couldn't fly at night. The Pope wasn't pleased. He left his second helping and Cardinal O'Fiaich said, 'Brian, you'd better finish the Pope's dinner because that's the nearest you'll ever get to him.' I ate with the same knife and fork that the Pope had used and it didn't worry me one bit!"
Bishop Michael Smith: "There were a few changes of plan. The Pope was supposed ?
to go straight from the altar to do a round of the people and then back under the altar to have a meal. But when Marcinkus saw the numbers he realised it wasn't going to work. So the helicopter was parked closer; he ate after the mass, and then did a tour which ended at the helicopter and they took off for Drogheda. Then that evening he drove through the city. I think the Vatican people could have given us a bit more help with the timetabling. Some things got on the agenda through back-channels. It was very hard to fit everything in."
Nell McCafferty: "Dublin's poor had turned out in Sherriff Street and decorated the street and he was to call there and then someone decided there was no time. That was a big and glaring omission noted at the time. It was hurtful."
Bishop Michael Smith: "Armagh was due to be the site for Northern Ireland, but after Mountbatten was killed [he was murdered by the IRA on 27 August 1979] Cardinal O'Fiach, Archbishop Ryan of Dublin and Bishop O'Daly of Derry had two or three hours with the Pope in Rome to convince him that going over the border wasn't the right thing to do under the circumstances. His first reaction was that having come through the Nazis first and then the communists he wasn't going to be scared off by a few IRA men. Some people said he never listened, but he listened carefully and was eventually convinced. He was very disappointed. Drogheda was chosen as a site instead."
Father Brian D'Arcy: "I lost enthusiasm for a little while when I found he wasn't going to the North. It was Mountbatten's murder which really put the nail in the coffin of that trip."
Bishop Michael Smith: "He gave a very strong speech about violence in Drogheda. He'd have seen his talk in Drogheda as a platform on which to make very, very clear the church's antagonism to killing and terrorism."
Father Iggy O'Donovan: "That's where he said: 'On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.'"
Nell McCafferty: "When he said: 'On my knees I beg you' he was clearly sitting in a chair."
Joseph O'Connor: "There was a certain amount of low-level drinking and smoking, and even a bit of peaceable snogging. The contradictions inherent in the occasion were perhaps summed up in the sight of a folk group of the Charismatic Renewal variety hammering out Deep Purple's 'Smoke on the Water' on their acoustic guitars. In some ways, it was the perfect place for an Irish male teenager. It had most of the temptations for which one might wish in one corner and the sacrament of reconciliation immediately available in another."
Bishop Michael Smith: "The next day there were more changes in the itinerary. We couldn't land the helicopters in the planned location. There were fences in the way and when Marcinkus asked Captain Mullins, director of the racecourse, to shift a fence he famously said, 'As the Irishman might say to you, 'two words: impossible.' So we had to land the helicopters nearer and to delay his arrival we came up with the bright idea of dropping him in Clonmacnoise. It was meant to be a private visit, but nothing's private in Ireland. Bishop Marcinkus turned around to find himself surrounded by 20,000 people. One lassie managed to get in to give the Pope a hug in the helicopter."
Father Brian D'Arcy: "We didn't have big rock festivals in those days, so we'd never seen the like of the youth mass. It was a big camp out. The morning was cold and fresh and misty and when he took over it was magnificent. Phoenix Park was about thanks for the past but Galway was about the future. At the end he said the famous line – 'Young people of Ireland I love you.' Everyone thought he was finished and Mick Cleary had to shout, 'The Pope is not finished, the Pope is not finished. Let the Pope finish!'"
Nell McCafferty: "That was nice. You didn't hear much talk of love in those days. It touched a chord in an era when young people were in the doldrums. Everything else he said was ignored."
Father Iggy O'Donovan: Father Michael Cleary and Bishop Casey were at the forefront of the rally at Galway. They were, if you like, the 'acceptable' face of the church. The two boys couldn't keep away from the microphone. It was a bit cringy, to be honest."
Nell McCafferty: "Innocent as we were, none of us realised that the two front men Cleary and Casey would eventually help bring the church to its knees. That they dared put themselves between the people, the Pope and God in the way they did was astonishing then and it hasn't lost its wonderment for me to this day."
Father Iggy O'Donovan: "Galway was a carnival event. The young people cheered him to the echo and I didn't hear one heckle. But I was in UCD with people like Roddy Doyle, Fintan O'Toole and Mary Rafferty and 1979 was the year the student union unveiled Ireland's first condom vending machine. I had no doubt where young people were going. The new Ireland had arrived. Donagh O'Malley had brought free education in 1967 so by the late '70s it was a very different congregation. FX Martin said that the bishops had the young people in the palm of their hand. But they hadn't! A fair few people who cheered John Paul in Galway ended up sharing their sleeping bags. Did the Pope's words have a lasting effect? In some cases the effect didn't even last until the end of the evening."
Bishop Michael Smith: "The Pope had a few strong words to say about the economy that look very prophetic now, and he had very strong challenges to people about their faith being at a crossroads. His words certainly resonated over the past 30 years."
Diarmaid Ferriter: "If you consider the battles that were coming down the line with Garret FitzGerald's liberal agenda and the abortion issue and the divorce referendum, some of the activists who were involved in the campaigns of the 1980s maybe took some solace or encouragement from John Paul's visit. The Pope's message was that Ireland had to resist the secularisation going on in other parts of Europe. But his hard line on sexual morality in particular was the thing that did the church the most damage. By 1996 the Irish church was drowning, unable to deal with the fallout from the clerical sex-abuse scandals. And those who adhered most steadfastly to John Paul's message were struggling most, I think."
Father Brian D'Arcy: "It was as much about Irishness as Catholicism. The Irish people covered themselves in glory and on that front it's nothing but a happy memory for me. But 10 years afterwards I could see that it wasn't really a success. Twenty years afterwards I was getting angry that people were still talking about it, because the Pope was still there and he wasn't being very good to women or to the theory of married priests; he was very oppressive to his own church. Thirty years afterwards all I can say is that it's hard to think that at some stage he knew about the abuse that was going on in Ireland and other countries and did nothing about it."
Mannix Flynn: "The church remains the same despite the revelations and that's one of its main problems. It refuses point blank to change. But we've changed. And there came a point when the spectacle was gone, when the visit was over, when they were trying to sell us back the carpet in squares because our holiness had walked on it… and we just drifted away."
Nell McCafferty: "Well, I'm glad I was there and saw a people who were happy and trying to be good. Would it be subsequently undermined by what was bubbling beneath the surface? Who knew that the Vatican was protecting paedophile priests? At the time we were chatting and having tea and eating sandwiches and he was off saying mass in the distance. I remember joking to people that we were eating while the Pope was praying. It was a good time. It was a joyful day. We'd never seen a Pope. But then we'd never seen Elvis either. This was before the world became a village. We hadn't seen anything really."