The Pope, the Park and the City: Dublin, 1979

Gary Boyd, Brian Ward

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


A green mound surmounted by a cross is the only remnant in Dublin’s Phoenix Park of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. The 29th September saw over a million people – more than the entire population of the city – gathered to celebrate the first papal mass on the island. It was a demonstration of religiosity at a scale never witnessed in Ireland since. The congregation, serried in corrals, was ‘like a small America city, on a grid with major and minor routes, forty and thirty feet wide’ (Tallon, 1979). Other measurements calibrated time as well as space. The pope-mobile, with a top speed of five miles per hour, took precisely forty-seven minutes to weave an exit through 3.925 miles of exuberant crowds.

The Papal Mass in 1979 was the last of a triad of Catholic festivals in the Phoenix Park. It followed the centenary of Catholic Emancipation (1929) and the Eucharistic Congress (1932), both of which saw temporary structures erected and vast numbers assembling on the same site. These earlier events included congregational processions through Dublin, designed to Catholicise a eighteenth-century city built largely by the Protestant Anglo-Irish. In contrast, the 1979 events were confined to the park and consequently the city and its suburbs were virtually empty, a city peopled only by ‘agnostic poets’ (Kiberd in Courtney, 2012).

This paper explores the socio-spatial complexities and connectivities of the two cities created that day: ‘the visit’ with its temporary and post-modernist use of modernist architectures in an assemblage of rarefied meanings and the vacated city created equally temporarily outside the spectacle. The first is recorded in an architecture of spectacle, ordered movement and paraphernalia. The second, subsequently expressed in literature, is the space of sometime violent disorder and dissent, occupied by religious and sexual minorities, and acted out within existing, nondescript urban fabric. Both spaces are fictive. But read together they seem to define a past and future for the island, situating the architectures of the papal visit as the fulcrum of a nation whose secularisation, like its previous religiosity, is at once contradictory and incomplete.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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