Thursday, September 24, 2009

An honour to transport His Holiness

AT the controls of the Aer Lingus Jumbo that brought Pope John Paul II to Dublin all those years ago was a Malahide man.

Tommy McKeown from Yellow Walls in Malahide had the honour of ensuring the Pope's safe passage from Rome to Dublin when Pope John Paul II made the journey to Ireland in 1979.

He met the Pontiff and introduced him to the crew on board the jumbo jet and then showed an interested Pope around the cockpit of the aircraft.

The Pope's physical presence was the first thing that struck the pilot.

'I remember that he looked very tall and healthy,' Tommy said.

The honour of transporting the Pope fell to Tommy as the second most senior pilot in Aer Lingus at the time.

Aidan Quigley was the airline's most senior pilot and he had elected to take the Pope on the next leg of his journey from Shannon to the United States.

Before the flight, the two engaged in casual conversation and Pope John Paul II told Tommy that he had never been to Ireland before and was looking forward to it.

The Malahide man spent a remarkable 60 years flying aircrafts and said that the famous flight from Rome to Dublin was the highlight of his flying career.

As a former air corp pilot, Tommy particularly enjoyed the formation flying of an air corp escort his aircraft got that day.

A collection of precious photographs remind Tommy of the day that he met Pope John Paul II and those memories have taken on added significance since the Pontiff passed away in April 2005.

Ironically, although Tommy had played such an integral part in the Pope's visit to Dublin Airport, when his duties were complete he watched most of the visit on television.

'After I taxied, the Pope got off the plane and kissed the ground.

'I did what I had to do and saw most of it later on television,' said Tommy.

* * * * *

THE Dublin Airport community remembers well its encounter with the late Pope John Paul II when he kissed the airport tarmac as he arrived in Ireland for the papal visit of 1979.

Derek Keogh, who rose to be Aer Rianta's Chief Executive in the years that followed, was head of personnel at the time of the pope's visit.

His memories of the day are vivid and he said it was an event that involved the whole airport community and huge excitement built up among the staff.

Vantage points for the visit were allocated on a ' name out of the hat' basis according to Derek who was lucky enough to be one of those on the ramp when the pope arrived.

'It was the biggest thing that ever happened at Dublin Airport.

'There were a number of staff who got down on the airfield and others who stood on the old pier and links buildings,' Derek said.

'I remember we had a draw among members of staff to pick someone to present flowers to the Pope when he arrived.

'A fellow called Noel Dromgoole who worked in the restaurant, won it and his little daughter got the honour of presenting the flowers,' Derek said.

On a personal note, Derek remembers standing in line on the ramp waiting for the Pope to file past. He and his young family were just behind the front row waiting for a glimpse of the great man.

As the Pope got nearer, Derek lifted his four year old son up to see him. The excited little boy waved his plastic papal flag and apparently caught the Pope's attention.

Derek remembers the Pope looking up at the little boy and appearing to be about to speak to him when disaster struck and the four-year-old dropped his precious flag.

Immediately he became much more interested in shouting about his lost flag and looking down at the ground for it than any possible conversation with the head of the Catholic church – the Pope moved on and the opportunity was lost.

Apart from the personal greeting that never was, Derek has great memories of the day. 'I remember what a wonderful day it was. The weather was fantastic and the everybody was very excited'.

'He was an even bigger charismatic figure back than the one he became because he was new and nobody had ever seen anything like this before,' Derek said.

Con Farrell was working at Dublin Airport as terminal manager at the time.

He was on nights at 'the pod', allocating spaces for aircraft on the ground, on the eve of the Pope's arrival, and remembers the excitement building up at the airport over weeks.

'For weeks beforehand there were the yellow papal flags everywhere and all the roads were being cleaned and potholes filled up – there was great excitement around.'

' That night there was gardaí everywhere and the airport shut down hours before he was due to arrive. When my shift finished, I went home and collected my wife and kids and my mother-in-law and we went back to watch the arrival.

Con says his children were too young to really appreciate what was going on but that it was a special day for the family and in particular, his mother-in-law.

Former PR chief for Aer Lingus and Aer Rianta, Flan Clune also has fond memories of the day and Flan had a hand in organising the event, making sure the nation's media had access to the event.

Having formerly worked in Rome for Aer Lingus and acting as a witness to many an Irish wedding in the eternal city, Flan was no stranger to the ways of the Vatican.

When Pope John Paul II made his Irish visit in 1979, Flan had been PR Manager with Aer Lingus for five years.

He was responsible for coordinating the pope's passage through the various Irish airports and handling media and VIPs on each occasion.

When Pope John Paul II left Irish shores in 1979 from Shannon Airport, bound for Boston, Flan boarded the flight with him and got to meet the great man.

'He was certainly one of the most charismatic people I ever met and you wouldn't have to be religious to realise there was a real presence about him,' he said.

Dublin Airport Chaplain Fr Declan Doyle said he had 'very fond memories of the Holy Father'.

Father Doyle was not yet working at the airport when the Pope arrived in Ireland but had the chance to meet him in Galway and later again in Rome.

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