St. John Paul II in Ireland

How A Gang of Irish Lads Protected the Pope from the Dignitaries

By Liam O’Dwyer

In late September 1979, nearly 3 million Irish poured out of their homes to see St. Pope John Paul II in Dublin, Drogheda, Galway, Limerick, and Knock. In the years since, I have talked with others who also saw the Saint during his Irish pilgrimage. Every person has said they remembered his visit with abiding joy, as do I.

Apart from these lovely memories, however, my most prized possession is the tiny scrap of the altar cloth I was able to tear off immediately his Mass was over. (To be sure, I took this little souvenir only after I had seen cardinals, priests, and dignitaries help themselves to their own altar-cloth-scrap mementos.) I am now in possession of a Saint’s relic, it seems.

SECOND CLASS RELIC TODAY, a tiny scrap of the cloth torn from the altar where Saint John Paul II celebrated Mass in Phoenix Park, Dublin in 1979.

How is it that I happened to be near the altar? Now, that’s a story worth telling.

Over a million people at Dublin’s Mass
The population of the Republic at the time was only just over 3.3 million people, and of these, 1.2 million attended the Mass in Dublin at the 15 acres in the Phoenix Park. The gigantic white cross that stood over the altar that day still stands as a memorial.

A special pass gives me access to the Altar
I was blessed to be able to make a small contribution to the success of the day by representing my parish as one of the papal Mass attendants whose job it was to ensure everyone had a valid ticket to the Mass and was in the corral allocated to his or her parish. I was fortunate to be one of the few who had a special pass, which gave me access to the main altar and its surroundings.

A mist hovers over Phoenix Park
We arrived before dawn, and met with an eerie sight: a low morning mist hovering over the corrals that stretched across the 15-acre expanse. I felt as though I were wandering through no-man’s land in a WW I battlefield. Looming through the mist were domed tents, which were set up at strategic points to cater to the needs of over a million people.

We had been well-briefed on our responsibilities. When the crowds started to appear, the pilgrims were settled into their assigned locations. Everyone appeared to be in a joyful, festive mood. Parish members in their various corrals engaged in a friendly competition as to who could sing an array of popular hymns and traditional Irish songs the loudest and the best.

Pope John Paul II’s plane enters Irish air space
The excitement grew with the announcement that the Holy Father’s plane had now crossed into Irish Air Space. Before long, a huge roar went up from the crowd as “St. Patrick,” the Aer Lingus 747 carrying Pope John Paul II to Ireland did a slow fly-past over us on its way to Dublin Airport.

It must have been inspiring for the Pope to see such an enormous crowd gathered in one place for Mass in Ireland, known since ancient times as the ‘Land of the Saints and Scholars.’

A Saint offers Mass on Irish soil
By this time, all the volunteers, myself included, had been fed and watered. I enjoyed the freedom my pass gave me to wander the passageways between the corrals and talk to those who had made long journeys from all parts of Ireland to be there for this great historic event. We all understood and felt the history of the moment, and were proud that we would be able to tell future generations that we were there when a Saint said Mass for us on Irish soil.

The long and bitter suffering of the people and the Church in Ireland was forgotten for those few hours. We saw the Pope’s visit as validation of our struggle to remain true to the Catholic Church over centuries of oppression and penal laws that sought to suppress our Faith forcibly.

How I became involved in a commotion

At the end of John Paul’s Mass, I watched, thrilled, as the Holy Father passed close by me no less than three times. But the greatest moment had yet to come for me on that great day.

I had made my way back up to the altar when there was a sudden commotion nearby. I turned and was amazed to see Pope John Paul II himself, struggling to make his way through an admiring, enthusiastic group of cardinals, ambassadors, and various dignitaries.

Suddenly I felt a hard clout on my shoulder. Surprised, I wheeled around indignantly to see who it was that had delivered such an uncalled-for whack.

How we protected the Pope from the dignitaries

There, standing behind me, was Dublin Archbishop Dermot Ryan. Before I could utter a single word he shouted at me, “Get up there and help that man!” — that man being His Holiness the Pope. Without any further encouragement I ran up to where His Holiness was and linked arms with other volunteers.

We surrounded the Pope, protecting him from the admiring mob of dignitaries. Together, we were able to escort John Paul off the altar into his rooms. The next time I saw him, he was en route to his helicopter, on his way out of the Phoenix Park and onwards in his pilgrimage to Ireland.


OFFICIAL POSTER of the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland



OFFICIAL PAPAL BASEBALL CAP worn by all the volunteers that day.


PAPAL BLESSING for the day 1.2 million Irish gathered in Phoenix Park to see the Pope.



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