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Msgr James Horan: The ‘madman’ with a dream who got Knock airport off the ground

With Aer Lingus offering daily flights to London and Ryanair marking 10 million passengers passing through the airport, Ireland West is on course for its busiest ever year

Even now, deep into its fourth decade, there is something of the apparition about Knock airport. The modest signpost from the N17 near Charlestown; the lonely and often solitary drive on the approach road across Barnacogue is a confirmation that this is definitely not LAX. First-timers, travelling in the twilight, could easily doubt themselves because the airport is not at all visible from the main road. A stark, wonderful wrought-iron statue of Msgr James Horan marks the first official welcome. It’s a striking sculpture and the date below his name is equally eye-catching: 1911-1986. There’s an unforgettable line in the series Mad Men about Ida Blankenship, a secretary who worked in one of the tall buildings on Madison Avenue and dies at her desk, still working. “She was born in 1898 in a barn,” Bert Cooper rhapsodises. “She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.”

Horan, too, was an astronaut in the limitless travels of his mind, born into pre-revolutionary Ireland and having not only the temerity and boldness to imagine a significant airport located on the émigré fields of east Mayo but also the superhuman energy and charm to will it into being. In the history of the State, there are few more vivid examples of such a project. Knock airport was at once a deft manipulation and sustained defiance of the political apparatus. Horan somehow wrangled £9 million from a succession of cash-strapped governments and moved from dream to realisation in just five years. Nothing reflected the local will to complete Horan’s vision like the gesture on the night of his vigil. Horan’s was the first-ever coffin to arrive at Knock airport, following his sudden death while on pilgrimage in Lourdes on August 1st, 1986, a mere two months after the official opening of the landmark that became his life’s work.

“The bottom of the open grave was covered in money – notes and silver – dropped in by parishioners and friends who had come to say a last farewell during a long night’s vigil at the bier of the parish priest,” Michael Finlan wrote on these pages.

“The spontaneous act of throwing money – close to £400 – into the grave, which could not be ascribed to any local tradition, expressed more eloquence than any other gesture possibly could: the stubborn support of the people of Mayo for the man who had shown them they could fashion dreams on their wild mountainy boglands. The money dropped into the grave in the stillness of the night was saying: ‘We’ll finish your airport for you, Monsignor James’.”


Just last month, Knock airport celebrated the 10 millionth Ryanair passenger to pass through the airport. April was marked by the US presidential visit of Joe Biden. A daily Aer Lingus flight to London Heathrow is the latest feather in the cap. Early-season figures indicate that Ireland West Airport is on course for its busiest year ever, with chief executive Joe Gilmore estimating that 850,000 will use the airport this year. The Mayo native has been in Knock since 2009, when he was brought in to restructure an organisation reeling, like many, from the swift onslaught of the recession.

“I would remember the controversy as a young fella,” he said one afternoon, sitting in the airport boardroom and recalling when he first became aware of “talk” of the airport.

“When I think about it now the first time I saw the monsignor was when the pope came to Knock. I was a 15-year-old student in [St] Colman’s and I was volunteered to sell mass booklets. And I spent 24 hours down the town in Claremorris selling the booklets. And would have seen the monsignor on stage with a pope. And the story went that he said the next time the pope came to Knock he would fly in to an airport.”

That was the legend, all right. Horan could be described as a man with a razor-sharp ear gifted in the art of selective hearing. He acted on the various green lights he was given from the carousel of governments who passed through the Dáil in the early 1980s. And he broadly ignored the chorus of economists and prominent political voices who warned that the project was a daft folly. John Healy, the Mayoite and columnist with The Irish Times who consistently banged the drum in support, reported that after the large funeral for Garda John Morley at Knock basilica, Charles Haughey dined with Horan at his home, and it was the costliest lunch he ever had.

By September 1980, then minister of State for transport Pádraig Flynn announced “approval in principle”. Horan paid scant regard to the last two words. He used a subvention from Bord Fáilte and parish funds to commission a survey to establish the most suitable location and then retained expert opinion to inspect all six possible sites, located in a part of Mayo referred to as “the black triangle” in that the industrial drive of the previous decade had made no impact there. After that, he visited local landowners and signed options on 480 acres, for just £200 per acre. Seven of the 16 tenants told him he could have the land for nothing if it would help to get the project up and running. It’s a part of the story that is often overlooked.

“Only for that the airport wouldn’t be there,” says Bart Grimes, a cousin of Horan’s.

