On this day, September 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Ireland. Our columnist recalls being in the Phoenix Park as close to a million people came out for the Papal visit.

One of the basic skills for any half-decent news reporter is to be able to count the number of people.

I have lost count of the number of occasions when the reported numbers at some event or gathering are way off the mark.

Most times it is a case of exaggeration in an upwards direction.

On this day in 1979, I was standing in Dublin’s Phoenix Park staring intently in an upwards direction.

So were the other 999,999 people around me. Which is, of course, a ballpark estimate.

But hey, we were all in a park, though I don’t think anybody brought a ball to kick around.

There wouldn’t have been any room.

Yes, we were all gazing skyward, waiting for the Aer Lingus Boeing 747 to come into view.

And when it did a million – give or take – pairs of eyes stared up – and lit up.

The jumbo jet was carrying a jumbo persona in the person of Pope John Paul II.

Flying with it was a formation of Irish Air Corps trainer jets.

They looked very small indeed beside the Boeing.

But they were making the point well that this was a special day by virtue of a special visitor.

Very special.

Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland was warmly welcomed by its population in 197

It should be remembered that in 1979 John Paul was still his full vigorous self.

He would not be shot in St. Peter’s Square until May 1981.

The man was truly blazing a trail that September, across the firmament and the heavens.

But right now he was on a flight path.

The passing over the Phoenix Park was deliberate.

It was a tip of the hat to all who had come to this place.

It was also a piece of inspired showbiz.

Where better for a future saint to first appear but up in the sky?

We didn’t see him of course, just the plane.

But we knew we would be seeing and hearing from him soon enough.

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Whole families trekked to Phoneix Park in Dublin to see Pope John Paul II on September 29, 1979

I was there with my entire family.

We had fallen out of bed about five minutes after getting into bed and had, like so many others, walked in the dark to designated bus stops.

Getting a million people to the Phoenix Park was akin to a military operation and, despite the still lingering Irish penchant for self-doubt and criticism, the mission was accomplished and accomplished well.

We were all in separate roped-off corrals.

There was a clear route laid out so that when John Paul II arrived he would be driven in his Popemobile through the throng, and on up to the massive altar to say Mass.

So he drove past our corral, waving and smiling.

Not everybody present was Catholic.

This was a historical Irish moment in the general sense of the term as well as a religious one.

The 1979 Papal visit was not just important to Catholic Ireland

And it was a moment experienced by a million people.

Now, I work in Manhattan and at any given time there are between two and three million people on the roughly thirteen-by-three-mile island.

But this million was standing in a space measurable in square yardage.

So it was a distinct crowd, a specific attendance.

I was just starting out at the time in my chosen field of work.

And standing in a field I began to count.

Not the entire crowd of course because my field of vision was extremely limited.

But I worked on estimating the number in our corral.

I needn’t have bothered.

Aerial photos told the tale; also the number of special papal bus tickets given out was a means of calculating how many turned up.

Yeah, this was a million people, give or take.

And all here for one man.

He’s a saint now, but he was more akin to a religious rock star then.

Either way a crowd puller, a big crowd puller, 37 years and a moment ago today.

* Originally published in 2016. Updated in September 2023.