Pope's visit recalled in
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
“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.
“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
“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:
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
The then 38 year John drove one of the busses bound for
Knock. It was full of people from Moville, Drung and
“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 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.