From top: Bishop Eamonn Casey (left) and Fr Michael Cleary entertain the congregation ahead of a ‘youth mass’ celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ireland in 1979; Dan Boyle
I was ‘encouraged’ to go. It was a few weeks after my 17th birthday, making me part of the key demographic to participate in an intimate audience with the Pope (along with a quarter of million others).
JP2 had a rock star quality. He was little more than a year in office. He had broken the centuries long stranglehold of Italians on the Papacy. He was still in his fifties.
His appointment seemed to be an attempt to place the Catholic Church into the twentieth century.
Later his deeply held adherence to Catholic social teaching, combined with an inconsistent approach to Church involvement in politics – good in Poland, bad in Central America – would bring a squandering of the potential his appointment had brought.
By the mid eighties I had given up on him, seeing his blind spot towards Liberation Theology as being a key factor that brought about the murder of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador.
But in Galway in 1979 it all felt very different. He was a man of considerable charisma. His visit was viewed by many as bringing hope.
The organisation of the event was quite impressive. Hundreds and hundreds buses arrived in Ballybrit [County Galway]. Those of us coming from Cork left from 5am/6am that morning. When we arrived we were herded into pens that were actually called corrals. The sheep analogy wasn’t lost on many of us.
I would swear that one of the songs they tried to get us to singalong to was John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’
‘Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try…’
Maybe they were trying to prepare us for the moral duplicity both would later epitomise.
While we were quite distant from the altar we found ourselves quite close to where the helicopter bringing the Pope landed. That would be as close as we would be to the man.
We were so far away from the centre of activities that the sound system (a series of interconnected tannoy speakers) relayed events to us through enormous feedback.
When it came to the key phrase in his sermon what we heard was:
“Young people of, young people of, Ireland, Ireland, Ireland, I love, I love, I love you.”
I don’t remember a great deal of religious observance or displays of piety taking place. Hormones were more at play than any need to pray.
The couplings that occurred were innocent enough of themselves. The hand holding and face eating that took place, didn’t cause many to lose sight of what passion was meant to be concentrated on.
Not for me I should add. On the bus ride back home I found myself sat next to a somewhat older nun. She would later fall asleep on my shoulder. A portmanteau that would characterise the messed up nature of my future religious and love lives.
We would arrive back in Cork around midnight. We weren’t aware then that we were arriving back to, if not to a changed Ireland, than to a changing Ireland.
Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboylÉ