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Pope John Paul II is greeted by crowds during his 1979 visit to Ireland. Anwar Hussein

I was there when Irish journalists sang for the Pope. I can confirm there was no drink taken

Irish journalists were granted a special midnight audience with Pope John Paul II out at a Navan Road convent school, Éanna Brophy recalls.

MUCH IS BEING made of how far from agog we the Irish are about the impending arrival of Pope Francis, compared with how utterly bananas the whole country went when Pope John Paul II touched down and kissed the oily runway at Dublin Airport in 1979.

We’ve heard all the clichés: Ireland was a different country then etc., – but apart from our national loss of innocence in the meantime the big difference about that occasion is that it was the first time ever that a pope visited Ireland. In fact it was a very rare thing indeed for a pope to visit anywhere outside Rome.

It was also extremely unusual, if not unprecedented for the cardinals of the Catholic church to have so recently elected (a) a non-Italian and (b) a cardinal from behind the Iron Curtain. Today’s generation can have no concept of how rigidly the Russian-backed communist regimes of Eastern Europe controlled their populations, so the election of 59-years-old former part-time actor, active skier Karol Wojtyla had startled the world – and no doubt sent flickers of unease through the Kremlin.

So there was as much excitement in Ireland as there had been for the 1963 visit of President John F Kennedy when the new star-quality Polish Pope decided that he too was going to drop in. We were proud to be second on his list: we understood that he had to visit his home country first.

It was to be a three-day visit from Saturday 29 September to Monday 1 October, so every journalist in the country applied for accreditation – just in case. Even those who were desk-bound in sub-editorial and other production roles that day were supplied with the necessary ID badges.

And so it came to pass that a special invitation was issued to us “also-rans” to a late Saturday night audience with John Paul II. After midnight we slipped out of our offices and radio/TV studios and made our way to the Navan Road to the convent school whose grounds also housed the Papal Nunciature where the Pope would bed down each night. We were ushered into a school hall, where there were already dozens of media types from all over the world. Some camera crews were asleep on the floor beside the heavy equipment they’d been toting around all day.

Spontaneous applause 

Memory is hazy as to whether we were offered tea or coffee, but it is important to point out that there was definitely no alcohol: it played no part in what ensued.

The Pope was well behind schedule, so we all stood around talking shop for an hour or so. We were given copies of the sermon/speech to the media that he would not be delivering because of the lateness of the hour.

And then suddenly there was a kerfuffle on the small balcony just a few feet above our heads, and there he was, dressed head-to-toe in gleaming white, arms extended in a blessing/greeting, and looking just like a picture of himself!

He was greeted with a spontaneous burst of applause from all the hardened hacks.

In halting English he uttered a few jocular words of apology for being late, and thanked us all for waiting. He made a brief reference to the media message we had been given and the importance of telling the truth etc.

Then someone shouted “Sing us a song!”

The Pope smilingly demurred despite some further cajoling. At the back of the hall, a loud Dublin voice began to sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow”. The song and chorus was instantly taken up by the whole crowd. A perplexed Pope stood there making half-conducting and half-hushing hand gestures.

As the last notes died down, a tall bespectacled foreign gent in our vicinity suddenly gave vent to overwhelming emotion.

“Holy Father”, he bellowed, “I wish to come up and embrace you!” With that, he made to go up some steps from the hall to the balcony – and was instantly overpowered by a bevy of heavy men in sharp suits. He vanished from sight.

And when we looked back at the balcony the Pope had vanished too.

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