love came to town
in Drogheda who was alive at the time will ever forget the
day Pope John Paul II arrived on the outskirts of town.
When the Holy Father became the first and only pontiff to
visit the Emerald Isle in September 1979, it represented
the singlemost poignant and significant event of our recent
The choice of Irelands smallest county as a setting
for one of the biggest masses ever celebrated on this island
was in itself a special blessing for Louth and the people
of the Wee County will always hold dear the Polish native
who went on to become one the greatest human beings in living
memory, writes Gerry Robinson.
his death in April 2005, it was said of Pope John Paul II
that he had met more people than any other person in the
entire history of the world - ever. Quite an extraordinary
claim about a truly remarkable man who spread a message
of love and tolerance that touched us all.
During the course of his numerous travels around the world,
John Paul II managed to reach out to everybody. That was
his gift. It was personal. We felt like we knew him.
Louth was touched. On Wednesday September 29 1979, 300,000
pilgrims gathered on a hilltop at Killineer, just outside
Drogheda, to observe our great leader celebrate an open
air mass. The enormity and sheer scale of the occasion was
overwhelming, to the extent that in hindsight the memories
play like a dream sequence. The Boyne valley hinterland
had never witnessed anything like it before. Its doubtful
well ever see the likes of it again.
When our Pope - the leader for a generation
- left this world just over a quarter of a decade later,
his death affected us deeply. Everybody was in agreement
that this had been a truly great man who will be remembered
as one of the giants of his time. He changed the world.
He taught us all lessons in love, forgiveness, understanding,
humility and suffering. Poverty and oppression were top
of his hitlist, and he leaves behind a wonderful legacy.
Drogheda will always have a special connection with the
third longest-serving Pope in history due to the extraordinary
scenes that unfolded before our captivated eyes in September
The visit to Drogheda of Pope John Paul II truly was something
special, historic and surreal. There were more than a quarter
of a million people assembled in a farmers field upon
a hillside at Killineer to hear the pontiff declare that
he had arrived as a pilgrim of faith with a message
of peace and reconciliation. The Pope - on only his
second national visit - went on to pay tribute to the people
of Ireland for keeping their faith through testing times
of persecution, poverty, famine and exile.
It is difficult to believe that this great man stood on
the banks of the Boyne addressing a nation in his inimitable,
hypnotic tone. Every word he uttered hung in the air. Karol
Wojtyla was one of the most charismatic visitors the Wee
County has ever hosted.
John Paul II spent only 50 hours in Ireland but he captured
the hearts of a nation with his warm personality, sincerity
and his gift of peace.
The island was in a state of depression at the time of the
papal visit, with the troubles in the North spiralling out
of hand and the economy spluttering. Pope John Paul II brought
us hope and it could be argued that his visit was a catalyst
which subsequently helped Ireland turn the corner to escape
a dark age. He appealed directly to the men of violence
to lay down their weapons. Not long after, we had a ceasefire
in Northern Ireland and the genesis of the Celtic Tiger.
The Bishop of Rome alighted an orange helicopter amid scenes
of raw emotion. One figure commanded the attention of all.
Everybody wanted a sight of the Pope. Is there such a thing
Subject of the tightest security operation ever mounted
in this country, Pope John Paul II received a rousing welcome,
papal flags flying in the breeze, beaming faces adorned
with smiles, tears of joy flowing freely.
There was the historic (fruitful) plea for peace (On
my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence)
and the thrilling spectacle of Pope John Paul travelling
through the throng aboard his pope mobil.
This was officially the biggest gathering of people in the
Boyne River valley since 1843, when Daniel OConnell
convened a mass meeting on the Hill of Tara to protest against
British rule. It was one of the most historic events ever
to take place in Louth, certainly the most memorable of
the past century.
All who were present knew that something exceptional, something
unique and deeply personal was taking place. John Paul was
aware of his role in history. The Apostle of Christ produced
a flawless 'performance'. one that would put any rock band
to shame. Flanked by Cardinal OFiaich and the future
Bishop Lennon, he delivered all that was expected and more:
The cry of centuries sends me here. I come as a pilgrim
of peace. Let history record that at a difficult moment
in the experience of the people of Ireland, the Bishop of
Rome set foot in your land, that he was with you and prayed
with you for peace and reconciliation, for the victory of
justice and love over hatred and violence.
The casketed remains of St Oliver Plunkett were brought
to Killineer in ceremonial procession and, prior to the
pontiff's arrival, a concelebrated mass commenced at 2pm.
Traditional folk group the Fureys and Davy Arthur entertained
the crowds until the Popes arrival at 5pm (via helicopter
from Dublins Phoenix Park).
A 1,500-strong mass choir welcomed the Holy Father with
the song Cead Mile Failte, A Phapa Eoin Pol.
From the altar, the Popes first words were the sign
of the cross as gaeilge. He venerated the relic of St Oliver,
began the Liturgy of the Word and read the opening prayer.
Later, he presented his homily on peace and reconciliation
before the freedom of Drogheda - the towns highest
civic honour - was conferred on him and he signed the book
of freedom. To close proceedings, he offered his blessing
to his pilgrims.
Following his driveabout through the people, Pope John Paul
II departed for Dublin Airport.
When Pope John Paul II lost his brave battle with illness
on April 2 2005, the people of Drogheda remembered their
Pope. They flocked in their hundreds to the Papal Cross
at Killineer, with flowers, candles, whispered prayers and
tears. The Popes words of passionate pleading
for Ireland to return to the ways of peace are
carved in stone on the memorial monument.
As hundreds of candles lit up the darkness, it was clear
that September 29 1979 would never leave us.
expected, the death following long illness of Karol Wojtyla,
Pope John Paul II, on Saturday April 2 2005 shocked the
world. It spelt the end of an era. Karol had sat on the
throne of St Peter for 27 years and was a man of the times
as well as a pioneer - he was the first Pope from a Communist
country, the first Slave Pope, and the first non-Italian
Pope in 455 years. He had also ascended to the leadership
of the Catholic Church at the relatively young age of 58
and went on to become the third longest serving pontiff
An exceptional orator and actor who spoke eight international
languages and possessed enormous physical energy and stamina,
The Great Communicator became the most-travelled
Pope in history, visiting over 120 countries, continuing
his mission even when he became frail through poor health.
He saw himself as an evangelist. He was. brought the Catholic
church closer to the people and, through his tireless endeavours,
became a symbol of peace and international unity.
On the world stage, Karol Wojtyla contributed enormously
to Polands escape from the Iron Grip, the rise of
the solidarity movement, the collapse of the Soviet Bloc
and the end of the Cold War. He hosted the Interdenominational
Prayers at Assisi in 1986, where representatives of all
the worlds religions came together to pray for world
peace and unity, and was the first ever pope to visit either
a synagogue or a mosque.
He set an example to us all and Drogheda was proud to play
its part in an incredible legacy one unforgettable Wednesday
in September 1979.