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The Grant family in 1979
The Grant family in 1979
Image: RTE Radio One

How an outbreak of ragwort brought Pope John Paul II to a field in Drogheda

The Grant family’s lives changed forever with just one, simple farming decision.
Oct 10th 2015, 10:00 AM 21,686 33

AS SPECULATION MOUNTS that Pope Francis will grace these shores before the decade is out, there has been much reminiscing about the heady autumn days of 1979.

In a new documentary, to air on RTÉ Radio One this afternoon, Nicolene Greer finds the family that somehow played host to 300,000 people on their Drogheda farm.

As aware as everyone else on the island was about the imminent papal visit, farmer Terry Grant knew about John Paul’s erratic travel arrangements but had some troubles of his own to take care of.

In the weeks leading up to the Pope’s September arrival, Grant noticed an attack of ragwort – a noxious weed – in his field.

Just starting out on the dairy farm and building their house, Terry’s family were trying to “make a good start” and the yellow pest wasn’t helping.

The ragwort wasn’t part of the plan.

“It’s difficult to get out of the ground,” he explains. “The last thing we needed to be was a neglected farm.”

He rang up the local contractor for a quote and was given two options – hang on until February and pay £200 for a spray or part with £800 to have it cut, taken away and burned.

We decided that is what we’d do. We didn’t want to wait six months. Get the place looking immaculate and really special.

It was a decision that would change their lives. Terry, wife Paula and their four children – a young family nestled in the small community of Killineer, just north of Drogheda and 20 miles from the border – were about to get a knock on the door.

Political situation

As the Grants dealt with the ragwort, Vatican powers and Irish authorities had a much bigger headache. Pope John Paul II was very keen to visit Northern Ireland. At the height of the troubles, the pontiff wanted to contribute to the peace process.

However, there were grave security concerns about any possible trip to the Diocese of Armagh. There were even whispers of lines being crossed and busloads of children being targeted – all conjecture and rumour but powerful enough all the same.

Religion - Pope John Paul II Visit - Ireland - Galway's Ballybrit racecourse - 1979 Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The enthusiasm of the Irish government for a cross-border visit was not matched by British authorities or clergy in Northern Ireland. Ian Paisley was obviously opposed.

Plans were still up in the air when the deadliest attack on the British Army of the Troubles took place. Eighteen soldiers were blown up in two booby-trap explosions near Warrenpoint. Hours later, Lord Louis Mountbatten was killed while fishing at Mullaghmore in County Sligo.

There was now no possibility of the pope crossing the border. It was an expected complication, however, and wheels were already in motion for a replacement venue.

Seán Whelan, the 36-year-old sacristan of St Peter’s Parish in Louth recalls being in the golf club and the Six One News coming on.

“The Vatican announced the Pope wasn’t crossing the border. I knew immediately he’d come to Drogheda. Which turned out to be right,” he continues.

In fact, Grant had got the call two weeks earlier.

A Matter of International Secrecy

Terry recalls: “It was early August – a week or so after we cut the ragwort – and I got a phone call that, if you like, changed the aspect of the farm.

It was a secretary who said to me, ‘Monsignor Lennon wanted to come see me on a ‘matter of international secrecy’.

The Monsignor explained that because of the security concerns, the Pope wouldn’t be going to Northern Ireland. However, he still wanted to take in the Diocese of Armagh – which despite being in Louth, Killineer was part of.

And then the kicker.

“We saw you cutting the ragwort last week and the place looks palatial. Parkland,” Monsignor Lennon began. “We were thinking, if you agree, we were going to use your farm for the event to host the Pope in Drogheda.”

Pope John Paul II at Limerick racecourse The Pope in Limerick Source: AP/Press Association Images

While the rest of the country had months to prepare for John Paul, Killineer just had a few weeks. Construction began, security arranged, flowers planted, communications systems set up, underground facilities built and walls painted. The clergy and the Grant family were expecting about 30,000 to 40,ooo people.

On 29 September 1979, 300,000 people flocked to the Grant’s pristine, ragwort-free field. Ten times as many people, smiling, in party form on a brilliantly warm Autumn day.

The Pope’s speech to the crowd made international headlines as he called for peace on the island. Beginning a prayer as Gaeilge, he then moved on to say:

I wish to speak to all men and women who engage in violence. I appeal to you in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace.

“To Catholics, to Protestants, my message is peace and love. May no Irish Protestant think the Pope is an enemy, a danger or a threat.”

A local woman called Kitty was one of the 300,000.

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“It was pure magic,” she says. “The sun was shining down straight and everyone was smiling. I just love that smile the Pope has. He has a gorgeous smile. He was a lovely man.”

Meanwhile, the Grant family had got their own private audience.

Paula, holding her twin girls who were babies at the time, was blessed. An ongoing family row was then created as he mentioned “a lovely mother” – Paula presuming he referred to her, Terry’s mam assuming it was, in fact, herself.

Terry’s father, like all good Irish farmers, asked him if he wanted a tour of the land. He was politely declined: “I’m afraid we’ll be very busy today. Maybe another day.”

The cross used that day has since been moved to a commemorative monument in a field about a mile up the road. It is popular site for many visitors who stop to leave trinkets, including extracts of his speech.

Much of the memorabilia from the day itself must be spread around the homes of Ireland as Terry remembers, “There wasn’t a leaf of a flower left”.

“It was all gone. They pulled them up the plants. Nothing left around the altar.”

“I think it was the best day in Ireland. It’ll never be like that again,” says Kitty.

And Terry agrees. It was a “one-off”.

“My father came over to me [later that day] and he said, ‘That was some day in our lives. Imagine that actually happened us. It’s incredible how that happened’.”

Then he asked how much did the ragwort cost?

“Look, at the time, I thought it was a rip-off. But it was the best money you ever spent.”

A Matter of International Secrecy airs today at 2pm. Or you can listen to the full programme here

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Sinead O'Carroll

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