“All the farmers he had to negotiate with to get it built. And then the politicians he had to deal with. The people in Knock just adored him. It is as simple as that. All the people in Knock would say that it’s a pity he wasn’t running the country. But he had their faith because he had already got the basilica built. That was a massive undertaking. It was as big as the airport. But there was a reason for that. The history was there. Knock airport didn’t have a history. They were starting from nothing. And when he was doing Knock airport, he was running the basilica at the same time. He was doing everything.”

When they broke ground, a Connacht flag was hoisted on the site. In a peculiar twist, Flynn was injured in a car crash on his way to the ceremony. From his hospital bed, he declared that it was “the most exciting development of the decade for Connacht. It will bring prosperity to the county and to the province in general.”

By early 1981, Frank Harrington, the contractor, began laying the foundation for a 7,500ft runway. The precise length of the runway had never been finalised; there was speculation for years afterwards that Haughey believed he was agreeing to a small, grass strip airfield. Horan, however, wanted an airstrip capable of delivering the American devotees to Knock from jet aircraft. By starting the work at either end, the Monsignor ensured that it couldn’t be curtailed. The wisdom of its completion became one of the more consistent themes of the highly unstable political climate of the following years. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael pledged money during the election campaign of 1981. But later that year, the Coalition, under Garret FitzGerald, announced it was pulling out of the project. Some £4.5 million had been spent. Back in power, Fianna Fáil gave it the green light; the second Coalition suspended funding again after about £9.5 million. Reservations about the wisdom of the project were genuine.

I mean, he was called a madman, an idiot, a clown and everything under the risen sunson. But he was a man who had done things. He got roads straightened out; he got schools built. And when the pope came, he thought it was going to put Knock on the map

—  Terry Reilly, author of A Wing and a Prayer

Through all of this, Horan used his natural communications skills and a shrewd understanding of the media to broadcast his message. One of the most celebrated clips features RTÉ’s Jim Fahy wandering across the works and professing surprise to find Horan at the runway site. “What’s going on here, Father?” he asked.

“We are building an airport but don’t tell them above in Dublin,” came the immortal reply. There was, Fahy told the viewers, “a dark mood of resentment in the west of Ireland” and Horan tapped into that.

“There are people in London and Manchester and Bristol dying to come back here and the only reason they aren’t is that it is too difficult,” Horan told him.

“It would take them two or three days to get here and then they only have a day here. If you look around here, you’ll find we have the worst roads in Ireland. And they have closed the railway between Shannon and Sligo. And they are talking now about closing the railway from Dublin to Westport. If they close that, they might as well build a wall around Connacht and turn it into a bird sanctuary or something like that.”

Terry Reilly, the former editor of the Western People, wrote the definitive book on the airport, A Wing and a Prayer. (It was later turned into a sell-out musical.)

“I mean, he was called a madman, an idiot, a clown and everything under the risen sun. But he was a man who had done things. He got roads straightened out; he got schools built. And when the pope came, he thought it was going to put Knock on the map and he called a meeting. I quote him in the book saying: ‘I’m an old man in a hurry.’ I didn’t know then what that meant. But when you get to his age you very much realise what an old man in a hurry needs to do.

“And he took on all comers. He fought with his board, his Government. He ended up with a big hole in the middle of the runway and was 3½ million short when the Government pulled the plug on funding. He walked down to the barrier looking into the gaping gap in the middle of the tarmac. And he said – and these were the words he used: ‘The shaggers. I’ll make sure it is finished.’ And he was very hostile to the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition then. And he set out to raise the money and it started flowing because people believed in him. He had tea chests full of money after the weekends. He could keep it moving. Frank Harrington was owed an awful lot of money at one stage. When Horan died there was still a debt on it and Msgr Grealy raised the remainder.”

As a person, Horan defied easy categorisation. On the archive footage, he is relaxed and clear-spoken and has a twinkle in his eye. Reilly spent hours in his company.

“I knew him, and I knew his antics and his determination. I cannot say I knew him inside out, but I interviewed so many people when I was doing the book and got so many people from all sides – the contractor, Garret FitzGerald and Albert Reynolds – so I had very rounded opinion of him. And that was: a fantastic guy who probably wouldn’t get his way now like he got it then. But then, he made his own way. He was absolutely determined to pull this off.”

Although the official opening did not take place until May 1986, the first flights from the airport took off a year earlier. On that ceremonial day, an unholy rain descended upon the county. A vast crowd turned up. The dignitaries took refuge under umbrellas during the speeches.

“The people of Ireland have taken this enterprise to their hearts in a way that does not often happen,” Haughey told them.

“They have done so because it represents a victory for local effort over central bureaucracy, a triumph of personal achievement against all odds.” Horan called it “the greatest day of his life” but the portents were not good.

