The Papal Visit of 1979: Context and Legacy

How the Catholic Church and lay organisations capitalised on the visit of Pope John Paul II. By Barry Sheppard

On the 21st August this year Pope Francis will visit Ireland for the 9th World Meeting of Families.  It will be the first Papal visit since the much-recalled visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979.   Francis, of course will arrive in a very different Ireland to that which John Paul arrived that September almost forty years ago.

Much has changed in Ireland in those four decades, with a significant acceleration in the past ten years.  Nevertheless, there has been understandably much reminiscing of late about the previous Papal visit, and the impact it had on Catholicism in Ireland.

Much has changed in Ireland since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979.

An Ireland which has had such a strong tradition of lay organisations participating in what was broadly termed ‘Catholic Action’.  While there are many who still adhere to that ethos, it is greatly diminished due to rapid secularisation, the fallout from decades of church scandals, and the catalogue of evidence showing the severe mistreatment of children on a grand scale in the various state institutions which fell under the control of the Catholic Church.

Pope’s Francis’ impending visit affords us with an opportunity to reflect on the Ireland of 40 years ago at the time of the last Papal visit. Showing that the evangelical zeal of the Catholic Action movement which exploded in the 1930s still loomed-large in public life, and was in fact reinvigorated in the aftermath of the visit, targeting the familiar old foes of popular entertainment and cinema as agents of the decline of Irish morals.

‘Greatest Event since the Congress’

Crowds in Dun Laoghaire await the arrival of Archbishop Logue in 1932 for the Eucharistic Congress. (Courtesy of the Irish Times)

When the visit of Pope John Paul II was announced in July of 1979, after weeks of intense speculation, the sense of jubilation in the press was palpable.

Reflecting on the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, the last occasion that they eyes of the world’s Catholics were on Ireland, the visit was billed as the “GREATEST EVENT SINCE THE CONGRESS”.[1]

This was a natural comparison, one which would be made many times over those couple of months in mid to late 1979.  Although, in heightened expectation of what was to come, it was claimed that the Congress would be dwarfed in emotional significance by the coming of John Paul II.[2]

The Primate of All-Ireland at the time, Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich was under no illusion as to the visit’s historical significance and drew many comparisons to the 1932 Congress, stating that those who remembered the Congress would be able to look upon the Papal visit as ‘the fulfillment of an impossible dream’.[3]

The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 was a huge success for Ireland, religiously and politically, and its impact was felt for decades afterwards.

The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 was a huge success for Ireland, religiously and politically, and its impact was felt for decades afterwards.  Being chosen to host such a prestigious world event, only a short number of years after the founding of the state led to an increase in religiosity among Irish Catholics.  It provided lay religious groups and individuals with a spiritual boost which inspired them to impose their faith convictions on the very fabric of the state at a ground level.

At a top-down level, the Catholic Church at the time of the Congress, was already ‘rigid and authoritarian in its governance, conversionist in its attitude to Protestants, Marian in its devotional emphasis and strongly focused on external religious practice rather than interior spirituality’.[4]

The Congress legitimised the Catholic Church as the ultimate authority in the land, and bolstered the ‘external’ practice, while at the same time providing lay groups with the spiritual environment to carry out their own missions in line with Papal teaching laid out in the various encyclicals.   Irish society was now being held together in the grip of Catholicism from above and below.

Catholic Lay Organisations

Throughout Ireland, Catholic Action groups, inspired by the ‘great social encyclicals’ Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, were active in almost all aspects of public, and private life.  In Dublin, agents of Catholicism had a ‘major effect on and input into the life of the people of the city from baptism to burial’.[5]

The lay organisations in Ireland which helped make up ‘Catholic Action’ at the time of the Congress were, in a number of cases already well-established.  The Legion of Mary was founded in 1921, the Catholic Truth Society in 1900, while St Vincent de Paul was introduced to Ireland as far back as 1840.

Among the important Catholic organisations were the Legion of Mary, founded in 1921, the Catholic Truth Society, founded in 1900, and the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which dated back to ht 1840s.

