Remembering St John Paul II, it’s time to ‘showcase Ireland’ for papal visit

Remembering St John Paul II, it’s time to ‘showcase Ireland’ for papal visit Archbishop Diarmuid Martin stands beside the chair made by the OPW for St John Paul II's 1979 visit. It was made using an oak tree that fell in the Phoenix Park.
WMOF 2018


The papal visit this month will be an opportunity to “showcase Ireland” with well over 15,000 people coming from abroad to attend the Word Meeting of Families, the Archbishop of Dublin said at the opening of an exhibition revealing the preparations made for St John Paul II’s visit.

Although regretting not being able to attend the 1979 visit, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said there is not only the physical memories the visit left behind, but “there’s the memories of anybody you talk to, they can remember the details, how they got here, what time they got up at, who they met”.

“But the one thing everybody says is there was an extraordinary atmosphere.”

The exhibition ‘Preparations for the Visit of Pope John Paul II to the Phoenix Park in 1979’ was launched in the Phoenix Park visitor centre this last. It chronicles how, in 10 short weeks, the visit of St John Paul II was facilitated and how the 1.2 million people that came were catered for.

It also details how the Papal Cross, the dais, altar, canopies and banner were designed to create his outdoor cathedral, as well as the complicated logistics used to get over one million attendees in and out of the park.


Dr Martin added: “With the advanced preparations for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, it’s great to have the opportunity to reflect on the previous papal visit and the organisational skills required for the largest event ever held in Ireland.”

“I encourage the many people coming to the Phoenix Park to visit this wonderful exhibition and the recorded memories of some of those wonderful people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the success of the 1979 Papal Mass. I look forward to reading the reflections in the memory books from members of the public who will come to view the exhibition over the next couple of months.”

Those visiting the exhibition can also watch a specially commissioned 15-minute video featuring some of those who worked on the papal visit in 1979.

Speaking about Pope Francis’ visit to the park on August 26, Dr Martin said: “Now on this occasion it’s slightly more complicated.

“In all the committee meetings there were two words that were never used: health and safety. That’s the world we live in today, and rightly so.

“I feels like something is happening every day, something surprising, because there’s a huge amount of work.

“We’re preparing for at the moment, the ticketing, all the details regarding the liturgy, the logistics and the preparations for the Pope himself to come, the details which we’re in dialogue with people in Rome about the various aspect of.

“In general people are very enthusiastic about what’s happening.”


What they said about the Exhibition…


Lillian Killean and Ian O’Donovan

Having a photographer in the family is always fortunate, but Lillian Killean’s brother snagged the opportunity to photograph St John Paul II at Aer Lingus – Lillian said he was “very excited” to be on the papal flight.

Her son-in-law Mr O’Donovan said they’re both “really looking forward to the papal visit” and that both families have exclusive pictures of St John Paul adorning their hallways.

Three generation of the O’Donovans

Foreman during the building of the Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park, Mattie O’Donovan told The Irish Catholic “it’s marvellous to see it still standing”.

“It was quite simple because it was all very straightforward, there was no problem. We had a welding machine that could weld for about 30ft in one go,” he said.

Although he regrets not being able to make the papal visit this year, he’ll be there in spirit as his initials – along with everyone else involved in the cross’s construction – are inscribed on the inside of the cross. He is pictured above with his son and grandson, all named Matthew.

Reggie McDonald

After 41 years of service as a ranger in the Phoenix Park, Head Ranger Reggie McDonald was already working for two years when St John Paul II visited.

Reminiscing, Mr McDonald said it was a time when there was no mobile phones or communication systems like today, and “health and safety was at its infancy in Ireland”.

“But at the same time the will of the people to pull all this together regardless of the hours that were to be worked and the work that had to be done – there was no boundaries, we just did it,” he said.

His job, along with about 11 other rangers, was to guide thousands of stewards to their positions when it was dark.

“So our job was to make sure they got where they needed to go safely to direct the 1.2 million that was to come later. All we had at the time were hand torches. We were positioned at the main junctions of the park so once the people got there we showed them where they were supposed to go and everyone got there safely.”

“Above all there was good humour, it’s hard to believe that that many people came to the park and had the patience to queue up. It was the people that made it, we had a part to play in it but the humour of the people – it was like an adventure,” he added.

Eithne Merrins

Working in the Archdiocese of Dublin’s finance department just before the visit of St John Paul II was no picnic, but “well worth it”.

Eithne Merrins was working until 11pm on some nights but said it was a “very happy time” especially when witnessing the generosity of people who hoped for a successful visit.

“People came in and handed in un-opened pay packets, people came in with jars of coins that you had to count and it was lovely, she said. “It was magical meeting people at that level. They were the working people, I wouldn’t say they were wealthy by any standard. I’d ask how much I could take out of their pay packet and if they wanted money for the week, they’d say ‘I’ll manage’.”

“It was a wonderful experience with people,” she added.

Angela Roife

The person to thank for the exhibition of the preparation for the visit of St John Paul said the most compelling part was the timeframe in which it was all organised.

Angela Roife said: “The scale is quite difficult to comprehend, but actually the most interesting thing is the 10 weeks from start to finish and the amount of work that was done and the co-operation and the collaboration to get it done, it’s phenomenal.”

Overall there were 18 meetings of the Dublin Diocesan Committee and 11 meetings of the National Committee, which took place throughout the 10 weeks and focused on each aspect of the papal visit.

Cyril McIntyre

During St John Paul’s visit, the media also had to be catered for and Cyril Mcintyre was on hand to arrange their transport.

Then press officer for CIE, Mr McIntyre made arrangements for special buses to be used by the 1,500 members of the media – these were paid for by the Church. He was also in charge of publicising papal timetables for public awareness.

“You just felt you were just moving along in a cloud, everything was happening, you were praying that nothing would go wrong and you kept the head down and kept going. Over the three days I probably only got about eight hours sleep,” he said.