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The last Pontiff to visit Ireland was given a rapturous welcome...what awaits Pope Francis?

The Pope may include Armagh on his visit to Ireland in two years' time - almost four decades after John Paul II drew vast crowds to open-air masses in the Republic. Four Belfast Telegraph writers recall that remarkable autumn week and ponder what the 2018 visit will bring.

Una Brankin: ‘The sun shone through clouds as if the angels had arranged it’

It really was as if God Himself was about to land on the Galway racecourse. Some even collapsed and fainted in awe, to my complete amazement. In my mid-teens, I viewed the occasion as Sunday mass on a huge scale with the world's top priest.

I did realise the 1979 papal visit was a historic occasion and one which meant a lot to many Catholics, including my uncles, who had faced religious discrimination in their younger days.

And, looking back, I can see how important it was for a minority community from Northern Ireland to feel part of a massive celebration of their religious identity. You couldn't do that much back home.

But I wasn't an easily excitable youngster and I was bewildered by the OTT reaction to the first glimpse of the Pope's orange helicopter in the overcast sky in Ballybrit.

The sun had begun to shine through the rain clouds at that exact moment, as if the angels had arranged it, and, all of a sudden, people seemed to be losing the run of themselves.

Granted, it had been a long wait. I'd travelled from Glenavy parish on a bus and slept the previous night in a huge army billet tent with dozens of giddy adolescent girls, patrolled by grown-up stewards.

The ground was hard and draughty and there wasn't much sleeping done. There was tent next to us full of lads with thick brogues that sounded alien to my northern ears and they kept up a steady banter to all hours. Eyes peeping under the rim of the canvas, they tried to lure some of us out into the bushes.

"Are you from Dunard?" one of them inquired.

"No, we're from the north," I replied helpfully - to much merriment. I didn't know that some Dubliners pronounced "the" as "d" and "north" as "nard".

The anticipation mounted throughout the night. Already, the atmosphere was akin to a rock festival, right down to the star of the show flying in by chopper the next morning for his performance in front of 275,000 swooning fans.

It was headier than being in the middle of the 85,000 Bruce Springsteen gig-goers at Slane a couple of years later.

The warm-up act was provided by two high-profile Irish clerics, later revealed to have fathered children.

From my stance way back in the crowd, I couldn't hear a word, but I recall that it wasn't far off Graham Norton's happy-clappy routine as Fr Noel Furlong in Father Ted.

The main act himself, once landed, was escorted to the jockeys' weigh-room to be vested in his special ceremonial robes. Then he made his way to a 40-foot-high altar, behind an endless procession of delighted priests.

The sound system worked better for the pontiff and his heavy accent rang through loud and clear. I decided I liked the sound of him, but I was astonished when a multitude broke into an extended burst of hysterical applause. It went on and on and on.

I felt embarrassed. And it was even emotional when he uttered, haltingly, the iconic: "Young people of Ireland, I love youuuu".

Again, I was astounded by the reaction. Surely, that sort of adulation was reserved for Elvis, or the Beatles - not for a figure of authority, who didn't allow even our mammies and daddies to use contraception?

I came to the conclusion that the youth of the Free State was either frantically religious, or badly starved of excitement, and decided I never wanted to live there.

It was only when I reached my late 20s and was living in Dublin that I realised how genuinely charismatic John Paul II was - arch-conservative or not.

I believe the new fellow will have the same appeal when he comes here in 2018. He's slightly more liberal and our society's slightly less bigoted, so what's to lose?

Paul Hopkins: 'He will come, he will see, but this time  he will not conquer'

Consider this: bar the odd coachload of accidental tourists, five out of every seven people in the Republic of Ireland flocked to see Pope John Paul II during his visit for four gloriously autumnal days back in September 1979.

Five out of every seven: men, women and children.

Phenomenal, when you consider that the population of the Republic was 3,368,217 in 1979.

They came by the coachloads to three corners of the land. In Dublin's Phoenix Park, the Pope celebrated mass in front of one million followers; in Galway he shared the altar with the yet-to-be disgraced Eamon Casey, Bishop of Galway; and in Limerick the pontiff told a sea of 400,000 adulating young people: "Children of Ireland, I love you."

