A by­gone era when the Pope came to town

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - COLUMNIST -

What a dif­fer­ence, um, 39 years makes, eh? It would be wrong to say that it only feels like yes­ter­day since a pope last breathed Ir­ish air, be­cause not only does it feel like a long time ago, it feels like a dif­fer­ent cen­tury (which it is), a dif­fer­ent mil­len­nium (which it also is) and a piece of an­cient his­tory (which it’s not).

Try­ing to cast your mind back nearly four decades is al­ways a dif­fi­cult task — and not just be­cause those of us of who were there are now of­fi­cially old farts who don’t have the pow­ers of re­call we took for granted in our youth.

But while we may not re­mem­ber who was num­ber one on Top of the Pops (‘Mes­sage in a Bot­tle’ by The Po­lice) or who was the Ir­ish man­ager (it was the in­ter­reg­num be­tween John Giles and Eoin Hand) or even the Taoiseach of the day (Jack Lynch, who would be de­fen­es­trated by his bit­ter ri­val Charles Haughey in De­cem­ber 1979), most of us will have some sepia-tinged rec­ol­lec­tion of the day the Pope came to town.

They’re scat­tered, frag­men­tary snip­pets at this stage, not so much a mem­ory, but the mem­ory of a mem­ory. But I clearly re­mem­ber a fairly large de­gree of op­po­si­tion to the visit in my own house.

The old man was a fer­vent Leftie. Like all good Left­ies, he ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for the Lib­er­a­tion The­ol­ogy of the South Amer­i­can priests making a stand against the re­pres­sive dic­ta­tor­ships at the time, but he had only con­tempt for the Catholic Church as we then un­der­stood it.

The Ire­land of then had more in com­mon with Al­ba­nia than it does with the coun­try in which we live to­day — ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was il­le­gal, di­vorce was ver­boten and in one of the most dis­gust­ing pieces of le­gal op­pres­sion this coun­try has ever en­dured, it wasn’t even a crime to rape your wife.

Read the last sen­tence again and pon­der it for a minute — the Ire­land that Pope John Paul II seemed to em­brace so much still al­lowed a man to rape the woman he mar­ried.

It was for all those rea­sons and more that Da de­spised the Pope, or as he used to call him, ‘the real Taoiseach’.

Granted, we had just re­turned from a visit to Ceaus­escu’s Ro­ma­nia that sum­mer, but the scales had fallen from his eyes when it came to com­mu­nism and he saw both the Catholi­cism of Ire­land and the com­mu­nism of Ro­ma­nia as two heads of the same beast — re­pres­sive ide­olo­gies which preached univer­sal equal­ity while fos­ter­ing a cor­rupt, se­cre­tive elite and screw­ing the lit­tle guy.

Per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, it wasn’t the most pop­u­lar view to be hold­ing at the time.

His old com­mie mates turned against him for dar­ing to speak ill of the work­ers’ par­adise

It was for all those rea­sons and more that Da de­spised the Pope, or as he used to call him, ‘the real Taoiseach’

of Ro­ma­nia — few of them ever hav­ing gone there them­selves, of course.

Closer to home, his mother-in-law wouldn’t have been a fer­vent Catholic but she was a ded­i­cated Mass-goer and was con­vinced her er­rant, bol­shie son-in-law would ei­ther go to hell or get his head kicked in for be­ing so vo­cally crit­i­cal of the Church at a time when such opin­ions were dis­missed as the rav­ings of a mad man or, iron­i­cally enough given his split from his for­mer com­rades, a com­mu­nist.

For those us in Drim­nagh Cas­tle at the time, it was seen as just a handy day off school, and let’s face it, what kid doesn’t ab­sorb the in­fec­tious en­thu­si­asm of the grown-ups?

I kept the Da’s opin­ion to my­self when in school and when it came time for us to get up in the mid­dle of the night to set off from Kil­dare Road and trek in to­wards the Phoenix Park, there was an un­de­ni­able sense of oc­ca­sion and ad­ven­ture.

I re­mem­ber the mist en­gulf­ing Is­land­bridge like a sin­is­ter cowl; I re­mem­ber the sense of won­der of look­ing at the deer graz­ing in the emerg­ing dawn light; I re­mem­ber the flasks of cof­fee and, for some rea­son, I think we may even have had Bat­ten­berg cake.

But mostly I re­mem­ber the crowds. For all the talk of traf­fic chaos and long walks the pil­grims will face in the Phoenix Park to­mor­row week, that seemed to be half the fun back then — frankly, if the or­gan­is­ers had told peo­ple to wear hair shirts and walk bare foot, most of them would have “of­fered it up”, as they used to say, and done what they were told.

By the time I be­came a teenager in the mid-80s, the coun­try of the Pope’s visit a few years ear­lier al­ready seemed dead and gone.

The Church, though still ca­pa­ble of ru­in­ing peo­ple’s lives, was be­gin­ning to be scru­ti­nised and openly crit­i­cised in a way which would have seemed im­pos­si­ble a few years ear­lier.

We are a vastly im­proved coun­try since then, of course, but we should be care­ful about slap­ping our­selves on the back.

As in­tol­er­ant as some peo­ple were back then, so some peo­ple are to­day, they’ve merely changed the wrap­ping pa­per from re­li­gious blas­phemy to a sec­u­lar one.

That’s why, while I look for­ward to not go­ing, I feel sorry for some of the el­derly faith­ful who are so rou­tinely cas­ti­gated by peo­ple who ei­ther cravenly kept their mouths shut back then, or are too young to re­mem­ber it.

Sim­i­larly, while the sur­vivors of sex­ual and phys­i­cal abuse at the hands of the Church are damn right to make as loud a protest they can, the pos­tur­ing of buf­foons, such as the Say Nope To The Pope cam­paign which tried to block-book tick­ets to pre­vent oth­ers from at­tend­ing, was re­mark­ably mean-spir­ited.

Funny enough, even af­ter dredg­ing my brain for mem­o­ries of the day, I can’t re­mem­ber the old man join­ing us on the trip.

Like his son four decades later, he prob­a­bly thought it was best to just sit this one out...


A day off school: Pil­grims make their way to see the Pope in 1979.

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