They were a small section of the more prominent groupings.   Nevertheless, the organisations became galvanised in the wake of the 1932 Congress, with an explosion of new names emerging over the next number of years, such as ‘the League for Social Justice, the Guilds of Regnum Christi, Muintir na Tíre, the Irish Christian Front, Christus Rex and Maria Duce’.[6]

A ‘Catholic Action’ pamphlet released in the year of the Congress emphasised what the movement was and what its mission should be: “Pius XI, putting into more specific form what was already said by his two immediate predecessors, has called for the organised co-operation of the laity in the work of the apostolate, and in calling it “Catholic Action”, he has made the term the watchword of a new Crusade”.[7]

The ‘Crusade’ would cover many areas of public life.  However, popular entertainment in the form of dances, music, and the cinema would, in particular draw the ire from the nation’s new moral guardians.

Future Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, a career-opponent of cinema, in a sermon in Cavan on 13 March 1931 warned of worldwide Jewish and Masonic plots and that the modern Press and Cinema were the direct outcome of the ‘virulent document’ (the Declaration of the Rights of Man), which ‘after the manner of Satan, sets man in the place of God’.[8]

While, in 1937 a Rev. Boylan of Dun Laoghaire spoke on the need for the ‘full organisation’ of Catholic Action to be established as soon as possible in Ireland.  Boylan was gravely concerned about the influence which cinema had, with discussion on the best way to ‘purify’ the threat it posed.[9]

Occasionally, cinema was tied in with the other bane of the Catholic foot soldier, Communism.   In a clearly paranoid editorial in the Kerryman newspaper in 1937, the Rev. W. B. Hannon spoke of cinema as just one arm of the many-tentacled Red menace sweeping over society.  Hannon had believed that the 1932 Eucharistic Congress had ‘irritated the Russian paymasters of the Communistic Cells in Belfast, Dublin, Kilrush etc.’ and that the cinemas of the large towns were ‘instruments of godless propaganda’ which Communists employed to infiltrate Irish society.[10]

Attacks on the immorality of the cinema would continue unabated through the middle decades of the century. In 1960, the Bishop of Kilmore, Austin Quinn stated that ‘cinema and like mediums’ were forms of modern propaganda which taught that liberty was unrestrained, and provided ‘extensive knowledge of licentious living’.[11]

The ‘Crusade’ envisaged by that 1932 Catholic Action pamphlet lasted decades, and impacted generations of Irish men and women.  Despite falling numbers in lay ‘Catholic Action’ groups, organisations like the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland disseminated ‘millions of its booklets’ right into the 1970s.   According to Maurice Curtis the influence of ‘Catholic Action’, despite being rebranded to the less-militant sounding ‘lay apostolate’, was to be felt right through to the 1980s and 90s ‘in leadership, personnel and ideas’.[12]

A Catholic Counter attack

Pope John Paul I in Dublin.

As Ireland opened up economically and culturally, there was a weakening of Catholic Action from its zenith in the 1930s and 40s, although still very much visible.  However, the Papal visit of 1979 offered an opportunity to recoup ground lost to liberalism.

A ‘liberalism’ which had struck its latest blow a mere two months previously, with the passing of the Health (Family Planning) Act, 1979, which allowed for legal contraception.  With this event still fresh, John Paul’s Irish trip was “was to be the catalyst in a conservative Catholic counter-attack against liberalisation which would dominate political debate in Ireland down to the 1990s”.[13]

Interestingly, in light of the recent referendum on the Eighth Amendment coming a short matter of months before Francis’ visit, it was suggested that ‘The papal visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979 was the springboard for the campaign to insert a ‘pro-life’ amendment into the Irish Constitution’ in 1983.[14]

The Papal visit of 1979 offered an opportunity to recoup ground lost to liberalism and to campaign on matters such as banning abortion and censorship of ‘immoral’ films. 

The fierce debate around the Eighth Amendment Referendum of 1983, afforded religious lay organisations a new target to take aim at, the metropolitan press and their perceived liberal bias. It was felt that ‘the anti-amendment views of many Dublin-based journalists strongly coloured their presentation of the pro-amendment case’.[15]

A Catholic lay report into the perceived bias of Dublin journalists in relation to the referendum contained echoes of previous ‘buy Irish goods’ and censorship campaigns of the 1930s and 40s.

The report claimed that ‘Most of the foreign – and especially British – publications on sale in Ireland and covering the referendum, were strongly anti-amendment in content and tone’, and that ‘Anyone walking into a Dublin newspaper shop looking for a pro-amendment newspaper or magazine and seeking to avoid publications with an anti-amendment bias faced a long search’.[16]

 ‘Crusade for family prayer’

Like the Congress, the 1979 event was a moment of ‘national triumph’ symbolising the ‘victory of Faith and Fatherland’, where according to Tomas O Fiaich the cosmhuintir (ordinary people) had come into their own’.[17]  Indeed, in the aftermath of the visit, connecting with the cosmhuintir and inspiring them to continue in the same vein as their Catholic Action forebearers was foremost on the Cardinal’s mind.

In a 1980 interview on the legacy of the Papal Visit, O Fiaich said that they decided on a ‘crusade for family prayer’.  Perhaps reminiscent of the proactive Catholicism of Cardinal Cullen’s ‘Devotional Revolution’, it was decided that the Diocese of Armagh would ‘revive a grand old custom’ of priests visiting every house in their parishes to pray with families, this time bringing especially commissioned souvenirs of the Papal Visit in order to maintain spiritual momentum.[18]

Both during and after the visit, the word ‘crusade’ became synonymous with the visit and what the legacy of that visit would be.  The Irish Independent conjured up medieval imagery, labelling the Pope’s brief stopover an ‘arduous spiritual crusade in Ireland’.[19]

Clergy would promote their crusade by reaching out to their audience through newspapers, instructing the flock on how to go forth and spread the Pope’s message.  In an article produced two weeks after the visit, which was carried in a number of regional newspapers across Ireland, Fr. G. Ffrench gave explicit instructions on what ‘Crusaders’ could do to enact what the Pope intentions were for the Irish flock.[20]

As with previous moral crusades in the 1930s, cinema was a familiar target for Irish Crusaders, concerned with the liberalisation of the state.  However, the more modern crusade, unlike that of the 30s and 40s had the added targeted the relatively newer Irish medium of television.

Lamenting the decline of morality in RTE programming, Fianna Fáil Senator Micheál Cranitch pointed his Seanad Éireann colleagues to the recent Papal Visit as a moral standard to which Irish television programming should look to for guidance.

Taking aim at a number of RTE’s programmes, including the almost sacred Late Late Show, he stated: “I have lots of objections to some of the things portrayed on what is normally a very popular programme, “The Late Late Show” on Saturday nights. Various representations have been made to me in relation to some of the things that were displayed and some of the things that were done on the very first programme subsequent to the visit of Pope John Paul II. People came to me and wrote to me about that and they want to know what can be done about it”.[21]

The Late Late Show was also in the firing line of a ‘counter attack’ by a coalition of Catholic lay organisations, concerned about the ‘increasing permissiveness in Irish society’ and the tacit consent given to it by governmental and semi-state bodies.[22]

It was argued the show’s presenter Gay Byrne (and RTE), was desperate to compete with the BBC and ITV, and were therefore going after ‘unrepresentative spokesmen and women for Gay Rights, Sperm Bank donors to women whose husbands are impotent, strident divorce lobbyists, and promoters of abortion’.[23]

Among the organisations in this concerted counter-attack were The Irish Family League, Pro Fide, and the League of Decency, organisations which Diarmaid Ferriter has described as having titles with ‘echoes of 1920s zeal’.[24]

‘An unending stream of sex-oriented films

Of course, one part of the ‘counter attack’ on liberalism was to bombard the print media with protest and warning letters. The head of the League of Decency’s Parents Committee, in such a publicity letter laid the blame for the debasing of Irish society at the feet of the cinema and RTE, who seemingly shared responsibility for an increase in sexual crime in Ireland.  The strongly-worded warning seemed to give the impression that 24 hour programming was already a well-established feature on Irish televisions: ‘Our cinemas show an unending stream of sex-oriented films, as does our national television network’.[25]

A number of controversial cinemas drew much publicity, especially those which had even the slightest of religious tones.  Of the plethora of unsuitable celluloid offerings to Irish audiences, two films dealing with matters of sanctity caused uproar during the next decade, The Life of Brian and the Last Temptation of Christ.

