Remembering innocent days of the Pope’s visit

A Different View with Dave O’Connell

There is an exhibition of photographs in Galway Cathedral at the minute that captures some of the colour and sense of occasion that surrounded the Pope’s visit to Galway 35 years ago this September.

But, evocative as they are, they cannot be expected to replicate that air of excitement and wonder as we made our way in the dawning light to the Racecourse from all corners of the country.

This was the young people’s event on the John Paul tour – tens of thousands of them descending on a field, when, outside of sport, the only other big open air event we’d ever had was Lisdoonvarna.

So they travelled like a colony of ants, armed with sleeping bags and the occasional tent – a

It was my Inter Cert year in St Mary’s College and a few of us were volunteered for an inter-school choir. What was even better was that some of us – and I’m particularly thinking of Frankie Lee – could even sing.

If truth be told, at the early stages the real attraction in this was getting out of study to go to choir practice and meeting other work-dodgers from other schools.

There would be a few microphones scattered among the choir on the day; part of Fr Michael McLoughlin’s job was to make sure that us crows weren’t too close to them.

But the excitement was building as we learned our songs – Totus Tuus, He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands – and realised that this really was something special.

Being young fellas, another plus was that, unlike the other 280,000 who would be traipsing through town and out to Ballybrit on foot, we were getting a bus. Because we were part of the supporting cast – and we were on the altar.

Our uniform was a sort of hybrid altar boy meets traffic warden – white shirt and chocolate brown trousers, with an unopened plastic mac in case the rains came down.

Actually when they did and we put on the macs, we realised they are coated in talcum powder to stops them from sticking together. The downside of that is that our brown pants now had a covering of snow.

But that didn’t matter once the big red bird descended and John Paul came up the finishing strait in his Popemobile to the sort of applause that a Galway Plate winner could only dream of.

“Young people of Ireland, I love you,” he told us – words that Joe Connolly adapted when Galway’s hurlers broke their All-Ireland hoodoo just one year later.

Those were the days of our innocence, days we will never forget – and how fitting that the Cathedral is reliving them with this exhibition in anticipation of Pope Francis declaring John Paul II a saint of the Catholic Church this Sunday, at a canonisation ceremony in Rome.

In celebration of the canonisation of John Paul II, Bishop Martin Drennan will also give a Mass of Thanksgiving and there will be a live screening of the ceremonies at Ballybrit Racecourse on Sunday at 11am.

It won’t be as big as 1979, but it might just evoke the odd small memory from our past.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.