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Pope's visit recalled in Inishowen 02.10.09

by Inishowen Independent

LAST Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Ireland. The people of Inishowen flocked in huge numbers to the Phoenix Park, Galway and Drogheda on that special day - September 29, 1979 - a day most will not forget. In a special feature in this week's Inishowen Independent, a well known Inishowen priest, supermarket owner, teacher and bus driver recall their own unique experience of the visit three decades on...

At the Pope’s left hand
If you were in the crowd of one million at the Phoenix Park in Dublin on September 29, 1979, it’s safe to say that you had to squint to see Pope John Paul II on his makeshift altar. Not so Fr Fintan Diggin. The Clonmany Parish Priest was as close to the Pope as it’s possible to get. 
“I was the Pope’s deacon at the Mass in the Phoenix Park. It was such a huge honour. I was studying in Maynooth at the time and the Dean selected me for the job,” said Fr Diggin who stood at the Pope’s left hand shoulder throughout the Mass and assisted him in the celebration.
“I was the one who told the crowd to offer each other the sign of peace and was the first to say ‘peace be with you’ to the Pope,” said Fr Diggin, who was 25 years old at the time.
Fr Diggin then had the privilege of giving Holy Communion to the Arch-Bishops Cardinals.
“We had a rehearsal in the Phoenix Park the night before and I can remember the men were still working away on the stage. On the morning of the Mass there was great excitement. I was in a big tent off to the side helping the Cardinals with their vestments.
“When the Pope got there and we went up onto the stage and I looked out over all the people corralled into the Phoenix Park at it was just a sea of bodies for as far as you could see. It really was an amazing spectacle.
Fr Fintan Diggin
“I was nervous but exhilarated. It was such a huge event I just wanted to make sure I did my job properly and was very relieved that everything went well.
“Afterwards I spoke to Arch Bishop of Vienna who said that if the Pope came to his country they would be fortunate to get a couple of streets closed off. He was amazed at the degree to which Ireland came to a standstill for the Pope’s visit.”
Fr Diggin went on to complete his studies in Maynooth a couple of years later and eventually returned to the Derry Diocese, but he has never forgotten his brush with His Holiness.
“What amazed me was his physical condition. He had a big, robust frame and it was clear that he was a ‘son of the soil.’ A lot of the old photos of the Mass in the Phoenix Park have me in them. Afterward the Mass the Pope blessed a pair of rosary beads and gave them to me. I still have them around somewhere.”

SuperValu's Gerry recalls "global superstar"
WELL-known Carndonagh businessman Gerry Doherty, of SuperValu, was in his early 20s back in September, 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. In Drogheda, in the presence of a quarter of a million people – many of whom had travelled from the Six Counties – Gerry heard the Pope make his famous appeal to men of violence: “On my knees, I beg of you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace.” Thirty years on Gerry recalls that momentous visit:
Gerry Doherty “The weekend before I was over in Manchester with Mickey Stephens watching United play Wolves. I was working with Paddy Simpson on Bridge Street at the time. By the time we arrived back in Carn the whole buzz was about going to see the Pope. A lot of the younger crowd had already organised to go to Galway but because of the United trip I’d nothing arranged – this was back in the day when your mother told you you were going to see the Pope! It wasn’t up for discussion! So I ended up getting a lift to Drogheda with John, my brother-in-law and his girls, Serena, Eileen and Michelle.
I remember the huge volume of traffic on the roads as John drove towards Drogheda – the whole country was on the move. Obviously there wasn’t the network of roads there is now and the queues were massive as the traffic all converged in the one place. The queue to park the car was a distance similar to Carn–Buncrana!
I’ll never forget the sight of the crowd. There were tens of thousands of people in every direction you looked. We eventually made our way to the Derry Diocese section and met up with people from home. Everyone there had packed lunches and flasks – there were no delis in those days!
There is no doubt it was one of the great defining moments of our lifetime. We could hear the helicopter in the distance and finally, there it was, the Pope had arrived. I don’t know what you could compare it to now – anyone who was there measures time by it now. It had that big of an impact on our lives.
Pope John Paul II had captured the imagination of the world – he was a global superstar with an unbelievable presence. As it happened, when the Pope mobile made its way around we were close enough to touch it and got a very close look at the Pope.

