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'The numbers wouldn't be as big as 1979, but they're still coming, thank God ... no matter what you hear, a lot of people still have strong religious faith'

The Republic is virtually unrecognisable from the country Pope John Paul II encountered nearly 40 years ago. Ahead of Pope Francis' visit in August, John Meagher goes back to Knock, Co Mayo, site of a massive open-air Mass in 1979, and discovers remnants of the old Ireland still survive

It is a quiet Wednesday afternoon on Knock's main street. Incessant rain and the gusts of what will soon become Storm Hector are keeping pilgrims away. Those who have ventured to the Mayo village take refuge from the elements in the Apparition Chapel, or the basilica, currently undergoing something of an internal facelift.

Tom Byrne has had a quiet day. He has run souvenir shops here for as long as he can remember, but with trade slow, he takes the opportunity to do a stock-take and to count the new batch of plastic holy water bottles that have arrived.

He is expecting brisk business over the next couple of months as the numbers visiting Knock increase in advance of Pope Francis' visit.

"It will be a really great day for Knock," he says. "We're all so happy he is coming here."

Byrne was present in the village on that day in September 1979 when John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Ireland.

"If it wasn't for the centenary of the apparition, he wouldn't have come to Ireland at all," he adds. "But Monsignor Horan had done a lot of work to convince him that he should come here."

Byrne recalls the former parish priest of Knock with great fondness. It was the visionary James Horan who had an airport built up the road in the boggy common ground near Charlestown.

"He married me in 1975," he says. "He was a really great man who wanted the best for Knock. He wanted people to be able to come here from all over the world. That's what happens today."

The Ireland that Pope Francis will visit in August is unrecognisable to the one that John Paul II toured almost four decades ago.

From a devout, God-fearing land where the Catholic Church ruled, the Ireland of 2018 has never felt more secular.

This week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dail that he abhorred the situation where some liberals had made "pariahs" out of those with deep Catholic faith: "I do not believe in the socialist ideology, which is to push religion out of the public space and force people who are religious to be ashamed they have religious convictions."

It would have been unthinkable for then-Taoiseach Jack Lynch to utter such words in the weeks before John Paul II came.

That Ireland was a place without divorce and abortion, where the purchase of contraceptives was illegal and where homosexuality was deemed a crime. Mass attendance was high and dissenting voices were few.

Fast-forward to the present day to an Ireland where divorce was legalised in 1995 and condoms can be bought easily over the counter. It's a country where two-thirds of the electorate voted to make abortion legal for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and where gay marriage has been written into the constitution. Church-going has slumped in most parishes and now it's those who espouse religious belief who must feel like they are in the minority.

Back in 1961, 94.9% of the population claimed to be Catholic. Today, that stands at 78.3%.

For a country that was among the last in the world to ban divorce, there were more than 73,000 Catholic divorcees in Ireland in 2016.

Tom Moloney is sitting in silent contemplation in the Basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland - by far the largest of Knock's five churches. He is in his early 70s and is visiting today from Tuam, Co Galway. Like many who make the pilgrimage here, he is seriously ill: colon cancer has spread to his lungs and he offers up private prayer.

Knock is a special place for him, he says. He has travelled many times and feels great solace when surrounded by other people with strong faith.

"The country has changed," he adds, sadly. "A lot of the young people have turned from God and it is very sad to see. It was very different in 1979. I was in Galway (at Ballybrit Racecourse) to see the Pope then and there was such excitement for old and young.

"It won't be like that this time. Too many young people have left the Church."

A pair of pilgrims from Co Tyrone, Collete Given and Patrick McEnhill, have chosen an especially wet day to visit Knock. They have been coming here for years. "It's a welcoming place," Collete says. "For those of us with a strong faith, there's nowhere else like it in Ireland."

She is dismayed at how secular Ireland has become, especially when contemplating the fact that two out of every three votes were in favour of abortion rights in last month's referendum. But she says it's a source of solace that more than 700,000 people voted No.

Many of them are proud of their Catholic faith, she insists, even if modern-day Ireland can be a cold place for them.

"It feels like a foreign place," she says. "A 'me, myself and I' culture rules now.

"There just isn't the sort of dependence on God as there was when I was their age."

"It's a pity what's been lost," Patrick adds, "but maybe when Pope Francis comes here, some people might be encouraged to return."

Wendy Grace is a presenter on the Dublin-based Christian station Spirit Radio. She has met Pope Francis in the past and is excited at the prospect of his visit. Grace, who was a high-profile campaigner for a No vote in the abortion referendum, says the pontiff's appeal is wide-ranging and encompasses those "of all religions and none".

"When he visits the Capuchin Centre (for Dublin's homeless), he'll do it privately.

"Wherever he goes, he makes a point about seeing the poor, of going to them."

Comparisons with the 1979 visit will be inevitable, although Grace insists one cannot compare like with like.

"Just because people may not go to Phoenix Park in the sort of numbers they did then does not mean they're not interested. Many of them will watch from home on their couches."

Grace believes many people are not as comfortable about declaring themselves to be Catholic as they were a couple of generations ago. "It's sad that it's happened, but many so-called liberal people are very intolerant of those with faith. It shouldn't be like that, but people can be afraid to put their heads above the parapet for simply being proud to be Catholic."

Young people are thin on the ground in Knock.

The only millennials to be seen are working in the various information centres and bookstores run by the Church.

Some 20-somethings work in the Mass card centres and the facility close to the vast car park is an eye-opener to the first-time visitor. It looks like a bank, with a row of semi-private 'windows', where you can pay for Mass cards and have 'tellers' take down the details of whom you wish to have prayed for.

Estimates vary widely, but anything between 200,000 and 400,000 descended on Knock for John Paul II 39 years ago.

He was supposed to spend much longer in Knock, but as Tom Byrne recalls, the pontiff was detained over a lengthy lunch by the Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey. Consequently, his tight schedule was thrown out of sync.

"The Pope said the very reason he was visiting Ireland was to see Knock," Byrne says.

"He was always so devoted to Our Lady and he wanted to come to the place where the apparition had happened."

Knock enjoyed busy years in the decade-and-a-half after that visit, according to Mary Walsh, who has run the Irish Craft Centre in the village since 1985.

"The numbers wouldn't be as big today," she says, "but they're still coming and thank God they're still coming. No matter what you might hear, there are still an awful lot of people in this country who have a strong religious devotion."

Brian Crowley, manager of the Knock House Hotel, says the large proportion of repeat visitors is testament to the unique appeal of Knock: "People of all ages feel a strong connection with this place and for those of faith it is a hugely important destination that they want to visit time and again."

The hotel is especially busy this time of year and booked out around the time Francis will arrive in Ireland, but the manager insists that his establishment will not ratchet up prices.

"That's not how we operate," he says. "Our guests are much more important than that."

Connaught - and parts of Mayo, in particular - suffered enormously in the long period from the Great Famine in 1840s until the birth of the 20th century. Poverty was rife in the 1870s and the Land War would be especially pronounced in the province. Poverty may have been acute, but deep religious devotion was just as ingrained.

Pope Pius IX had elevated the Virgin Mary in the eyes of Catholics with his immaculate conception dogma in 1854 and, four years later, Mary allegedly appeared to a peasant girl in Lourdes in the south of France.

The story of the apparition was well known in Ireland by 1879, when up to 15 people in Knock allegedly witnessed a vision of Mary, Saint Joseph, John the Baptist and Jesus, in the spiritual form of a lamb.

They reportedly appeared on the gable end of the church that had been built in 1828.

One of those locals, Dominic Byrne, is an ancestor of souvenir shop owner John Byrne.

Church "commissions of inquiry" in 1879 and 1936 were satisfied that the incident had taken place and Knock's shrine status was secured. While major religious events were held there, it wasn't until the construction of the basilica in 1976 - another achievement by the industrious Monsignor Horan - that the village started to attract numbers that would peak at 1.5 million per annum in the mid-1980s.

Only last year, the remains of John Curry, the youngest person to have reportedly witnessed the apparition, were taken from a communal plot on Long Island, New York, and buried at St Patrick's Cathedral, Manhattan.

Fr Richard Gibbons, parish priest at Knock, celebrated Mass in the famed church for this member of the "forgotten Irish who had faced the desolation of leaving home never to return".

"Secular Ireland doesn't understand this place," says one woman, a native of Knock who declines to be named.

"And it doesn't want to. It's somewhere it can laugh at and think of as a relic of the past.

"But for those who believe, it's a vital place and I feel very fortunate to have spent all of my life in a place where Our Lady chose to appear. She is very welcome to come back at any time - everyone who comes here would be so happy to see her."

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