As editor of the Western People throughout the unfolding, dramatic story of the building of Knock Airport, Terry Reilly was in a better position than most to observe the ebb and flow of the project’s fortunes.
Now in retirement, the Ballina man has brought his recollections of that time to the printed page once again and, armed with two years of intensive research and endless hours of interviews with the key players involved, ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ comes on the market this week.
While the central figure in any book about Knock Airport must be ‘the simple country priest in a hurry’, Terry Reilly goes behind the scenes to talk to the wide range of personalities who influenced the project – for better or for worse – over those years. Churchmen and politicians, civil servants and community leaders, ex-ministers and clergy, fund-raisers and builders, all have a contribution to make to what is destined to become the definitive history of Knock Airport.
And, although the two major players in that epic saga – Monsignor Horan and Charles Haughey – are no longer with us, Terry Reilly’s research and attention to detail ensures that the contribution of each is faithfully recorded for future historians.
There are few parts of the story to match that extraordinary episode when Monsignor Horan – denied the required funding by the Coalition Government to complete the project – embarked on the mission to raise the incredible sum of €3m, in the impoverished years of the mid-80s and to prove to the doubters that his dream could be turned to reality.
As Terry Reilly comments, it was a task made a little easier because of the dismissive attitude of Garret FitzGerald’s government to the project. On coming into office, the Coalition had promptly pulled the plug on the airport, which had been given the green light and the required funding, under the Fianna Fáil regime of Charles Haughey.
The attitude of the new Government – particularly that of Labour’s Barry Desmond (‘that’s the end of the lunacy’) and Jim Mitchell (‘the foggy, boggy hill’) had so incensed the people of Mayo that the Monsignor opened his fund-raising campaign on a wave of public emotion.
Jumbo raffles, card games, pub music nights, concerts, dances, church gate collections – nothing was neglected in the battle to find money wherever it could be found. From the UK and America, donations came flooding in, each fresh outburst of ministerial criticism sparking off another round of voluntary subscription for the cause of the battling monsignor.
Monsignor Horan’s persistence and resilience overcame all the obstacles, and a few months before he died, his dream finally became reality. On a wet and windy day at the airport, and in a calculated rebuff to the government in power, Monsignor Horan invited his friend and ally, Charles Haughey – by then leader of the opposition – to perform the official opening.
It was an honour well deserved, because Haughey had stuck with his commitment to Knock even though he knew it would cost him dearly in electoral terms. Derided, mocked, criticised and dismissed by the Dublin media and the national policy-makers, Haughey never wavered in his support of Monsignor Horan.
Today, Knock Airport is a huge success story, as it heads for a one million passenger throughput and a destination range of 50 locations worldwide.
Terry Reilly proves to be a worthy chronicler of those dramatic, heady days when a country priest defied the odds to realise a miracle.
‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ is set to become a landmark of our local and regional history.
Delia Murphy remembered
It’s good to see that Roundfort will remember its most famous musical daughter, in song and in story, with a newly-written show to be given its premiere next month.
‘If I were a Blackbird’, based on the life of the legendary Delia Murphy, Ireland’s most acclaimed ballad singer, will be a welcome tribute to a woman who was larger than life, and whose enduring popularity with the people of Ireland was richly-deserved.
Apart from winning audiences all over the world as a performer of note, Delia Murphy was a feisty lady who led from the front in everything she did. She was the most popular singer of Irish ballads of her generation, giving a huge lease of life to the great songs which linked Irish people all over the world with the land of their birth.
Wife of the Irish Ambassador to the Vatican, Dr Tom Kiernan, Delia caused horror in diplomatic circles in Dublin by using the embassy – in league with Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty – to spirit away, out of Italy, dozens of people whose lives were at risk in war-torn Europe of the 1940s.
The cabaret show, named after one of her most popular songs, will be staged at Roundfort Community Centre on October 20. Devised and produced by award-winning writer, Seosamh Mac Gabhann of Kilmovee, it will be a fitting salute to the life and times of the incomparable Delia.
The lead role of Delia is played by Ann (Colleran) McGovern and her husband Tom will play the part of the Ambassador. Given Seosamh Mac Gabhann’s talent, experience and gift for musical narrative, ‘If I were a Blackbird’ is being eagerly-awaited by a public for whom the story of Delia Murphy remains as vibrant as ever.
That rough shot of lipstick
Still on matters musical, Tony Reidy’s latest CD has just come my way, and the Westport balladeer’s eclectic mix of subject matter is as colourful as anything that has gone before.
The eleven tracks on ‘A Rough Shot of Lipstick’ are not just easy to listen to and enjoy. It is because they are written and performed from a Mayo perspective that they readily strike a chord with an audience.
Tony Reidy knows his roots; but he is also a keen observer of life. Allied to a way with words and a wry talent for matching rhythm with lyrics, ‘A Rough Shot of Lipstick’ (even the title alone speaks volumes) is resonant of west coast towns and Mayo life and the emotions which so often are hidden behind robust facades.
