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The Visit Of Pope John Paul II 1979

In July 1979 news broke that Pope John Paul II had accepted an invitation to visit Ireland later that year. It was an announcement that would send the country into a frenzy of preparation to welcome the most famous dignitary to visit these shores since John F. Kennedy in 1963. The decision to visit Ireland while en route to the United States was quite a bold one. Karol Wojtyla had only become Pope the previous year and was the first Polish Cardinal to ascend to the position. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland was in the grip of the Troubles but despite this the Pope was determined to visit Ireland even though he received advice against the trip. It was the very situation in Northern Ireland that compelled the Pontiff to come this island on a cross border visit. For an Garda Síochána along with the Defence Forces this would be the largest event ever managed in the State’s history.

As preparations got under way for the September visit, August brought a sobering reminder of the Republican  threat. On the 27th of August Lord Louis Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, was murdered by the IRA while on holiday in Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo. On the same day eighteen British Soldiers were killed in the Warrenpoint Ambush in Co. Down. Tensions rose as two days later the Vatican announced that the Pope would not be visiting Co. Armagh as he had envisaged. Instead the Pope’s journey would only cover the Republic, the nearest he would get to the North would be Drogheda. The logistics involved were daunting, the Pontiff would have to be securely transported around the country while on the ground the immense Peter’s Square on a Sunday than in Ireland.

On the 29th of September Pope John Paul II arrived at Fiumicino airport in Rome to board an Aer Lingus Boeing 747 for Dublin. The aircraft had been specially converted to house a Papal Suite on its upper deck complete with tables and a bed. On board the Dublin bound flight along with the Pope were 25 members of his entourage plus some 140 journalists and  photographers. Hubert Reynolds was part of the Garda presence in Rome before the flight left Rome ensuring everyone on the plane held the correct accreditation. As the Aer Lingus flight came within 20 miles of the Wicklow coast four Fouga Magister jets from the Irish Air Corps escorted the Pope’s aircraft to Dublin Airport. Days before the visit Officers in the Air Corps warned that any unauthorised aircraft that entered the Boeing 747’s flight path would be shot down if it did not heed warnings sent to it. However, the Pope’s aircraft reached Dublin Airport safely, and as the Pontiff stepped onto the Irish tarmac he performed his famous kissing of the ground.

The President and Taoiseach along with a Defence Forces Guard of Honour waited to greet the Pontiff. The Pope also met senior Gardaí upon his arrival while other members of the force standing to attention greeted the Pope by calling out “Fáilte, Fáilte” in unison. After the rapturous welcome the Pope boarded a Sikorsky helicopter to take him to the Phoenix Park with a short stopover in the Nunciature in Cabra. The Pope was joined in the helicopter with his own personal security detail which included five bodyguards from the Vatican Security Force. These men were former Italian policemen dressed in well cut dark grey suits led by a man named Camillo Cibin.

The Papal Mass at the Phoenix Park

1.3 million people came to the Phoenix Park to see the Pope that day, thought to be the largest gathering ever in Ireland if not post war Europe. On the day there was a solid mass of people stretching from the Chapelizod Gate to the Wellington Monument. Managing a crowd of over 1 million were 20,000 Gardaí, stewards, civil defence and first aid personnel. The skies above the park were designated no fly zones and patrolled by the Air Corps in Alouette helicopters. The alter where the Pope would say mass was situated around the newly constructed Papal Cross. This was also a special security zone policed by Special Branch detectives under the command of Chief Superintendent John Doddy. Also, all the temporary structures built for the visit were continually checked for suspicious devices during construction and during the visit. Hubert Reynolds explained the advantage of this was “if a bomb alert was received we could be satisfied it was a hoax”. The crowd that awaited the Pontiff had been fighting their way through horrendous traffic on the roads and public transport since the early hours of the morning. The Pope finally appeared to the mass gathering as he said mass with the aid of over 150 Cardinals, Bishops and Priests.

After the mass the Pope toured the crowd in his specially converted Popemobile. The vehicle was a specially converted Ford truck with a viewing platform above the cab. It was reportedly upholstered with the most expensive carpet made in Dublin at the time, costing £95 a square metre. As the vehicle moved through the crowd it was frequently stopped as the crowds strained the Garda line. Hubert Reynolds remembered “The Pope himself became so emotional that tears flowed down his cheeks”. Eventually the Pope completed his tour of the crowd before boarding his helicopter for the next engagement of the trip. However, as the helicopter departed crowds broke through the barrier of stewards with angry  exchanges between the delirious crowds and Garda detectives ensuing.