“The first three commercial flights will operate from Knock airport today but a confidential Government report forecasts that it has no prospect of viability and that air services may be frequently disrupted by low cloud and poor visibility,” reported Jack Fagan on the front page of The Irish Times. There were immediate difficulties that had a comic dimension.

“Of three British Air Ferries flights carrying Mayo exiles home from England for the celebration, only the one from Manchester succeeded in landing at Knock; the others were diverted to Shannon,” Fagan continued.

“No flights by large aircraft could take off at all because of the low-lying cloud cap and the Mayo football team and supporters, bound for London, had to be driven by car to Shannon to catch an outbound flight.”

But three years after its opening, John Healy gleefully took aim at the airport’s naysayers in his Sounding Off column under a headline reading “The embarrassed silence of Knock’s critics”. By then, Ryanair had come in and announced that it expected to transport 130,000 customers to and from Knock for the year ending January 1989. The financial tightrope was negotiated by Cathal Duffy, a local businessman who had worked with Horan from the beginning who also began to pioneer routes to Spain and Germany. But the big advance would not occur until the 2000s.

“I used the airport in probably the early 1990s, mainly for to connectivity to Dublin,” remembers Gilmore. “There were limited flights from the airport until the early 2000s. It was limited by lack of instrument landing systems and impacted severely by low cloud. You could have days like that, really until 2005, when the instrument landing systems were upgraded to [instrument landing system] ILS category 2 which permitted low-visibility landings.

“It hindered the growth of the airport because it is an elevated airport on a hillside and, without the modern technology, it was a severe deterrent for airlines to come in. From 2005 is when the growth period started. And it coincided with the advent of low-cost travel. And this airport suited as a low-cost, efficient airport with a high degree of leisure travellers and a massive diaspora in the UK.”

In 2011, the then Government carried out a review of regional airports and the airport lost its public service obligation (PSO) connectivity to Dublin. As did Sligo and Galway.

“A rationalisation was taking place. There were probably too many airports. We had to work our way through that. We had to put a strategy in place to grow the airport. And explain to the powers-that-be that any investment would be returned to the region in multiples. Airports of our scale cannot wash their own faces from a total running-cost perspective. We can cover operational costs for the most part. But from a capital investment perspective, for instance we received €5 million of funding this week but that will go into safety and air traffic control. It is invisible spend but it maintains the structure of the airport.”

In some ways, Horan’s methods of persuasion have never ended. The true worth of Ireland West Airport, Gilmore argues, lies in its strategic importance in revitalising the west and northwest. He quotes the numbers: the airport employs close to 200 people, with almost 100 more working in on-site businesses. In 2019, the region benefited from a €200 million annual spend from visitors who came to the area through the airport.

“If you have the right infrastructure in place, you will repopulate regions. We are trying to encourage our Government that they should invest more. From here up to Donegal and into the midlands, we are underpopulated and ripe for development.”

There are echoes here of what Horan said. What he offered was an unreasonable faith in his locality. When he was researching his book, Terry Reilly picked up the phone and called the Ryanair number. “It was when you could still call Ryanair,” he laughs. He asked to speak to Michael O’Leary. “‘Speaking!” came the reply. He told O’Leary he hoped to speak to him sometime about the monsignor. ‘Shoot! We will do it now.’ And he was full of praise for Horan. He said he should be running the health service. But Horan was so fed up with the denial that the west was receiving from Government. Roads were promised that never happened. And he had this vision of people flying in directly from America. That part never materialised, of course. But I suppose it was the sting of neglect. People said he’d never get the basilica built, either. And he had it paid for before it opened.”

In 2016, Midwest Radio hosted a 2½-hour extravaganza to mark the 30th anniversary of Knock airport. Some of those who had pioneered the airport had passed on. But the vividity of that period and of Horan’s persona formed a powerful part of the evening. At one stage, Pádraig Flynn – “Mr Castlebar”, as Tommy Marren introduced him – appeared on stage to regale the crowd with tales from the airport’s origin days. At one point, he remembered his final meeting with Horan. Aptly, it was at the airport, just before the monsignor was about to board what proved to be his final flight, to Lourdes. The pair of them headed off to a corner of the departures lounge when the final call was made. Flynn remembered they were so engrossed in conversation that they ignored the calls on the loudspeaker requesting the monsignor to board the flight.

“It was said a second time,” Flynn told the audience in a hushed voice.

“And in the end, an official came over and said, ‘Monsignor, you really must come now.’ And I turned and said to him – I’ll never forget it – ‘Monsignor, take your time. He’ll call you soon enough.’ Those were the last words I ever said to Msgr James.”