With the election of a new Pope on the horizon, it seemed a good time for this blog to look briefly at the Papal Cross which sits in the Phoenix Park.
The cross is a permanent memorial to the September 1979 Papal visit to Ireland of John Paul II, the first visit by a Pope to Ireland. That visit saw something in the region of a million people crowd into the Phoenix Park, with six thousand people in the choir alone! The Papal Cross was the work of Scott Tallon Walkers Architects, and cost an incredible £50,000. It was constructed in Inchicore steelworks factory of J and C McGloughlin, and the structure weighed in at 31 tons. It, in many ways, was the main symbol of the event, attracting international media attention and designed to capture the magnitude of the occasion.
Writing about the cross in 2004, architect Ronnie Tallon gave some idea of how quickly the project was completed, noting that:
At the beginning of August 1979, I received a call from the Archbishop of Dublin appointing our practice to design and build an outdoor event for the celebration of Mass for one million people. He has just received confirmation that the Pope was coming to Ireland in eight weeks’ time.
Tallon wrote that “we decided that we required a cross the height of Nelson’s Pillar, which was 125 feet high, which would be clearly visible to all from the furthest reaches of the vast congregation and which would give a sense of focus to the occasion.” Tallon was afterwards awarded a Papal knighthood for his efforts in designing the cross and altar for the historic event.
The difficulties of the project were outlined by Tallon in an interview with The Irish Times before the Papal visit. He told the newspaper that “normally if you were doing a steel contract it would take six weeks to get the material in and another twelve weeks on top of that to have it fabricated and erected.”
The cross arrived at the park on September 7th, and took a rather unusual route, beginning its journey in Inchicore but heading into the city and crossing the O’Connell Bridge. The sheer size of the structure meant that this longer journey was required, as shorter routes would not accommodate the cross. It took two hundred-ton cranes to lift the cross into position.
The sheer scale of the event is clear from all the same details of the day. The Papal carpet alone was two acres in size, and was delivered to Dublin upon three lorries, each carrying thirty rolls. The carpet was made in Antrim, the home county of the Rev. Ian Paisley. Ian Paisley outlined his “total opposition” to any attempt by the Pope to visit the north, and in the end Dundalk was as far north as he went.
Was Tallon ultimately satisfied with his Papal cross? He would tell a journalist that “Well, I’m never happy with anything I’ve made and if I was I’d retire. It’s one of the difficulties of any creative society. You aim at perfection, which is impossible to achieve….”
Kevin Myers condemned the Papal Cross in a 1990 column for The Irish Times, where he asked “Does An Taisce not have an attitude to this defacement of a public place by a cross which is a monument to vulgar triumphalism?” The “ghastly monstrosity”, he believed, had no place over a decade on from the visit. All in all however calls for the removal of the monument have been few and far between, though it has fallen victim to vandalism in its time. When the Pope who had visited Ireland died in 2005, some people flocked to the cross once more, which brought focus and attention to the condition of the monument.
Recently released state papers show that the Catholic Church sought £100,000 from the state for ownership of the cross, claiming it was owed this money from costs incurred by the 1979 visit. Journalist Joe Humphreys wrote last December of how Charles Haughey believed the site of the Papal cross needed to become an attraction in itself, when he wrote to minister of state Sylvie Barrett that “effort should be made to make it attractive, even inspirational. I think we should go for an abundance of trees of all kinds and create a pleasant sylvan setting in which visitors coming to see the cross can relax.”
The Ireland of today is a very different one from the country Pope John Paul II visited, and indeed our society has changed much for the better. Ronnie Tallon’s cross, to me as a young Dubliner, is much like Admiral Nelson must have been to people my age in the 1940s and 50s. To me personally it is almost a relic of a time which has passed, but it can not be denied it is a relic with huge architectural and historical importance.