He reserved his admonishments for the IRA when at a liturgy in Killineer, near Drogheda, the Pope prayed for an end to the Troubles: "On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and return to the ways of peace."

Ireland, like the world, 37 years ago was a very different place. Three out of every five Catholics attended Sunday mass, the churches were open day and night, newspapers like de Valera's now defunct pro-republican Irish Press sold by the truckload outside church gates and if a cleric said black was white on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show it made the front page, the Roman Church's moral authority being wholly unquestionable.

These were the days before Sky TV and social media, where gay people struggled in fear with their identity, of being "outed" and divorce and appeals to the 8th Amendment were still a good ways off being realised: days when clerical abuse allegations were merely nasty rumours and secularism was still something of a dirty word.

His papal itinerary was so thronged that John Paul jokingly claimed the Irish were trying to kill him with kindness on his first day.

I was a young rookie back then, just returned from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, where Catholic missionaries were among the many massacred during the 15-year war for independence.

In the company of 300,000 others, I was at Kilineer that day for a regional newspaper when the Pope appealed to the paramilitaries to lay down their arms.

"I wish to speak to all men and women engaged in violence," he said. "I appeal to you, in language of passionate pleading. On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and to return to the ways of peace."

That visit near Drogheda in the border county was as near to Northern Ireland as the Pope would get. A planned mass in St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh had been called off as his advisers feared he would be a target for loyalist paramilitaries.

There were even whispers of lines being crossed and busloads of children being targeted - all conjecture and rumour, but powerful enough at the time.

Just weeks earlier, the Queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and three others had been murdered in an IRA bomb attack on his boat at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo, while 18 soldiers were killed in two explosions near Warrenpoint, Co Down.

Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof released I Don't Like Mondays the year of the papal visit, a year that also saw the Republic end parity with sterling on joining the European Monetary System and the first group of Vietnamese refugees arrive in Ireland.

Charles J Haughey was about to succeed Jack Lynch as Taoiseach, while rugby's Brian O'Driscoll was weeks off his first birthday and Ruby Walsh was still a bundle of baby fat.

Elsewhere, the Shankhill Butchers were sentenced to life in prison, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory to become Prime Minister and the INLA assassinated Conservative MP Airey Neave as he left the House of Commons.

On the world stage, the US and China had begun diplomatic relations, the Shah of Iran had fled his country and Neptune officially became the furthest planet from the Sun in our solar system.

Those few, heady autumnal days of papal pandemonium back in 1979, however, were but momentary relief to a coming winter of discontent, ending a year that was the worst to date for industrial disputes with massive anti-tax marches and strikes costing the Republic's economy almost 1,500,000 working days.

Ireland has had to wait almost four decades for another papal visit and, in that time, much has changed. When Pope Francis arrives in 2018, he will find a Republic where fewer that 29% of Catholics attend mass, divorce and gay marriage are legal, the Troubles are effectively over and the Catholic Church has been damaged - perhaps irreparably - by a litany of sexual abuse and exploitation scandals.

The Republic of Ireland today is a much more secular, urban society, with a highly educated youth, a society tolerant to all shades and hues of preference and predilection, where the four-letter word on the airwaves no longer shocks and repeated reruns of Father Ted still raise big belly-laughs at the idiocy of the high esteem in which Rome's rule was once held.

The Pope's visit was announced last Monday by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the same taoiseach who, in 2011, launched a blistering attack on the Catholic leadership, accusing the Vatican of trying to play down the gravity of a report into widespread clerical sex abuse in the Cloyne diocese and saying that "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day".

Like Martin McGuinness, I think there is little prospect of Francis coming to Ireland and not coming to Northern Ireland. First Minister Arlene Foster is keen to meet his holiness.

If he does cross the border, the pontiff will find a radically changed, more peaceful society than that which existed in 1979, when it was deemed far too dangerous for John Paul II to travel north and the Rev Ian Paisley was to denounce him as the anti-Christ.

I suspect, in Northern Ireland, Francis will be warmly welcomed with a tremendous turn-out from the Catholic community and the odd coachload of curious Prods.

In the south, he will be welcomed, but not with the same fervour, or blind faith, as back in 1979.