The League of Decency complained that ‘Our cinemas show an unending stream of sex-oriented films, as does our national television network’

The Irish press followed the publicity of the movie being banned in a number of countries with great interest, in anticipation of what decision the Irish Censor would take in relation to it.  Finally as it was banned in Ireland some newspaper titles announced the decision in decidedly joyous tones.  It was perhaps inevitable that the film would be banned after the controversy it generated in many local council areas in Britain.  The fact that it was to be released so soon after Pope John Paul’s visit, made clerical concerns all the more pronounced.

While Brian didn’t escape the censor’s net, the sound-track recording somehow slipped past the eagle-eyed moral guardians, and went on to sell particularly well in record stores.  A televised debate on the matter in which calls were made to ban it, heard of the shock that the record contained “four letter words and obscenities”, leading one journalist to comment that in Ireland ‘the opportunity to ban a play, film, book or gramophone record has always been like a red flag to a Papal Bull’.[26] The eventual banning of the record was welcomed by celebrity cleric Fr. Brian D’Arcy, who called it ‘a mockery of God’s word’.[27]

A few years later, the impending release of Martin Scorsese’s controversial study of the final days of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ caused no small degree of upheaval in Ireland, as in a number of other countries.

Like ‘Brian’ short of a decade previously, the controversy ahead was anticipated in the press for weeks before it reached Irish shores.  However, there seemed to be noticeable softening of the stance of large sections which was not happening in the wake of the release of Life of Brian.

Although the Churches were united in Ireland against it, calling it a ‘banal’ movie, the public at large were more vocal in their opinions that people should be able to judge for themselves.[28]  Was this an early sign of a wedge being driven between the church hierarchy and the masses?

If ordinary people had a ‘wait and see’ attitude about the movie, lay Catholic groups were not so laid back.  In their perpetual mission to combat the liberalisation of society the Knights of Columbanus announced a recruitment drive and a more visible presence in Irish social life, including applying direct pressure on cinema owners who were intending to show the Last Temptation of Christ.[29]

Despite mounting pressure from the Catholic Church and lay organisations, the censor, Sheamus Smith allowed the film to pass, albeit with two stipulations, which the Irish Press dryly referred to as ‘two new Commandments’.[30]  Audience members were expected to be over eighteen years of age, and to have taken their seats before the film began, in order to read the disclaimers that the film was not based upon the Gospels, but was ‘a fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict’.  Cinemas were also required to display this statement on posters, at least the same size as posters advertising the movie.[31]

The Role of the Media

The role the media played in generating publicity for the film was called into question by a number of figures within the Church hierarchy.  In particular, the Bishop of Ferns Dr Brendan Comiskey lambasted the media for hyping what would otherwise have been ‘an obscure film, playing in some small clubs’.[32]

Comiskey was the chair of the hierarchy’s Commission of Communication, a position from which he led a crusade against the media, in what Mark O’Brien calls a ‘generational clash’ between younger journalists who were willing to discuss many formally taboo subjects, and the Church hierarchy, which sought to combat such liberal viewpoints.  One of Comiskey’s frequent clashes with the media centred on the role journalism played in Scorcese’s movie.

In an echo of McQuaid’s warning about the dangers of cinema over fifty years earlier he concluded that there existed ‘a conspiracy by the entertainment and media industries to use the Church in an attempt to increase box office receipts and newspaper sales’.[33]

Spiritual Dividends?

One would perhaps have expected the increased fervour among the masses who were moved by the Papal visit to stimulate generate new recruits for the religious orders in Ireland.  In his 1980 interview on the visit’s legacy, Cardinal O Fiaich said that he thought it would have an impact on recruits to the religious orders, and that he was sure the Pope himself would be disappointed if that wasn’t the case.[34]

The Rev. Niall Coll has recently stated that those in the seminary in 1981 and 82 were known as ‘John Paul vocations’.[35] However, regardless if the classes of 81 and 82 were directly inspired by Papal intervention, more people continued to turn their backs on the religious life.  Ordination numbers in Ireland declined significantly in the early to mid-1980s to the low 120s from the 159 ordinations in the year before John Paul’s visit, with numbers plummeting even further in recent years.[36]

The Catholic battle against liberalisation was slowly being lost but the arrival of Pope John Paul II gave fresh impetus to the fight.

