Four days when the Irish people were cut off from the world – by the media

Written by Jim Walsh - April 2019

It might sound like a coup but during four days in 1979 no one in Ireland, other than journalists could make an international phone call. It happened during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland. Communication was remarkably different then. For example the fax machine, which has all but disappeared now, wasn’t even available in 1979. So when Pope Francis visits Ireland in 2018 he will find a very different country and a very different way of communicating his message.

Ensuring that the 3,000 media covering the Pope’s visit in 1979 had the best support and facilities possible turned out to be a golden moment in public relations in Ireland and brought an avalanche of praise from journalists all over the world. The chief news editor of Reuters wrote “First class press arrangements…. for once the media were given every facility to transmit the Pope’s message to the world quickly and accurately.”

One reason for that was the closure of international telephone lines to all except accredited journalists. In the book “From John Paul to Saint Jack’ edited by Francis Xavier Carty the opening chapter by Niamh Lyons explains.

“The Department of Posts and Telegraphs (now known as An Post) rose to the occasion, without any fuss and provided an extensive telephone network. They provided 1,000 telephone, 300 telex machines, 20 telecopiers and 100 wire photo machines for the press centres. They also switched all international lines to the press centres, resulting in Dublin phone numbers operating everywhere, as at the time there was no international direct dial anywhere else in the country. It also meant that nobody else could dial abroad while the Pope was in Ireland because all the lines were being used  (by the journalists).

Back in 1979 the Irish Catholic Church did not have the resources to handle the large-scale influx of journalists for the visit of the Pope. The visit which took place at the end of September was only announced on 21st July, just 9 weeks notice.

Immediately realising the lack of resources available to the Catholic Hierarchy the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) offered the services of almost 100 Institute members.

I was a relatively new member of the PRII at the time but was asked to join the media relations team at Dublin Castle. There were 26 of us on duty there in three teams on continuous rolling 8-hour shifts from Thursday 27 September until Tuesday 2nd October.

In all PRII members manned 8 press offices around the country at venues where the Pope was due to speak. There was also a Mobile Reserve Centre ready to move if there was a change in the Pope’s schedule.

One of the major achievements of the operation was the Irish ability to persuade the Vatican to release the Pope’s speeches early.   During a previous visit to Poland the scripts of the Pope’s speeches were not available to the media until about 6 hours after they were made.  Charm and persistence ensured that in Ireland each script was circulated to the media half an hour before the Pope spoke.

Charm and persistence were also required to prevent what was described as a ‘near riot’ by journalists who were due to meet the Pope at a private audience. The audience was to be held at 9.15pm in the assembly hall of the Dominican Convent School, close to where the Pope was to spend the night.

We travelled by bus with the journalists from Dublin Castle but when we arrived journalists from other venues were also there. In total there were around 1,000 journalists crowded into a hall that would normally accommodate a few hundred people, and the Pope was over two hours late.

The nuns attempting to provide refreshments for the hungry journalists ran out of tea and sandwiches and the mood was turning if not ugly, then certainly intimidating. By the time the Pope did appear most of the journalists were sitting or lying on the floor. But as the Pope appeared on the balcony just above our heads there was a remarkable change of mood.  The journalists rose as one to greet him with a spontaneous round of applause.

We learned later that the Pope was about to cancel the meeting due to tiredness but for the intervention of the PRII liaison Michael Dennehy.  Michael told the Pope’s minders that he feared a riot if the Pope did not appear.

The evening was further saved by the order transmitted back to media refreshment centre in Dublin Castle by Michael Dennehy,  “I want 700 pints of Guinness, 300 pints of Smithwicks and 100 pints of Carlsberg and 700 sandwiches. Start pulling now, the buses are on their way.”

While communications will be a lot different in 2018 when Pope Francis makes his visit I am sure that the Irish hospitality and insistence on doing the right thing by the media will be every bit as good as it was in 1979.

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