A bygone era when the Pope came to town
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.