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For Visits to Holy Shrine : Some Knock It, but Tiny Irish Town Gets Airport

June 08, 1986|ROBERT MACKAY | United Press International

KNOCK, Ireland — In a remote part of western Ireland, among the cows and goats and little else, sits a new airport with a 6,000-foot runway silently awaiting the world's jumbo jets.

It is a bizarre sight: a ghost airport in the middle of peat bogs.

The closest town is Knock, home to 400 families, one pub and a priest who built the airport in the belief that millions of people will want to visit the village's Lourdes-type holy shrine.

"There's been a lot of fun poked at that airport," said Philippe Hamon of British Airports International Ltd., the firm hired to complete it.

Ready for Business

But despite a multitude of jokes, sneers and guffaws, the Connaught Regional Airport is ready for business.

A welcoming sign already decorates the arrival area. County Mayo volunteer firefighters in yellow rain gear practice drills on the barren concrete Tarmac, drawing scant attention from cows ambling along the paved two-lane entrance road.

The control tower and passenger terminal are in place, waiting only for an operating license from the Irish Department of Communications.

The $16-million airport is the brainchild of Roman Catholic Msgr. John Horan, 72, in charge of the shrine where a vision of the Virgin Mary is said to have occurred in 1879.

Pope Visited Shrine

The priest dismisses suggestions that he is senile, money-hungry or just plain crazed for building an airport that can handle Boeing 747s in rural Ireland.

"If you had a desert island, what would be the first thing you would build to bring in people?" Horan asked with a sly grin. "An airport."

Sitting in a lounge chair in a two-story house in Knock, Horan said that when he first arrived in the village in 1963 the parishioners asked him to get an airstrip for pilgrims to visit the shrine. He was unsuccessful but renewed his efforts after Pope John Paul II's visit to the shrine in 1979.

"When I saw the Holy Father here praying at the shrine and 450,000 people here," Horan said, "I thought thousands of people would be following in his footsteps."

Government Financing

The Irish government agreed in 1980 to provide financing to build the first major airport in northwestern Ireland as a way to boost tourism, industry, farming and fishing in an area, where unemployment runs as high as 49%.

But that government fell. The new administration that is still in power declared the unfinished airport a white elephant, Horan said.

It withdrew all funds in 1983, leaving others to come up with the remaining $4.14 million to complete the airport. And others did.

"God sent it," Horan said. "I got subscriptions from banks, from people who had money. I got it through appeals in America, from dances to festivals of all kinds--most of it from people in Ireland."

Should Help Economy

Horan said the airport "will make it easier for pilgrims to come to our shrine, especially individuals who are handicapped." But he insisted that he was equally motivated to build it to improve the economy of western Ireland.

"Bringing in tourists means employment," he said. "We hope to have TransAmerica Corp. bring in charters from America in June, July and August. We also hope to export a lot of fish and meat."

Concessions at the airport were granted to a new company, Celtic Air, when Ireland's national airline, Aer Lingus, refused to take them without a government subsidy. Aer Lingus estimated that it would lose millions of dollars a year without a subsidy.

Only One Airline

Celtic Air is the only airline so far to seek permission to operate at the airport. It wants to provide twice-daily service between Knock and Stanstead, outside London, plus three flights weekly to Manchester and one flight a week to Leeds-Bradford, Glasgow and Birmingham, all in Britain.

Hamon, confident of the airport's success, said that other airlines expressed interest because the airport could provide easy tourist access to the handsome, rugged countryside of northwest Ireland.

"It's very difficult for people to commit themselves until they see the airport open," Hamon said. "We're anticipating 100,000 passengers the first year."

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