The most amazing miracle of all was that nobody was killed or seriously injured in the mayhem as a quarter of a million people exited Knock on the night of the Papal visit.
So went the comment of one letter writer after what was arguably the biggest day of celebration in the history of Mayo came to its close on the last day of September in 1979.
The visit of John Paul II to the Marian shrine to mark the centenary of the Knock apparition was truly historic. And nobody, up to a few months beforehand, dared to believe it would become a reality.
The logistics of the operation was huge. Well over 250,000 people were expected to attend. Transport, safety, security, communications, accommodation had to be arranged at short notice.
To the credit of all concerned – Church, state, local authority and statutory services – the arrangements worked like clockwork. Local landowners had responded by making 65 acres of land available for the pilgrims; Archbishop Cunnane’s appeal to farmers to make space available for 25,000 cars was eagerly answered; 5,000 stewards were recruited to augment the Gardaí and Army personnel in directing the faithful to the assembly areas. Eighty shuttle buses were laid on to ferry the crowds from Claremorris, the main terminus.
President Hillery with Taoiseach Jack Lynch and civic dignitaries, together with 200 Bishops and Cardinals, were in attendance when the Papal helicopter emerged and hovered over the vast sea of cheering people, slowly descending on the landing pad beside the Basilica. The reception from the thousands gathered on the grounds and across the hills was euphoric. The Holy Father had arrived in Knock, ‘the goal of my visit’, in his own words.
Patiently, the crowds waited out on the hills for the Pope to come among them. For the great majority – many elderly and infirm – the Vicar of Christ had been no more than a speck in the distance. But, they had been told, the Pope would be driven through the crowds in a specially constructed vehicle. The route had been planned to ensure that everyone would have a clear view of the Pontiff, and nobody would be more than forty yards distance from His Holiness.
And so the crowd waited. And waited. And then, in the gathering darkness, the helicopter was seen to rise into the air over the Basilica, and turn eastwards en route to Dublin. The shock and disappointment which followed was as intense as had been the euphoria of a few hours earlier.
It was then, in the words of journalist Terry Reilly, that what had been otherwise a perfect day went awry. The surge of humanity as the crowds, now cold and damp, rushed to get away, which played havoc with the bus shuttles and the exit plan. On the road to Claremorris, there was utter chaos. The buses – caught facing in the wrong direction – had nowhere to turn. Ambulances, cars, fire brigades, emergency vehicles, and the endless sea of humanity were caught choc-a-bloc. The Gardaí and Army personnel had disappeared, there was nobody to filter the crowd or bring order to the confusion.
Men, women and children, pilgrims in wheelchairs, had no choice but to walk the eight miles to Claremorris. A few scattered torches lit the way for some in the pitch black. People stumbled and tripped into each other, and into ditches. Crying children, having become separated from their parents, looked for rescue. At Claremorris, the train for Ballina finally pulled out of the station at 3am. It was mass migration.
The Pope, by then, was long back in the Dublin embassy. The last of the Knock pilgrims reached home two days later.