Ironically, the Republic is currently in the midst of another winter of discontent over public service pay hikes, banking misappropriations and the rich increasingly exploiting the poor.

In hard times, like all those 37 years ago, there is nothing the masses need more than a saviour-in-the-making, a bit of old-fashioned diversion from harsh reality.

But, progressive and all as Francis might be, for the people of Ireland, and in particular its young, a religious, celibate old man in a white frock is no longer enough to cower the masses into blind subjugation, or distract them from important issues.

A gig by Bruce Springsteen - the real Boss - has a better chance of achieving that.

The Pope will come, he will see, but this time he will not conquer.

Alf McCreary: ‘I felt privileged to have a ringside seat covering a huge story’

When the Vatican officially announced the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979, there was a surge of excitement across the island.

It was  to be the first visit of a Pope to Ireland and more than 2.5 million people later attended the Papal events in Dublin, Drogheda, Clonmacnois, Galway, Limerick and Maynooth.

It was one of the Pope’s first overseas tours and the central objective was to mark the centenary of the apparent apparition of the Virgin Mary at Knock in Co Mayo.

Immediately after the official announcement of the visit, Jim Gray, the-then assistant editor of the Belfast Telegraph, booked a room for three of the paper’s journalists in a family home at Knock.

It was well that he did so, because within hours every home, guesthouse, or hotel near Knock had been booked out. This was promising to be one of the  biggest religious/political stories of the century in Ireland.

Two days before the Pope was due to arrive at Knock, on Sunday, September 30, 1979, a Telegraph reporter, Robin Morton, and photographer, Charlie Cockroft, travelled with me to Knock and we set up our headquarters in a somewhat cramped bedroom of a house with a view over the expected Papal motorcade.

The build-up in the small village of Knock continued throughout the Saturday. I watched  a live broadcast on RTE and saw the Pope descend from an Aer Lingus jet and kiss the ground in Dublin. This was  a giant step for Ireland.

Later on, I watched with bemusement as a couple of JCB vehicles in Knock removed the signs for Harp and Guinness from the walls of pubs opposite the Basilica, no doubt in case the Pope might catch a glimpse of the temptations of the flesh the next afternoon.

The big day of the visit in Knock was planned as a highlight of the tour. I was fortunate enough to wangle a Press pass into the Basilica, along with two other reporters, one from the Cork Examiner and the other from Le Monde in Paris.

When the charismatic Pope finally entered the packed Basilica, he was given a film star’s welcome.

Led by young ordinands, the huge congregation broke into a performance of the pop tune Viva L’Espana and the French reporter beside me muttered, cynically, “Ah, zis is Top of Ze Popes!”

Once the service  was over, Pope John Paul II made his way right beside me in a long corridor on his way out to deliver a homily to many thousands of the faithful waiting around the church and in the adjoining fields.

It was a dank day and, with typical hair-shirt Presbyterianism, I was the only reporter who sat on the Press benches outside.

Meanwhile, the hordes of reporters were filing their copy inside the large Press room which had been set up in the Basilica. Wisely, I soon joined them.

Most had their stories virtually written when a dramatic change took place. The Pope had arrived late in Knock, due to a long dalliance at an earlier Galway youth rally hosted by the now-infamous Bishop Eamon Casey, then in his prime.

Because of the delay and a low cloud-base, the Pope’s visit to Knock was cut short and he suddenly returned to Dublin by helicopter.

As a result, there was no “Popemobile” tour of Knock and, sadly, many thousands of parents and children never got a rare close-up and real-life view of their Pope.

There was consternation in the Press room and many stories had to be binned and hurriedly rewritten, because of the dramatic change in the Pope’s plans.

It had been a long day, but as I left the Basilica, I noticed that the Garda police band was still in fine tune and that it was gleefully playing The Sash My Father Wore.

Later on, my colleagues and I sought refreshments, but the pubs were all closed on that Sunday night. Or so we thought.

However, someone guided us round to a back entrance and we joined a large group of imbibers, including scores of Garda policemen.

On the next day, my colleagues and I left Knock early, as the Pope continued his Irish visit elsewhere. The village of Knock looked desolate, with piles of swirling litter marooned in the natural anti-climax of the Pope’s presence there the day before.

