Faces in the crowd at the airport opening. Photo: Frank Dolan

Opening of Knock Airport 33 years ago recalled

TODAY (May 30) marks the 33rd anniversary of the official opening of Knock Airport, an historic occasion that has since changed the face of the west and northwest of Ireland, writes Tom Gillespie.

On that wet Friday, Monsignor James Horan saw his dream come true as the then opposition leader, Fianna Fáil president and Knock Airport supporter, Charlie Haughey, cut the tape on an infrastructural project that has transformed the province.

Along with my editor, Tom Courell, and cameraman Frank Dolan we travelled to Barnalyra to cover the momentous event.

The following Wednesday we reported:

The rain thundered down in sheets. But the deluge failed to dampen the enthusiasm of thousands who stood at Mayo’s hilltop airport for the opening ceremony.

Coat-less Charles Haughey had to wade through the throngs to snip the tape.

Like the others, the downpour did not matter. The business of the day was to launch Connaught International Airport and it had been done.

It was an occasion to pay homage to the man who masterminded it all, Monsignor James Horan.

A self-styled ‘simple country priest’, the 72-year-old clergyman defied all the experts and located the huge development in a panoramic setting.

Today (1986), Knock Airport, as it is known, gazes over five western counties on a clear day, standing out as a beacon for new prosperity for the region. It cost £13 million to provide, a shoestring in modern day economics in terms of value for investment.

It boasts of all the amenities needed to attract cross-channel and transatlantic traffic.

The low cloud ceiling on Friday ruled out the arrival of all but one of the flights from London.

The other had to be diverted to Shannon and groups on their way out had to be taken by coach on the 120-mile journey to make their connections.

Lighter craft had no problem and on one of them Charles Haughey and his party touched down shortly before 3 p.m.

Monsignor Horan had travelled from Dublin earlier by road and all was set for the gala opening.

The airport directors busied themselves tending to the needs of the VIPs and the place was bristling with Fianna Fáil personalities.

"It is like a mini-Ard Fheis," mused an observer as familiar faces darted by under the cover of umbrellas and waterproofs.

Proclaimed Monsignor Horan: "I am proud this airport has been opened. I am equally proud Charles Haughey opened it."

The government was not officially represented at the proceedings.

Minister for State, Enda Kenny, was late arriving due to duties in Dublin until later afternoon.

Senator Jim Higgins, always a supporter of the project, was in the midst of the jovial crowd.

The chairman of Dublin County Council, Ray Bourke, Mr. Bertie Ahern, deputising for the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and Mr. Bill Harvey, the chairman of Dun Laoghaire Borough Council, were prominent.

Senator Martin J. O’Toole, chairman of Mayo County Council, extended handshakes all round, welcoming guests, especially those from the east coast.

Mr. Haughey said the message of the airport was of triumph over adversity, of difficulties overcome, of critics confounded.

The site was blessed by Most Rev. Dr. Thomas Flynn, Bishop of Achonry, and Right Rev. John Neill, Bishop of Tuam, Achonry and Killala, in a joint ceremony.

Monsignor Horan said the airport became controversial through no fault of the people of the west.

He said: "In all the controversy and name-calling, Mr. Haughey’s faith in this project never wavered.

"We are proud today this development has been completed. This is the greatest thing which has happened in Connaught in the last 100 years."

He looked forward to the impact which the airport would have on the economy of the region.

He added: "There were better transport facilities in the west 100 years ago. This airport will help to make up for the infrastructure we lack.

"It will boost tourism, industrialisation and fisheries and it will make it easier for pilgrims to travel to Knock Shrine."

The Monsignor drew tremendous satisfaction that all the work on the site had been carried out by local people who had done a wonderful job.

He added: "The people of Mayo have been practising self-aid for years. If they had not they would have disappeared."

Mr. Haughey said the impact which the airport would have on the west would be ’profound’, adding: "It may well be a turning point of historic significance for the whole province of Connaught."

Th airport, he said, would always be identified with Monsignor Horan. To say he was the promoter was to hopelessly understate the reality. The concept was his originally. He was the inspiration, the motivating spirit and the driving force behind ‘this great achievement’.

Mr. Haughey added: "Of course, the audacity of the enterprise brought out in full cry the doubters, cynics and knockers.

"But Monsignor Horan, fortunately, could rally behind him a team of loyal colleagues and supporters who stayed with him through all the difficulties and tribulations and never wavered in their commitment.

"This is their day, too, and we salute them."

Mr. Haughey said the absence of an informed flexible policy of regional development, bad economic and social planning with decision-making over centralisation had tended to exacerbate the natural disadvantages of the west over a long period of years.

The airport could play a major part in reversing that tide.

Monsignor Horan was full of praise for all who supported his campaign and he had a special tribute for the ‘honest-to-God people of Ireland’.

"We would not have achieved anything without their help," he concluded.