Changing Skyline: A pope visit with little security? So it was in 1979

pope-1979
A photo from the October 1979 issue of Magill magazine shows a throng in Ireland lined up to see the pope. Despite the terrorism threats that year, there were no metal detectors or security perimeter.

The pope was immensely popular, and his visit to the redbrick city was seen as a history-making event. People streamed in - by bus, train, and foot - to hear him speak in a sprawling public park, and they turned the city's old, narrow streets into tributaries of flowing humanity. Yet the communal joy was tempered by fresh news of a brazen bombing. Fears of a terrorist attack left government officials on edge.

That was Dublin in 1979 and I was a young (very young!) reporter covering the visit of Pope John Paul II for a monthly Irish "news" magazine called Magill. Along with 5,000 or so members of the international press corps, I trailed the pope during the 51 hours he spent in Ireland, following the frenzied pack as it moved from Dublin to the remote village of Knock to the free drinks at the bar in the Irish parliament.

The pope's stopover in Ireland was meant to be a footnote to the real story: his first visit to the United States, a trip that included Philadelphia. But the Irish portion had become news because a month earlier, the Provisional IRA remotely detonated a bomb that killed Louis Mountbatten - Queen Elizabeth's second cousin, a World War II hero - while he lounged on his yacht off the coast of County Sligo. The Catholic and Protestant gunmen who kept the Irish "troubles" simmering were the extremists of the day.

Watching Philadelphia prepare for Pope Francis' visit in September, with its single-minded emphasis on locking down the city and controlling crowds, I can't help reflecting on how low our tolerance for risk has sunk. Despite the terrorism threats in 1979, there were no metal detectors, no security perimeter, no reduced transit schedules. Any vehicle that could roll, old hay wagons included, was pressed into service to bring people to the Phoenix Park, Dublin's version of Fairmount Park. A million Irish - one-third of the country's population - marched into its great emerald fields, singing hymns, holding babies, and carrying folding chairs.

Flipping back through Magill's coverage, I see the government stationed some uniformed police near the stage, and a few even waded into the crowd. An Italian journalist wrote a piece about the new "rigorous security precautions" that were being taken: Reporters traveling on the pope's plane had to check in four hours early! When the official motorcade left the park, with the 59-year-old John Paul II waving from the popemobile's open-air balcony, children rushed into the street to give chase.

This is not to say the Irish government took the security situation lightly. But it was probably more concerned about making sure the country could handle a major news event. In 1979, Ireland was, infrastructurally speaking, still in the 1950s. Outside Dublin, roads were one-lane country affairs, rutted, ditch-lined and often blocked by cows munching at the sweet grass. Few people had phones. I did my reporting from the pay phone in the front hall of my apartment building, equipped with rolls of five-penny pieces. At Magill's office, my stories were edited downstairs in O'Donoghue's Pub, usually during "Holy Hour," when the bars were required to close so the lunch crowd would have to go back to work.

John Paul's visit was the first time a pope had set foot in that very Catholic country, and the hospitable Irish were determined to make sure the media had access to the latest communication technology. In those days, there were two ways for a traveling reporter to file stories: You could dictate by phone or send a telex. Somehow the government had to provide enough rotary phones - and, more important, phone lines - to serve 5,000 journalists, not just in Dublin, but in Knock, a speck of a place 125 miles west.

Ever since a rainy night in 1879, when some villagers claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary appear in the mist, Knock has been considered Ireland's most important Catholic shrine. The pope wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the apparition. But while he could easily helicopter in, journalists had to make an arduous journey by train and bus. Phones, buses, and food had to be specially brought in by the government, and vast amounts of telephone cable laid.

It went fine until it was time to return to Dublin, and our bus became stuck in a 30-mile-long traffic jam. Most journalists were following the pope to the U.S. and had planes to catch. When it looked like we were going to miss the last connecting train, an angry journalist evicted the driver, took the wheel and proceeded to circumvent the traffic by driving the bus across the bumpy farm fields. The entire bus roared approval. We made the train, and arrived in Dublin with plenty of time to stop at the free bar. I don't believe I saw a police officer the entire trip, coming or going.

That was the old Ireland. Dublin had joined the European Union in 1973, and was eager to fashion itself into a businesslike European country, with strict procedures and good infrastructure. The pope's visit wasn't flawless, but it was certainly a good time. Like most everyone at The Inquirer, I'll be covering the visit of Pope Francis. I'm hoping there will still be some of that freewheeling spirit we had in 1979.


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