The Pope and I

It was a coincidence that the Pope John Paul XXIII was visiting Ireland at the same time as we were. Or maybe it was the other way around? The ferry was packed. There were nuns everywhere. They were watching films in the TV lounge, watching fools lose money at blackjack and even propping up the bars. In fact you couldn’t see the Lansdowne Road bar for nuns. Some were drinking wine and indeed some were taking a drop of the hard stuff, Jamesons, Paddy, Tullamore Dew et al and I saw more than one who was, how can I say; all over the place. It’s what you call, letting your hair down. They were clearly excited at the prospect of seeing his Papal Holiness for the first time.

Some of these women were quite possibly experiencing the world outside a convent for the first time since their self-imposed incarceration, the vow of silence put on hold for a few days. I got the distinct impression they were making up for lost time.
It was very windy on the top deck but some of them were braving the bracing sea breeze. Every now and then a heavy gust of wind would blow their habits up and down, much to the embarrassment of the nuns, albeit much to the amusement of their fellow passengers. And yes, they had legs, just like any other woman. Okay, so I looked, so what?

Dún Laoghaire was awash with foot passengers, many carrying deckchairs, suitcases, rucksacks, duty free bags and almost anything capable of surviving the long haul to Phoenix Park. It became obvious that most of them would be walking the 10 miles to their rendezvous with the Pope. When we arrived at the port, it was clear that there was not even a bus service arranged for them. I felt so sorry for them, it was a very long way to Phoenix Park even by car.
As we wormed our way through the Dublin streets we were stopped several times, at gunpoint I might add, by Irish Security Forces and asked where we were heading. When we answered “Athlone”, their faces lit up and with a laugh they told us ever so politely to “forget it”. The truth is, if we’d taken our usual south circular, west through the Inchicore industrial area, we’d have missed all the traffic, but oh no, this was the Gardai’s big day, we were going to go where they wanted us to go.

After several hold ups accompanied each time by “forget it” and “not a chance” and even one “come back tomorrow” incredibly we ended up being directed to Phoenix Park. That is where the Pope was going to be! There were thousands of people there already. Hundreds of thousands! Why the Gardai directed us on this day of all days, to the most crowded place in the world this side of Calcutta, is anyone’s guess. Ideally we wanted to avoid the crowds, but as it turned out I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I had never seen so many people in one place and not a football scarf in sight, no fights, nothing.

There were plenty of flags and banners, mainly in the Papal colours of White and Yellow, but also hanging from windows were Red and White (Protestant) and occasionally Purple and White (Jewish I think). There was no bigoted sectarianism on this day of days. If only it could always be like this in this world of intolerance and bigotry.
The outskirts of Dublin were milling with people walking to Phoenix Park to see the Pope. Many were ruddy faced from lack of exercise but seemingly in good spirits. It was to be the biggest day in many people’s lives.

It was only 6.30 a.m. but already there were more people in Dublin than in the rest of Ireland put together. On reaching Kinnegad, the constant flow of oncoming traffic heading to Dublin had slowed down to a trickle and by the time we reached Athlone the streets were empty. It was like a ghost town. Tumbleweed and brushwood rolling down the main street and The Pale Rider & Billy the Kid shaping up for a shootout would not have looked too much out of place. There was not a soul about. Everybody and their grandmothers were either in Dublin, Dundalk, Knock or watching the whole thing on television.

Even when we arrived at our accommodation, normally expecting a barrage of friendly questions and warm hospitality, all we got was, “Come in, sit in there, I’ll be wid yers in a while, we’re watchin’ the Papal visit”. We weren’t offended one iota, fascinated would be a better description, philistines of the Catholic faith that we were. So we sat and talked and relived the morning’s events over a cup of tea and a few cakes.
This euphoria went on well after the Pontiff had returned to the Vatican City, even then I imagine video footage of the whole days events was played over and over again.

Whether it was my imagination or not, everyone seemed more cocky, confident and self assured. Perhaps it was a feeling of absolving themselves of all their sins clandestinely in the relatively close presence of The Holy Father (just another one of his myriad names). Perhaps not, I don’t know, it was an uplifting experience for me, but much more so for the majority of the Irish nation.

Looking back, they were quite heady times, to many Irishmen & women it would have been the highlight of their lives. To myself, as an athiest, it was a fascinating insight into the workings of the religious mind, the procedural etiquette involved in the catholic church, the highs of religious fanaticism and the lows of “terrorism by proxy”, the deluded belief for some that what they were doing was in the name of their religion. Two days before the Pope arrived, 3 members of the Mountbatten family and an Irish lad were murdered. At Warrenpoint 18 dead British soldiers were killed by the IRA as revenge for the Bloody Sunday murders. It highlighted how far up their own backsides the terrorists had actually crawled to become so oblivious to the imminent visit by their spiritual leader. The Pontiff didn’t share their enthusiasm and bitterly condemned the perpetrators. The troubles had moved up a notch. It wasn’t a good sign but the Papal visit was a success and went off without a hitch.

The church, regardless of the denomination, has many complicated and ambiguous written and unwritten “teachings” and under such auspices, protection was afforded to some of the Ulster terrorists on both sides, whether by pressure and threats from the UVF, the PIRA or absolution via confession, nobody will ever know. I’ll just leave it hanging there if you don’t mind, which is precisely what should have happened to all the murderers in all the scenarios. I hate to quote Thatcher because I hated the woman and I’m certain she didn’t mean to include the Paras on Bloody Sunday when she said “murder is murder is murder”. If you think this is bad, you’ll not be able to wait for the next chapter.