In “‘Island Boys’, Tony Reidy sings of that peculiarly Mayo tradition of young boys having to leave each September for the mainland to continue their schooling in a ‘townie’ environment. In ‘Seán na Sagart’ he re-tells the story of the priest killer who betrayed his own before finally meeting his own death in a violent assault.
The lilting waltz tune of the title track gives way to the downbeat realism of ‘If this is Progress’, but the most ironically humorous of all must be ‘Seventh Son’, where the gentle introduction of the healing man’s power progresses from praying for the supplicant to ‘preying’ on the mind and tears and the broken heart.
But on a personal level – and maybe because I feel I can recognise who Tony Reidy sings about – ‘Hard Hat, Soft Heart’ echoes to the sound of excavators and dumpers, concrete mixers and track machines, organised chaos of construction and building sites, and the driven determination of men with hard hats who, when the day’s work is done, can show their softer side.
Will Castlebar make it to the Arc de Triomphe?
The imaginative John Cooney – he of the Humbert Summer School – has recently come up with a suggestion which, if taken on board by the interested parties, could result in immeasurable publicity for Mayo, together with all the spin-off economic benefits which could come our way.
Cooney starts by noting that on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, symbol of French military greatness, there is listed the 126 military triumphs of the French revolutionary armies. Engraved alongside them are the names of 658 marshals, generals and admirals of the Napoleonic era, heroes of France.
However, missing from that distinguished list is the battle which went down in history as ‘The Races of Castlebar’, and the name of the general who, in that august of 1798, fanned the flames of Irish revolution. He was General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, the forgotten general of French history, and the only French general since the Revolution not to have been awarded the Legian d’Honneur.
The omission of Castlebar from the roll of honour on the Arc de Triomphe – and the exclusion of Humbert – was first pointed out to John Cooney by Veronica Sutherland, then British Ambassador to Ireland.
Whether it was because of the tempestuous and colourful personality of Humbert, or because of his overly-enthusiastic liking for the ladies of the French ruling class, he found himself ostracised, following the Irish adventure, by Napoleon and his friends.
In 1812, penniless but still spirited, he left for Louisiana and subsequently - unable to keep away from a good fight – fought in the Battle of New Orleans.
Now, 200 years later, moves are to be made to seek the rehabilitation of Humbert’s reputation.
John Cooney and the Humbert School are to launch a petition to persuade President Jacques Chirac to recognise Humbert and the battle of Castlebar on the famous walls of the Arc de Triomphe.
Mayo County Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs are being invited to lend their weight to the petition, which will see Mayo immortalised on that most revered of French military monuments.
What publicity all of that would ensure for Mayo – the pomp and ceremony, the flags and colours and military parade down the Champs d’ Elysées, the presidential salutes and the aerial fly-past, the drums and martial music and the national and international media coverage for Humbert’s Irish connections.
Farewell to Seamas Moneley
The long battle with cancer – so bravely and cheerfully borne for the best part of six years – finally came to an end for Dr Seamas Moneley as he would have wished it, in his own home, surrounded by his own family, in Castlebar, town of his family roots.
The thousands who turned out to pay their respects were a silent tribute to a man whose consideration and kindness for all who he came in contact with were matched by an acknowledged professional skill. Medical colleagues would tell of his courtesy and co-operation; the nursing staff who worked with him in the maternity ward of Mayo General would remember the skilled professional with the warm sense of friendship and gentle humour; generations of patients would recall with gratitude the care and attention of the man who brought so much new life into the world in the 25 years he served in Mayo.
In an affectionate and moving tribute to his friend, neighbour, and fellow sailing enthusiast, Jim Finan remarked that if all the babies delivered by Seamas were to be present at his funeral, the church would be full to overflowing!
He spoke of his membership of Rotary, of his commitment to Castlebar Social Services Council, of his arrival in Castlebar on the first day of 1976. He was coming back to his roots, to the town of his father. “I never managed to figure out if he chose Castlebar, or if Castlebar chose him,” he said.
Outside of his devoted Dolores and his children, Darragh and Seamas, Ciara and Sorcha, the love of his life was sailing. A founder member of Mayo Sailing Club, his boat, the Pink Panther, was the envy of the club.
“For 15 years, he terrorised every crew member who dared sail with him in a race,” Jim Finan recalled. “It came to a point when crew members became convinced that Seamas had another personality hidden in a secret placed on board and, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s character, Dr Seamas would become Dr Hyde for the duration of the race, reverting to his affable self once the finish line had been crossed.”
For Seamas, the finishing line of this life has been crossed, all too early, a mere seven years since he had looked forward to a relaxed retirement. But the memories will not fade easily, and those he touched along the road of life will remember him with warmth and fondness.
Katie Sweeney (often referred to by Seamas as his favourite singer with his favourite song) sang ‘The Water is Wide’ as Seamas’s cortege made its way out of the Church of the Holy Rosary.
Moments earlier, Jim Finan captured the poignancy of the farewell with the eloquently appropriate ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Tennyson.
Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning at the bar
When I put out to sea.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that, the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark.
For tho’ from out our bourne of time and place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to meet my pilot face to face,
When I have crossed the bar.