Sunday, 5 June 2011

Monsignor Horan: The Builder of Knock

Monsignor James Horan was a man who got things done.
As a curate in Tooreen, County Mayo in the 1940's and 50's he worked beyond his ecclesiastical duties and involved himself in a number of projects that encouraged the local community to pool resources to enable the electrification and installation of drainage of this rural area.
He also suggested opening up a dance hall to strengthen social ties locally and raise funds for various projects in the parish.
Soon afterwards a rumour began to spread that the devil himself had turned up at one of the Tooreen dances. Apparently a local girl had been dancing with a dashing, handsome stranger but happened to look down and notice he was twirling her around the dancefloor on cloven feet.
Initially it was believed that this story was created by a local rival dancehall promoter, Albert Reynolds, who would go on to become the taoiseach or Irish Prime Minister, but as the crowds in Tooreen began to swell with those hoping to catch a glance of Lucifer a whisper went about that the canny curate himself might have put the story out there...
This sort of grasp on the importance of publicity and the power of myth-making would hold Monsignor Horan in good stead for his next set of projects.
Appointed the parish priest of Knock, County Mayo in 1967 Monsignor Horan saw an opportunity to put this quiet town in the West of Ireland on the map when he learnt of an appearance of the Virgin Mary that had occurred in 1879.
Realising the approaching centenary of the event he decided to build a 15,000 capacity basilica on the site of the apparition and promote the centenary as a massive event, attracting pilgrims from around the world and even a Papal visit by Pope John Paul II.
The basilica was completed in 1976 and the centenary saw 450,000 visitors descend upon this tiny village.
Knock had been transformed into a shrine whose fame and popularity rivalled Lourdes itself. Monsignor Horan was not a man to rest on his laurels though and was determined that the flow of visitors to Knock should continue unabated.
He envisioned a link between Knock and Lourdes, allowing pilgrims to travel between the two most famous Marian shrines in the world.
He decided that Knock needed an international airport.
This was an extraordinary decision. Ireland as a nation had suffered economically for years through lack of investment and the devastating effects of mass emigration and the rural West of Ireland had endured more than most.
The idea of a parish priest heading up one of the largest building projects in the country's history appeared absurd but Monsignor Horan was nothing if not determined.
He secured informal permission from the taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who probably felt it was a pipe dream that he could nod at and forget, but the Monsignor took this ahead of any official planning permission and hired contractors to begin work immediately.
Around IR£600,000 was spent on preparing the land for building and a team of labourers hired in the run up to the general election in 1981.
Monsignor Horan felt that if sufficient money was spent and the project was well under way it would have to be approved regardless of who was in power after the votes were counted.
Others were less sure of the wisdom of the plan.
Critics felt that building an international airport in such a 'foggy, boggy' spot was lunacy and there was every possibility that Monsignor Horan could be left looking like a fool and damning Ireland's image internationally in the process.
After the election it appeared as if the critics were right.
Haughey was kicked out and all government funding for the project was lost.
Monsignor Horan found himself IR£4million short on his funding and it appeared that there would be no airport in Knock.
However, this is where the Monsignor's extraordinary drive and belief came into play.
He undertook a massive worldwide tour, visiting countries such as the United States and Australia with wealthy Irish immigrants and tirelessly pleaded his case.
Appearances on television in Ireland and around the world made him very much the face of the project and his charm and optimism saw the money come rolling in.
A bizarre conspiracy theory at the time suggested that NATO had donated a large amount of money so that America would have another airstrip to use in bombing runs on Libya. Christy Moore, an Irish singer, wrote a song about the airport which included the line:

'All sorts of planes could land there, of that there's little doubt,
It'll be handy now for George Bush to knock Gadaffi out...'

The inaugural flight from the airport took place in 1986 and Monsignor Horan, by then 75 years old, was the first passenger onboard.
Within two months of the official opening of Knock airport Monsignor Horan was dead.
The project completed, he was on pilgrimage to Lourdes when he died suddenly.
His was the first coffin to be flown into Knock for burial...

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