That afternoon, I travelled back to Belfast with my two colleagues. We had covered a great story, but we were aware that hundreds of our colleagues from many countries had been doing the same all over Ireland.

However, I felt greatly privileged to have been given a ringside seat to cover a story which had literally made history and I was equally privileged, many years later, to report from Rome on the funeral of the same, remarkable Pope John Paul II.

Those reports were among the several immensely personal highlights of my entire journalistic career.

Alex Kane: ‘The times are different and the Catholic Church’s power has waned’

My response to the news that Pope Francis might be visiting Northern Ireland in 2018 was exactly the same as my response in early-1979, when it was announced that Pope John Paul II might — and, again, it was just a “might” — cross the border into Armagh.

As both an atheist and a unionist, I was — and am — unconcerned. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics hold the Pope in a particularly high regard and if they want to worship with him, then so be it.

But back in 1979, Northern Ireland was an entirely different place. For a start, our best-known politician was Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley regarded the Pope as an enemy.

Speaking at a Sunday evening service in August, he said: “So, here in battle I must use the language of Scripture. I must spare no enemy of the Gospel. I must raise my voice in militancy and in power. I must be the most unpopular of all preachers. I must cry aloud against the idolatry of popery and against the Pope’s visit. I must go on and on and on.”

The response of mainstream Protestantism was more nuanced. While acknowledging their doctrinal differences with the Vatican and accepting the rights of those who favoured “dignified protest”, their general view was that any proposed visit should go ahead.

Meanwhile, smaller evangelical groups lined up behind Paisley. Ironically, there was also criticism from IRA sources, who feared that the visit might be “politicised”, with the Pope being used as a vehicle to condemn their campaign.

Some politicians within mainstream unionism, including Harold McCusker, Jim Kilfedder, Harry West and Enoch Powell, expressed concerns (concerns that were also echoed in letters to the Belfast Telegraph) that comments by the Pope — especially if he touched upon the history of Northern Ireland — would be construed as attacks on both unionism and the “British presence”.

The Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, noted that the Vatican had not listed the detail, or itinerary, of a proposed visit to Northern Ireland when the visit to Ireland was announced. That said, there remained a feeling that a visit would be possible if security and political circumstances were satisfactory.

But on June 7, Ian Paisley topped the poll in the first election to the Euro parliament, winning 30% of the overall vote and a majority of the total unionist vote. That result, especially given his stance on a Papal visit, worried both governments.

The IRA gave no indication that they would facilitate a ceasefire during a Papal visit. On August 27, they killed Lord Mountbatten in Sligo and 18 soldiers near Warrenpoint, fuelling fears that loyalists would target the Pope in retaliation. Shortly afterwards, it was confirmed that the Pope would not cross the border because of the “upsurge in IRA violence”.

My own sense — a sense confirmed by returning to my diary for 1979 — was that the vast majority of unionists had no particular hang-ups about the visit.

The Queen had visited Northern Ireland in August 1977, as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations, but, although the IRA had upped their activities in the run-up to the visit (as they did with the Pope’s visit two years later) and there was some rioting in Belfast, there certainly wasn’t any sense of Catholic opposition to her visit.

Similarly, most Protestants recognised the importance of the Pope to their fellow citizens here and just went about their business as usual.

Any hopes that the IRA might have had that their attacks on August 27 would lead to unionists taking a much harsher stance on a Papal visit were quashed.

I remember watching, reading and listening to the wall-to-wall coverage of the visit — as did many non-Catholics here — and being fascinated by it. Maybe that’s because it was the first time I had seen the sheer scale of the influence that the Pope had on Catholics here and also because of the huge political/social significance attached to it, as well. I don’t think we’ll see that again in 2018. The world is different and the power of the Catholic Church has waned.

But I hope that the Pope will come to Northern Ireland and I am pleased that Arlene Foster has indicated that she would greet him.

In religion, as in politics, there will always be particular figures with particular significance to one side or the other; and the ability to tolerate those visits (albeit with occasional dignified protests) is the sign of a mature democracy and mature politics.

Belfast Telegraph

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