Sad start to a memorable time
When Sinead McLaughlin and her friends set off from Buncrana to see Pope John Paul II in Galway, the mood had a sombre air about it. The night before two young people from Cockhill - Hugo Gormley and Geraldine Donaghey - had been killed in a car crash near Drumfries. Three other young people were injured in the crash.
“I always remember that just before we were set off people heard about this and we all prayed for them before we sent. They would have been around our age and perhaps that’s why this is something I always associate with the Pope’s visit to Ireland,” said the now principal of Scoil Iosagain.
Once on the road, she recalls the journey to Galway as feeling particularly long.
“I remember being overwhelmed at how many busses and cars were on the road, it seemed like a very long journey and we just seemed to move along at a snail’s pace.”
She also recalls the group staying in a hall outside Galway and getting some sleep before the Pope’s Mass.
“We stayed in a hall, I’m not sure if it was a school hall or a community hall, I just remember being there with a sleeping bag.”
However sleep wasn’t the highest priority at the time and no doubt like most who were anxious to get as good a vantage point as possible, Sinead and her friends were up very early the next morning.
“The atmosphere was great, even out on the race course the
Sinead McLaughlin
atmosphere was great. I remember it was damp, there was a slight drizzle, but it certainly didn’t dampen anybody’s spirits. There was a lot of music and craic.”
The Pope’s Galway Mass has often been summed up with his line “Young people of Ireland - I love you,” and according to Sinead it was a hugely significant and moving moment.
“This was the first time that somebody in such an important position spoke directly to young people. We had come through a system where authority was feared. Now we had the spiritual head of the church speaking to us so affectionately and lovingly. It was a big change, it was a powerful moment.”
Like many who attended the Pope’s Masses, Sinead felt it was irrelevant whether she got up close to see him or not.
“It was just a privilege to be there and I think everybody thought that.”
Looking back she now admires even more the energy and determination it took for the Pontiff to take in so much in such a short visit.
“He was a man on a mission. He was in a way following in the footsteps of Jesus and he met everybody - the young, the old, the sick, the clergy. But to do all that in the space of forty-eight hours was truly amazing and the energy needed for that must have been immense.”
As pincipal of Scoil Iosagain in Buncrana, Sinead was uniquely placed to witness how both Irish and Polish communities were saddened at Pope John Paul II’s death and she also visited his home town of Krackow on the occasion of the first anniversary of his death.
“What I saw there was wonderful. To see the faith of the people, especially the young people. They were demonstrating the kind of faith that we were experiencing in 1979,” she concluded.

All roads lead to Knock
As Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland drew near in September 1979 and the nation prepared to roll out the red carpet, the people of Inishowen made their travel plans for a mass exodus to greet him. Many would turn to local bus companies such as Foyle Coaches.
“We took five bus loads of people to see the Pope, four to Knock and one bus from Culdaff Youth Club for the youth mass in Galway,” recalls John McGonagle of Foyle Coaches.
The then 38 year John drove one of the busses bound for Knock. It was full of people from Moville, Drung and Iskheen.
John McGonagle “We left Inishowen at around 9pm the night before the mass and got there in the early hours of the morning. I remember having to park around three miles outside the Knock and walk the rest of the way. I had a gas cooker in the boot of the bus that we used to make tea for the passengers before they set off.”
John took his wife Dolly and young son Joe on the bus with him and they and the rest of his passengers disappeared into the estimated 400,000 crowd that converged on the Shrine of Our Lady.
“I can’t remember a wile lot about the Mass itself, just the size of the crowd. There were people standing on the top of busses and climbing trees to try to get a look at the Pope.”
The Pontiff left Knock in the early evening but it would take John a lot longer to gather his flock for the long trip back to Donegal.
“A few of the passengers couldn’t find their way back to the bus so I told the rest of the busmen to go on and that I would wait for last two people. We waited for hours and hours, but they didn’t show up so I went back to the church and found them there. It was 4am before we were on the road and 10am before I got back home, but I didn’t mind as long as we made sure we got everybody back home safe and sound.
It went well.” John has taken tour groups to concerts and big sports matches down the years, but for the sheer scale of an operation, nothing came close to the Pope’s visit.
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