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The iconic image of Pope John Paul II leaving Ireland, at Shannon Airpot. Photograph by Padraig O'Reilly

Fly Shannon, St John Paul II did

ON Saturday last,  Bishop Kieran O’Reilly launched the St John Paul car sticker, which features a picture of the man who will be canonised this Sunday, taken when he visited Shannon in 1979.
The car sticker features the last recorded photo of the pope on Irish soil, just before he flew to the United States. The stickers encourage people to use the airport when flying and they are available locally, free of charge.
The picture on the car stickers was taken by photographer Padraig O’Reilly, who lives in Fergus Drive. Almost 35 years afterwards, he still remembers the image as one that was very hard to get and it caused him a great deal of stress.
It was actually his first day working as a freelance photographer, after leaving his job with Shannon Development. The Clare Champion had commissioned him to cover the Pope at the airport, where he was to get a picture of his Holiness meeting President of Ireland, Paddy Hillery.
“What he (then Clare Champion editor, the late Frank O’Dea) wanted was that behind the stand (where the pope was speaking from) there would be a red carpet about halfway out to the aeroplane. The protocol was that everyone would say goodbye to the pope at the stand and himself and Paddy Hillery would walk out along the carpet and there was another carpet across it at a sort of T junction. The president would shake his hand and bid him farewell to Ireland there. Paddy Hillery was a Clare man and you can imagine that, from The Clare Champion’s point of view, this was the iconic picture.”
However, some zealous security scuppered that hope and he had to scramble to get something which would compensate. “The special branch wouldn’t let us out of the corral because the security for the pope is incredibly tight. The pope had reached the steps of the aircraft before they let us out and I’m maybe 150 yards away. I ran as fast I could but only got within 70 or 80 yards of the plane and the pope was on the end of the steps. I have a very long lens but it’s very difficult to hold in your hand, it’s like a pair of binoculars. The pope was walking up the steps with his back to me, it’s my first job and the picture I need, I don’t have it. I couldn’t hold the camera steady enough to get the exposure fixed, he walked up, turned around for five seconds, put his two hands out to say goodbye and walked into the plane. I was colour-processing and I had to wait 45 minutes. I probably said more prayers then than the pope said in Ireland! I sweated bricks. In my 35 years, it was the most stressful job that I ever did.” Luckily the picture was okay, and his freelance career was off to a good start.
It is one of the highlights of his time in photography. “It’s probably the only picture of a certified saint that I’ve ever taken. I’ve photographed a lot of sinners!”
Father Tom Ryan said producing the stickers is a good way to mark Pope John Paul II’s canonisation, while also supporting the airport. “When the airport is booming, we, the people in the parish, are booming and when the airport is in decline, we’re in decline as well. It’s in all our interests to support the airport and this is a very practical and pastoral way that we can do that and also acknowledge St John Paul, the only saint in history who set foot amongst us, he was at the airport. If it’s good enough for a saint, it’s good enough for the rest of us!” he observed.
There has been a good deal of interest in the stickers, he added. “Ten-thousand stickers were made available initially and 5,000 of them were taken up last weekend at the Easter celebrations. The Polish community have a great interest in them as well and they have been looking for them and there have been other requests from around the country.”
Pope John Paul II flew out of Shannon on October 1, 1979. During his visit, he blessed the Foundation Stone for Ss John and Paul Church, which opened the following year. As he left the country, he presented every Irish bishop with a sapling for their diocese. The one presented to Bishop Michael Harty was planted in Shannon and is known locally as the Pope’s Tree.
In 2005, Bishop Willie Walsh blessed and dedicated the Pope John Paul II Jubilee Gardens on the grounds of Ss John and Paul. It consists of five stations, featuring the Mysteries of Light instituted by the former Pope.

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