by Jack O'Sullivan THE West of Ireland mourned the loss of a hero this week. Thousands paid their last respects to Mgr James Horan, a man who epitomised the warmth, determination, pride and canniness of the Connacht people.
The remains of the 75-year old priest, who will be remembered for putting the Marian shrine of Knock on the world map, were flown from Lourdes, where he died peacefully in his sleep on Friday. The plane touched down at his beloved Knock airport, met by a crowd whose silence was broken only by a piper and prayers.
On the next day, Tuesday, after an all-night vigil in Knock Basilica, Irish church leaders, politicians and a multitude of bereft friends, attended the Requiem Mass. Mgr Horan was buried in the graveyard beside the Basilica, surrounded by all the developments he presided over at the shrine.
Prophetically, James Horan was born the son of a builder into a family of six children in the tiny Mayo village of Tooreen, near Partry. Parents and teachers pushed him hard and he emerged from Maynooth with a first in Celtic Studies. Last June he celebrated 50 years as a priest.
His first four years were the only ones he spent away from Connacht in Scotland, where he was much-loved. Leaving as the second World War broke out he headed briefly for America. The ship he was to have taken was torpedoed on its return trip. By chance he was not on board. Fr Horan buried the dead washed up on the Mayo shore.
Throughout the next 20 years in parishes around the Mayo countryside he combined practical priesthood—from running dance halls to planting forests—with prayerful ministry. He was fond of saying: "There are seven corporal works of mercy as well as seven spiritual ones and I hope I didn't miss any of them."
But it was aeroplanes which fascinated him. Ironically he was scared of flying. Rather than look out of the window when in the air, he would study his Breviary and say the Rosary.
From his arrival at Knock in 1963 he dreamed of an airport. It would open up the West, cutoff by bad roads and closed railway lines.
With a healthy contempt for Dublin and all its works, the Monsignor outwitted the politicians and sparked the public imagination. His style was always personal.
The turning point for Knock was the Papal visit in 1979. As 450,000 people flocked to the shrine, the word came that the airport would be built.
In 1983, when the Government abandoned the project, having pumped £10 million into it, the Monsignor raised the remaining funds himself. The airport was finally opened last May. Mgr Horan beamed.