Current Affairs

In the wake of the Pope

“What should I do with the cow’s teat”, inquired the interviewer from the Newstalk Radio station covering the recent National Ploughing Championships. “Squeeze it gently”, replied the lady agricultural instructor evenly, “as though it were your willy.”

In all sorts of ways that exchange, and the generally amused reaction to it, encapsulates the difference between to-day’s Ireland and that which existed at the time of the pope’s visit 30 years ago.

Firstly of course it would have been unthinkable for such bawdy banter to have occurred on the airwaves. Newstalk, and all the other commercial radio stations which now proliferate in Ireland, was some twenty years into the future and in terms of sexual honesty, and Ireland was still probably twenty years behind the rest of Europe.

The big, unprinted, buzz of the time was the fact that a horde of British tabloid journalists had descended on Dublin hoping to stand up the rumor that the President, Patrick Hillery, was having an affair.

An affair! And the pope on his way to Dublin. Imagine such a thing exploding into public view amid a bevy of bare breasted beauties in a British tabloid! Shock horror! However, acting on a suggestion of mine, that he should pre-empt a mega gossip strike by giving his side of the story first, the President called in four political correspondents (from the three major Irish dailies, and RTE) and officially denied the rumor.

Around the country that night people nearly fell off their chairs as RTE’s Sean Duignan solemnly broke the story on the Nine O’Clock news. There was a certain recourse to holy water the following morning also when the morning papers arrived. But, though tongues wagged, most people accepted the President’s word and felt he was right to get the matter out of the way so as not to discolor the papal visit.

The Pope arrived safely to be greeted by a million people in the Phoenix Park. And the British tabloids were left struggling  vainly for scraps of scandal in the torrent of adulatory coverage that broke over the land.

The country virtually closed down as people either attended, or watched the celebration of the papal mass in the Phoenix Park on television. The streets were still deserted as I drove through the normally busy County Dublin seaside town of Dun Laoghaire, to pick up my mother and the rest of my family, after the ceremony, at a nearby train station.

The only people to be seen as I arrived at the station was a group consisting of three embarrassed young lads trying to quieten a fourth young man who was obviously tipsy.

“Isn’t that disgraceful”, said a porter ,”Drunk, and the pope in the country.”  Then he added disgustedly: ”And they got good educations too…”

Such was the obvious, reverential tone of the country, reflected in press, pulpit and parliament. But there were less obvious currents stirring. The Pope got a rapturous reception from another huge crowd, consisting mainly of young people when he visited Galway.

These were acknowledging the effects of centuries of blood and sacrifice for their faith in the genes of Irish Catholics. What stirred in their jeans was something else. Many of these boys and girls had spent the previous night together in their sleeping bags.  They loved the man but his bleak messages of conservatism on matters such as contraception and divorce were irrelevant to their lives.

Time would show that in truth they were also largely irrelevant to the Pope’s warm up act, Bishop Eamonn Casey and Father Michael Cleary. They pranced about the papal platform before the pope spoke, singing songs like “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hand” and generally showing how loyal to doctrine, but nevertheless “with it” was the Irish Church of 1979.

Later it would be revealed that Casey had fathered one child, and Cleary, who specialized in giving retreats to Catholic school girls, had fathered two. But, at the time Pope John wooed Galway, and Ireland, with his seemingly impromptu: “Young people of Galway, I love you.”

He visited Zaire after Ireland, going directly there from Shannon, and while in the African nation he delivered a notable broadside against divorce. Amongst those who saw him off were the Taoiseach Jack Lynch, and the President, Dr. Patrick Hillery. No one commented on the fact that, amongst those who did not see him off was Hillery’s wife Maeve, who around the same time departed Dublin Airport for a holiday in Spain.

Nor, unless they were listening to the BBC World Service in the small hours of the morning, did anyone comment on the vast outpouring of grateful applause that followed  the pope’s  ringing declaration, in Swahili this time: “Young People of Zaire, I love you!”

All the hypocrisy and barrenness of the church’s teaching on sex that lay in the shadows outside the pomp and ceremony of Pope John’s visit, the last hoorah of the Church Triumphant , is now bursting about the ears of Ireland’s Catholics as this is being written. Reports into clerical abuse are either published or are about to be published, but there is one lasting deposit of good concerning the visit which should be acknowledged.

After he had delivered his speech condemning violence at Drogheda, Gerry Adams began to publicly call for an explanation of a passage in the speech, on the obligations of politicians to seek peaceful solutions to the Troubles. Bishop Cathal Daly, who had written the speech, occasionally replied to Adams, but more often did not. Nevertheless a kind of sputtering dialog of sorts ensued.

Becoming interested in this, Fr. Alex Reid, a priest from the Redemptorist monastery where Adams attended mass, secretly began contacting various people on different sides of the divide to tell them that Adams was serious about peace and could deliver. John Hume and the late Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich were amongst those who believed him. So was I.

I put Reid in sub rosa touch with Charles Haughey, the Irish Taoiseach, and out of such meetings was the peace-process conceived. It took many years after the pope’s departure and much effort on both sides of the Atlantic, before a birth certificate could be produced in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. But in a very real sense that Agreement stems from the pope’s visit to Ireland.

– First published 2nd October 2009 at