The Day of the Fold-Up Chair

It began with a low, continuous hum. Strands of sound, voices, car doors slamming, shoes slapping on pavements, weaving the aural blanket that hovered over the Dublin suburb of Cabra West. The parishoners had been told to arrive at the local church at 6.45 a.m. where hymns would be sung and the priests would lead the way to the Phoenix Park. Several hundred followed the advice, but by 5 a.m. the aural blanket had thickened as front doors opened and whole families poured out to join the tributaries which would form the river that rolled down Skreen Road and in through thr Blackhorse Avenue Gate.

It was to be the day of the fold-up chair. Carried in hand, dangling from shoulders, strapped to backs, tucked under arms, the things were everywhere. In Skreen Road, Austin's Hardware and DIY was ablaze with light and the pavement outside the shop bore an array of fold-up chairs selling at £3.57, appreciably more expensive than those on sale in the city in the previous weeks. Many of the chairless grabbed this last chance to rectify their lack of foresight. Here and there elderly people unfolded their chairs and sat by the roadside to regain their stamina. Children laughed and skipped, awash with the excitement of trekking through the morning darkness, the mist swirling down through the orange streetlights.


Thousands had already entered the Park, having queued for hours. Four teenage boys, factory workers, had worked from 7 a.m. Friday morning to 9 that night, then showered at work, changed their clothes and gone to a dance. After the dance they arrived at the Park at 3 a.m. An elderly Cork woman had been waiting from 11.40 p.m., having travelled up to Dublin on Friday morning.


In through the gate, where a spotlight glared at the crowd and three broad-shouldered, over-coated silhouettes motionlessly scanned the passing throng, and on into the darkness where a biting female voice swooped down from the black sky, issuing instructions. "Don't try taking a shortcut across the grass, you'll get drownded wet and there won't be any advantage."


The Garda and First Aid tents, lit from within, were an orange necklace around the perimeter of the still dark Mass area as the human rivers shuffled slowly through the network of corrals. At 7.30 a.m., with the dawn well and truly broken, the public address system sprinkled bouncing electronic Mozartian notes across the field, the perfect soundtrack for the helicopters circling lazily, silently in the distance against the red rising sun. Many of those now unfolding their chairs and drifting up to the barriers to get a closer look at the 200-foot cross would not leave the Park for 12 hours. Some of the chairs would be used then by tired pilgrims sitting outside pubs waiting for the doors to open. Later still, during the last couple of hours of that Saturday. veterans of the Phoenix Park would be seen strolling through O'Connell St. or just standing on street corners, clutching their fold-up chairs to their chests like campaign medals.


A million faces turned to the sky as the Aer Lingus Jumbo and its jet fighter escort banked to turn above the Phoenix Park on its way to the airport. The thought on every mind as the flags waved and the cheers ascended was that he must be looking down at this. No human being could float above this sweeping, shimmering human mosaic without being impressed. At 10.30 a.m. it had been announced that all of the 980,000 tickets had been distributed. At that point many of the corrals at the back of the crowd were empty and remained empty even at the height of the Mass. Yet the crowd was bigger than anything expected, bigger than most mass gatherings internationally, and in proportion to the population of Ireland, immense. One out of every three people in the country had come here.


The crowd could see the Pope's helicopter land at the Nunciature, a couple of miles behind the trees at the back of the altar. The actual landding ground was the sports field at Rathoat Rd., adjoining the Nundature in Cabra. Despite heavy security, a crowd of local people including children and one woman in her sixties, climbed a six-foot-high gate and wall into the field to greet the Pope when he took off for the Phoenix Park just before noon. By then the schedule was half an hour behind and the buildup from the Masters of Ceremonies at the Park was beginning to flag, The crowd had been told that Catholics are "the people of God. The chosen people. God's own people". That "the world hungers for Pope John Paul". That "John Paul is close". The warm music of the Chieftains danced over the chilled crowd. "The song that has welcomed popes for 400 years" was played by a military band, And still no sign.


Suddenly a section of the crowd, several thousand strong, was cheering, waving flags, dancing up and down. Thousands more stood, turned, raised flags, waved, cheered. And then saw that the cause of the commotion was a crane-hoisted RTE camera which was panning across the crowd. The crowd was entertained with a description of every detail behind the scenes. The bishops were vesting. "The red flag ... the red carpet has been unrolled".


Finally, the series of explosions of welcome as first the helicopter and then the Pope himself appeared. In the depths of the crowd many were unsure of 'which of the minute figures approacning the altar was the Pope. "There he is". "Where is he, is he in black or white? No, there he is, that's him.


The Papal homily concentrated on Ireland's history of loyalty to Catholicism, and an appeal for continued respect for the sacraments, with only one paragraph rapping social reforms, portraying the source of those reforms as being "ideologies and trends" from outside the crozierect isle. "Alien to Irish society", rather than springing from the warp and weave of human progress. "Prosperity and affluence", he said, "tend to make people assume that they have a right to all that prosperity can bring", what many would see as a not unreasonable assumption.


The Papal homily ran 15 minutes over time, and there was a further delay when the teams of priesfs and "special Ministers of the Eucharists". fanned out among the crowd to distribute Communion. Some of them were unsure of the procedure and there were huddled discussions on whether they should enter the corrals or ask communicants to file out.