The visit of Pope John Paul II was an international event, with the eyes of the world upon Catholic Ireland for those few days, something which Irish clerical and lay groups wholly embraced.  After the dust settled however, there was a swift focus to the familiar inward-looking Catholicism, which so categorised the 1930s, 40s and 50s. At the peak of Catholic Action in the aftermath of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, there was an atmosphere of both economic and spiritual protectionism which to a certain extent isolated Ireland from the wider world.

By the late 1970s economic protectionism was a distant and perhaps an uncomfortable memory for many, yet there was a concerted effort by a number of Catholic lay organisations to replicate the spiritual protectionism which defined Irish society for decades.

Liberalism and foreign influences were loudly challenged, just as Communism and ‘foreign imports’ had been a rallying point generations before.  As with previous generations of religious activism, Irish cinemas became an ideological battleground for those who wished to stem the tide of liberalism.

That battle, along with the wider fight was (very) slowly being lost.  However, the arrival of Pope John Paul II gave fresh impetus to the fight, and a renewed confidence among Catholic Action groups, which looked to the 1930s as a golden period from which they could draw strength.   It is highly doubtful that next week’s visit can generate the same input.



[1] Ulster Herald, 28 July 1979.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ulster Herald, 28 July 1979.

[4] Irish Times, 2 June 2012

[5] Eamonn Dunne, ‘Action and Reaction: Catholic Lay Organisations in Dublin in the 1920s and 1930s’ in Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 48 (1994), pp. 107-118

[6] Maurice Curtis, ‘Miraculous meddlers’: the Catholic Action movement, in History Ireland, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2010), Volume 18

[7] Rev T.F. Ryan, Catholic Action in Ireland – “Irish Messenger” Penny Series, 1932.

[8] John Cooney, John Charles McQuaid: Ruler of Catholic Ireland, p. 70.

[9] Irish Independent, 23 June, 1937.

[10] The Kerryman, 9 January, 1937.

[11] Fermanagh Herald, 19 March, 1960.

[12] Maurice Curtis, ‘Miraculous meddlers’: the Catholic Action movement, in History Ireland, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2010), Volume 18


[14] Tony O’Brien in Ellie Lee (ed.) Abortion Law and Politics Today, p. 111

[15] Timothy O’Sullivan, ‘Fair and Accurate’? The Amendment and the Press, Veritas Publications 1984.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dermot Keogh, Ireland and the Vatican: the politics and diplomacy of church-state relations, 1922-1960, p. xvi

[18] Richard Deutsch, The Impact of Jean Paul II’s Journey to Ireland by His Eminence Cardinal O’Fiaich, in Etudes irlandaises  Année 1980  5  pp. 207-220

[19] Irish Independent, 2 October, 1979.

[20] Connacht Tribune, 19 Oct, 1979.


[22] Southern Star, 5 December 1981.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Diarmaid Ferriter, The Transformation Of Ireland 1900-2000, p. 716

[25] Irish Examiner, 28 July, 1980.

[26] Sunday Independent 17 February, 1980.

[27] Irish Independent 18 January, 1980.

[28] Irish Press 24 Sept, 1988.

[29] Irish Independent, 26 Sept, 1988.

[30] Irish Press, 21 Oct, 1988.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Irish Press, 1 Oct, 1988.

[33] Mark O’Brien, The Fourth Estate: Journalism in Twentieth Century Ireland, pp 211-212.

[34] Richard Deutsch, The Impact of Jean Paul II’s Journey to Ireland by His Eminence Cardinal O Fiaich

[35] Niall Coll, ‘The Great Sending Out’ in The Furrow, Vol. 64, No. 9 (September 2013), pp. 486-490

[36] John A. Weafer, ‘A Review of National and International Trends’ in The Furrow, Vol. 39, No. 8 (Aug., 1988), pp. 501-511

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