Airport Opens on Remote Irish Hillside as Priest’s Dream
KNOCK, Ireland (AP) _ About 10,000 well-wishers came to a misty and remote hilltop Friday for the opening of an airport that is a dream come true for a priest hoping to attract legions of pilgrims to a local shrine.
But critics say the airport, which is in an isolated area plagued by a poor economy and continual bad weather, is doomed to failure.
Monsignor James Horan, who was inspired to build an international airport by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Knock six years ago, said: ″It’s a great day for Knock ... and for Ireland.″
″I find it very hard to believe that it has happened,″ said the priest who single-handedly raised more than $2 million to help finance construction of the airport, 115 miles west of Dublin.
One group of his supporters carried a banner reading: ″God bless our airport: Monsignor Horan gets his wings at last.″
The current Irish government has refused to give financial support to the $13.9-million project.
Communications Minister Jim Mitchell had dismissed Connaught Regional Airport as ″an ill-advised project, far distant from any sizeable town, high on a foggy and boggy hill.″
The airport is situated 10 miles from Ireland’s most celebrated religious site, the Marian shrine to the Virgin Mary, visited by the pope in 1979.
The 7,700-foot runway is built on bogland 600 feet up on a plateau.
Extra police, aided by civil defense volunteers, were on hand to control the cheering crowds. Local schoolchildren were given time off to join in the festivities.
Horan was close to tears when the first jet, carrying journalists from Dublin, landed after heavy early-morning mist cleared.
The airport’s first 404 paying passengers, including a Roman Catholic archbishop and two bishops, then took off on three specially chartered aircraft taking them on a pilgrimage to Rome and the Vatican.
Horan was on the second flight.
The Irish government granted the airport a special license for Friday’s flights to Rome and for the return flights on Nov. 1. The government could stop the airport by not issuing a permanent license if safety regulations are nt met.
The airport’s critics say the facility could become Ireland’s biggest white elephant when it starts operating full time at the start of the pilgrimage season next spring.
Horan, 72, hopes the airport will bring hundreds of thousands more pilgrims to the shrine, encouraging trade in the depressed area. About 500,000 people now visit the shrine each year.
He expects 267,000 passengers to use the airport in its first year of operation, even though Ireland, with a population of 3.5 million, already has three other international airports.
The priest got the idea for an airport six years ago when the pope visited Knock, scene of a saintly apparition 100 years ago.
He was further encouraged by a newly established Irish airline, Ryan Air, which said it would seek a license to operate a regular service from Knock to London’s Gatwick Airport.
Horan won backing for his plans in 1980 from the government, which was then led by the Fianna Fail Party.
But a series of changes of government made the airport’s future uncertain. The current administration cut off further financial assistance two years ago, after $11.6 million of public money had been spent.
Horan raised public donations of more than $2.3 million to complete the project.