The confessions of a half-hearted teenage papal usher
Iwas a teenage papal punk. I made no apologies for it back in 1979 and still see nothing odd about swapping my regulation leather jacket and green drainpipes for a yellow-and-white papal sash draped over my brown flared suit. Just for a day. Seventies suits, carpets and curtains came in two colours: brown and orangey-brown. Ireland’s young were deserting the Vatican in droves, but rather than turning straight to atheism, they diversified into as many religious tribes as musical ones. Not for me the born-again Christians (too puritanical), fake eastern guru types (not puritanical enough), the Rastafarians (dreadlocks? No!) or the Hare Krishnas (too vegetarian).
Newly in vogue, à-la-carte Catholicism was the easy option. Just pick the bits you fancy and bin the rest, guiltfree. In the words of Father Ted: “That’s the great thing about Catholicism — it’s so vague”.
Besides, there was the star factor. John Paul II was the first rock star pope and there was no other show in town. Literally. Since the Troubles convulsed this island a decade earlier, Ireland had been a no-go area for visiting entertainers. Apart, inexplicably, from Eric Clapton, who appeared to have a weekly residency at the National Stadium.
So, with sash on suit, a flag to wave, a flask of tea and corned-beef sandwiches, myself, our band’s frontman Bart, and fellow stewards led the faithful of Ballymun’s Victories parish in procession to the Phoenix Park in the dank predawn.
Subversively, Bart and I wore striped day-glo punky neckties to signify an ironic detachment from our duties. In Cabra a hardware store open since 5am did an extortionate roaring trade in fold-up chairs.
Armed with a site-map we marshalled our flock (women, children, grumpy men) into Corral No 18, resembling a large sheep pen, around 8am, where they settled in for the long wait for the Pope’s helicopter. Besides providing loo directions, we were to keep the swarms of hawkers from infiltrating the Phoenix Park Mass area. That didn’t happen. Coke cans, Mars Bars and ice-creams flew across the fences at unholy prices. Cries of “See the Pope for £1!” filled the air and when JP appeared, a serried sea of cardboard periscopes went up, to have their pricey £1 view blocked by a sea of periscopes.
My smug satisfaction at living a day of virtue was punctured by fellow teens blaring out Bob Marley and The Clash from the park’s tree-canopied margins clouded in pungent smoke and littered with spent flagons of cider. The media turned a blind eye, and you won’t find any reports today of this alternative happening.
As the Mass got under way, slightly behind schedule, Polish-born Dublin travel agent Jan Kaminski was a bag of nerves. He was to welcome the Pope to Ireland, watched by over a million mass-goers, with a brief greeting in Polish. When the visit was announced, newspapers numbered Ireland’s Polish community at “almost 100”. With the visit confirmed, Kaminski quickly founded the Irish-Polish Society and the number claiming Polish roots jumped to 400.
The society commissioned three gifts for the pontiff to be presented following the Mass. Other presentations included a canoe in papal colours from the Irish Canoe Union and a cash collection from the “cigarette allowances” of Mountjoy prisoners.
Waiting in the wings of the vast Phoenix Park stage, Kaminski’s moment finally arrived. On cue, he strode with purpose towards the Pope on the altar. Too purposefully for the twitchy security spooks. “As I approached the Pope, they jumped on me,” he told me many years later. “They thought I was an assassin. I have press photos showing me in their grasp, gasping with shock.”
Dublin’s city centre was a ghost-town, with no shops open, no public transport running, no litter collected from the filthy streets. Empty. The biggest gathering spotted in Dublin’s city centre during the Mass was a group of five people at a Grafton Street ice-cream parlour.
For all the Church’s powers of persuasion, the coming generation knew there was no going back. Lapsed and lapsing they may have been, but most were still ‘cultural’ Catholics and for three days they lived in the moment as the Pope’s affirmative presence swathed the land with a hysterical feel-good factor, however fleeting.