The Pope’s next destination was Killineer, near Drogheda. Much of the Pope’s journey around Ireland was made by helicopter, escorted by the Special Garda Task Force in helicopters hired from West Germany. Garda authorities leased three Puma helicopters from the German Federal Border Guard (Bundesgrenzschutz). Normally used to patrol the East/West German border they were specially loaned to Ireland for the Pope’s three day visit.

When the Pope arrived in Drogheda he was greeted by a 250,000 strong crowd, thousands of which had made the journey from Northern Ireland. In his address to the crowd the Pontiff appealed to the IRA to give up its violent campaign, a plea which the IRA publicly rejected in the days after the visit. From Drogheda the Pope flew back to Dublin airport where a motorcade would take him to Áras an Uachtaráin. The motorcade’s route through Dublin was lined with crowds hoping to gain a glimpse of the Pontiff. Traffic within a five mile radius of the city centre had been banned throughout the day as aprecaution. After an audience with the President Patrick Hillary, the Pope returned to the Dominican Convent in Cabra where he met 350 Poles who were living in Ireland at the time. By the end of his first day in Ireland, the Pope had been on the road for eighteen hours since leaving the Vatican earlier that day.

The Pope Arrives in the West

After only a few hours rest the Pope embarked on the next leg of his visit. The Pope would spend the second day of his visit touring the west of the country, beginning with a tour of the ancient monastic site of Clonmacnois. Everywhere the Pontiff went during his tour he was greeted by unprecedented crowds. Around 20,000 people awaited his arrival at Clonmacnois, a number which the authorities were unprepared for but were able to control. The Pope was said to have wanted more time in Clonmacnois but time constraints required the Pope to depart for his next appointment at Ballybritt Racecourse, Galway.

A noisy crowd of 200,000, mainly made up of young people who had come to hear the Pope give a youth mass, welcomed the Pope on his arrival. From Galway the Pope was taken to Knock to visit the shrine of the 1879 apparition. After the Pope had visited the shrine he was due to tour the crowd from his vehicle, however, throughout the visit the Pontiff’s schedule had been continually delayed. A crowd of 450,000 had converged on Knock see the Pope, but many were to be disappointed. By the time the Pope had visited the shrine the light was fading forcing the Papal helicopter to depart for Dublin.

The crowd waited patiently in the hope the Pontiff would tour the gathering as planned but it was not to be. For Gardaí on the ground the traffic situation was a nightmare. So many had turned out to see the Pope that the roads were in a permanent state of logjam, resulting in many spending that night in their cars. On his return to Dublin the Pope arrived back at the Dominican Convent in Cabra for a meeting with Irish Bishops.

On his final day in Ireland the Pope left his base in Cabra for Maynooth College to address the priests enrolled in the seminary there. From there he departed for Greenpark Racecourse in Limerick where 400,000 had gathered bringing with them the now expected traffic chaos. With such large numbers of people turning out to the occasion crowd control was of the utmost importance, Hubert Reynolds explains “For safety and comfort crowds were divided into corrals of 1000,  giving each person 6 square feet, enough room for a seat”.

The Pope and his entourage then departed for their final engagement, their departure from Shannon airport. At Shannon President Hillary bid the Pontiff farewell as he departed for Boston. For Hubert Reynolds it was the end of an momentous time, he had been at the Pope’s side since they departed for Rome three days earlier. He recalls the moment the Papal helicopter landed at Shannon, the Pope turned to him and said “Is this where we part”, Hubert replied “I’m afraid it is” as he shook hands with the Pontiff and accepted his thanks.

Nearly 2.5 million people, two thirds of Ireland’s population, turned out to see the Pope during those three days. It was an extraordinary amount of people for an Garda Síochána to deal with but the visit had been a huge success for the authorities. The occasion left a lasting mark on Ireland but in hindsight those three days were a unique event in Irish history. In 2004 Irish Bishops invited the Pope to return to Ireland, the Pope himself was said to be keen to visit Northern Ireland, 25 years after he had to abandon that leg of his journey. However, the plan never came to fruition as Pope John Paul II passed away the following year. Many speculated what the Pope would make of modern Ireland as opposed to the one he remembered more than a quarter of a century ago. Speculations are rifle that Pope Francis, perhaps the most broadly popular pontiff since John Paul, will visit Ireland for the 2018 World Meeting of Families. Despite the great popularity of Francis, it seems unlikely that we will quite of the same scale as those scenes in 1979.




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