DATELINE: KNOCK, IRELAND

Flights of devotion

MICHAEL KEANE February 29 1988
DATELINE: KNOCK, IRELAND

Flights of devotion

MICHAEL KEANE February 29 1988

Flights of devotion

DATELINE: KNOCK, IRELAND

According to local lore, the first miracle of Knock occurred on a rainy night in August, 1879, when 15 villagers claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. More than 100 years later that apparition is indirectly responsible for what many residents refer to as the second miracle of Knock: a new international airport 15 km north of the small town of 400 in western Ireland’s depressed Connaught province. The facility owes its existence to a fiery campaign by a local priest who wanted to encourage more pilgrims to visit the shrine that celebrates the 1879 miracle. Critics derided the $27-million project—one politician said that the airport would be a white elephant on a “foggy, boggy hill.” But it is showing signs of becoming a financial success—and it has also become a regional symbol of hope.

Prior to 1986, the nearest airport was Shannon, about 125 km south of Knock near Limerick. But seven years ago Msgr. James Horan, Knock’s parish priest and director of the shrine, began

an impassioned drive to construct a local airport. As many as two million pilgrims a year were visiting the shrine—on an 80-acre area that contains, among other things, a 5,000-seat basilica—and Horan wanted to increase that number. But the priest also

A new international airport on a \foggy, boggy hilV in Ireland has become known as the second miracle of Knock

said that an airport would economically revitalize the Connaught area.

So far, Knock airport only handles flights to Dublin and some British cities. Its 60,000 passengers in 1987 were far fewer than the 1.2 million that passed through Shannon, Ireland’s biggest air terminal. But many residents insist that the growth of their locally administered airport is only a

matter of time. Said John Mahon, one of the airport directors and a local supermarket owner: “This is the greatest thing ever to happen to this region.” Knock airport officials praise the enthusiasm and flexibility of the 27 staff members. “When a plane is landing you will have a chap acting as fireman,” Mahon said. “When the passengers alight he will carry their baggage. When they have departed he will clean up the litter or do other jobs.” Added Seamus Monaghan, chairman of the airport board and a businessman in nearby Sligo: “There was a fall of snow one evening. Without being asked, the staff came out at 4 a.m. and swept the runway.”

The airport’s official name is Horan International Airport—a tribute to the indefatigable priest who died in August, 1986, at the age of 74 while on a pilgrimage to Lourdes in southwestern France. In 1981 Horan had persuaded Charles Haughey, leader of the ruling Fianna Fail party, to commit about $12 million to the airport. Although Haughey earmarked about $20 million to the project, funding was cut off in 1984 by the government of Garrett FitzGerald, whose Fine Gael party beat Haughey in 1982. Horan then went on an international fund-raising tour and collected an additional $5.5 million. After his death, his successor, Msgr. Dominick Grealy, collected

$1.4 million to finish the project.

Most of the passengers have so far been pilgrims, tourists and returning emigrants. But they have not travelled with Ireland’s biggest carrier, Aer Lingus. The government-owned airline declined to use the airport when it opened because its officials said that it would not be a commercial success.

But a privately owned company, Ryanair, began running regular flights to and from Knock—and its spokesmen say that they are pleased with the results so far. Aer Lingus officials later appeared to realize the airport’s potential and they applied to run domestic flights—only to receive a denial from the directors, who say they

want Aer Lingus international flights.

Monaghan acknowledges that this year’s profit may be small. “It may be £500 or £50,000 [roughly $1,000 or $100,000]—but it will be a profit,” he said. Now plans are under way to improve facilities at the airport, which has three check-in desks, one baggage carousel and a small duty-free shop. And after FitzGerald lost to Haughey in last year’s general election, airport directors began to lobby the new government for tax concessions to industries interested in setting up near the airport.

Meanwhile, church officials say that so far the airport has not brought a significant increase in the number of pilgrims. But, said Grealy, “we hope for greatly increased charter business from Britain, where they are very pilgrimageconscious, and Germany, Belgium and Holland.” Some local people also say that the decision to exclude Aer Lingus will have to be reassessed. “We need Aer Lingus and we need flights to the United States,” said James Breheny, a restaurateur in nearby Charlestown. “Everyone expected a boom but that is a long way down the road.” Still, he added that the airport will benefit the area. And so far what was once termed a white elephant has almost miraculously become the little airport that could.

MICHAEL KEANE in Knock