When the Pope Came to Ireland

Pope Francis is arriving in Washington DC later today. In 1979, Pope John Paul II came to Ireland. It was the first time a reigning pontiff had visited the country and the nation went crazy. I was six. I went to see him in Limerick, along with my father, my uncle Donal, and 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. 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 papal 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 did jump 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. The opening of Knock Airport. 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. (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 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 little brother was when I got to go on that long drive to Limerick (and he did not). 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, Father 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 by her, 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 Father Sean Fortune, the Magdalene Laundries—and on and on. Something similar happened in the political sphere too. 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 Father 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. 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 Father 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?