An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Friday, April 01, 2005  


Here's a memoir I was asked to write for a local parish book last year. It's bit corny but all true.

The planning went on for weeks and the excitement is clearer in my mind than any Christmas. I was 8 years old; my sister only 6, and as I recall there was some prohibition on children under a certain age attending the mass in the Phoenix Park. But it had been decreed that we were to go. No one uses thermos flasks any more; but in 1979 my mother bought the latest technology: the food flask. After much deliberation it was decided that chicken fricassee would be brought. Whatever about food for the soul, we were not taking any chances on food for ourselves. Fever pitch was reached when my Granny arrived home from either Dublin or London, some exotic consumer paradise anyway, with two blue and white stripey deckchairs – made especially for children. Children’s chairs are commonplace now, but the concept had never even been imagined in Newcastle. We couldn’t believe it. I can still see the scene of their arrival clearly and hear the shrieks of surprise. Final security measures were taken with labels sewn into my sister’s coat declaring her name and address should she be mislaid in the expected throng. I was deemed articulate enough to identify myself in that eventuality. These preparations were repeated throughout the country. On the national level, someone had decided that the train was to stop in Enfield station which had been closed for some 30 years. I don’t know if Pope John Paul II knew that such infrastructural heights were being reached, but then, they were also clearing Dublin’s skies of all air traffic within hours of his arrival. Never again will a country come to such a standstill for one man. Some people remark upon Dublin’s silent streets when Ireland played Romania in Italia ‘90 but can you imagine all planes being grounded for anyone ever again?

John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since the Dutch theologian Adrian VI was elected in 1522. The first pope to visit Ireland. We all knew most likely the last. Even when he was elected there was an enormously warm response to the man who appeared incredibly humble and promised to fulfil his mission in person. He had a kind face, loved his people and had a zeal to meet them. A superb linguist, he spoke 11 languages, so he could speak to us all. The word ‘popemobile’ entered our parlance. He seemed to personify Jesus’ oft repeated, but usually ignored, pleas for love. This newly elected pope who became the centre of the country’s activities seems to bear no relation to the desperately ill man we see on television today who has become a bastion of conservatism. In 1979, his election was almost revolutionary. And we were a part of that revolution. The pope was visiting Ireland! Papal flags flew everywhere.

I woke up myself at around 3am and stumbled up the hall in the dark. My mother was just putting the kettle on and was amazed to see me up unbidded. My father was staying behind as the cows were not making any special arrangements for the pope’s visit. My baby sister Mary was left in his care. So my three siblings, brothers Kevin and Edward, the aforementioned sister Lizzie and my mother boarded the train. The old station building was still there and it was crowded, but for some reason I really only remember the Wrynn family, Nuala Langley and her son David, in whose company we remained for the day. We got off the train at Ashtown and walked through the park heading for the cross. It was sunrise; perhaps about 6am. It was a foggy morning and to the east where the sun rose were some trees. The sky behind the trees was fiery red as the sun rose and it cast a glow on the fog. I held my mother’s hand as we walked silently through the orange fog with hundred of thousands of others who were just silhouettes in the still darkness. People hardly spoke, and it they did it was whispered. So here we were, thousands upon thousands, sneaking through the orange glow.

There were one and a quarter million people there. The population of Ireland at the time was barely three and half million. Over one third of the country had collected in one place. Who could conceive now of gathering that number of people in one place, for one purpose; never mind to hear mass said by a religious leader. It’s unthinkable now. As we approached the cross, we were handed stickers which directed us towards particular corrals. We were yellow C. If we got lost we knew that’s where we should head for. We assembled in our square and began the wait, and the wait, and the wait. The waiting took forever and the excitement built with each passing hour. We looked upwards constantly because we knew he was arriving by helicopter. Every time the guards flew over, a million people cheered them. What a kick that must have been for them! I think we were informed when his plane landed at Dublin airport. We could hardly contain ourselves. Finally his helicopter approached and we cheered and cheered.

The mass got underway. We could see the altar and we heard Frank Patterson and Dana. Frank sang the responsorial psalm, “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you my God”. Dana sang ‘Totus Tuos, Totally Yours’ which I think was a conscious folk contribution for the young. We loved it! Then began communion. How do you give communion to one million two hundred and fifty thousand people? I remember lines and lines of bishops and priests dispersing throughout the crowd and somehow it was all done. Cardinal O’Fiaich’s face was prominent and he seemed to be everywhere. What a moment it must have been for him. Then came even more thrills. The tour of the popemobile around the crowd! I can’t remember if I even got near it but I remember us pressing forward hoping to.

Then it was time for home and we headed out the North Circular gate past street traders buying deck chairs from tired mass goers so they could resell them in Knock! We weren’t parting with ours however. Only two images remain. Hanging around in Connolly station waiting for the return train. My brothers ran up the down escalators, no longer in use at the front door. I tried it, panicky, but succeeded. Finally I woke up being carried from the train by my father in the dark. I heard Bernadette Kenny, our teacher from school, enquiring: “ Billy, do you have all yours?” He did. I was the last. A week later I wrote a poem in school about the experience and received a +20; Master McManus’ bonus system. No homework! Twenty or so years later, returning from a U2 concert, I remarked on the numbers. There must have been 120,000 people in Slane. What a crowd! My mother dismissed it. Sure didn’t ten times that turn out for the pope? U2 would never come near that.

posted by Sarah | 22:50 0 comments
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