A bit of turbulence: How one priest attempted to revive Knock by building it an airport

Knock was a shanty town in the west of Ireland that had but a single blessing: in 1879, 15 people saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary . One visit from the Pope a century later, and a local priest was graced with a vision of how to transform this tiny backwater. Four decades on, is his dream still alive?

The 1980s news report is one of the classics of Irish television. Veteran reporter Jim Fahy was understandably bemused, having just chanced on a Catholic priest surrounded by workmen and bulldozers on a west of Ireland hilltop, miles from anywhere.

When the incredulous Fahy asked, "Monsignor Horan, what on earth are you doing?" the priest replied light-heartedly: "We're building an airport – now don't tell anybody. We've no money but we're hoping to get it next week or the week after."

But, Fahy followed up, did he have planning permission? "I'm not sure whether I have permission or not," came the priest's tongue-in-cheek reply, "but I'm going ahead anyway, just taking a chance."

It was the start of an Irish saga featuring a remarkable character with some extraordinary ideas. Not all he dreamt of came to pass, but what he achieved was scarcely believable: he turned an improbable notion into a reality.

That remote muddy building site is today a functioning facility, Ireland West Airport, handling flights to and from London, Manchester, Barcelona, the Canaries and elsewhere. Although many said the priest was crazy, he turned out to be crazy like a fox. Appreciative locals have just unveiled a 9ft statue of him outside the airport in memory of the success of a dream pursued despite apparently insuperable odds.

In effect, it was a dual dream, fusing the secular and the spiritual by reducing the geographical and economic isolation of County Mayo at the same time as promoting a religious revival and the development of a nearby shrine.

That part of Mayo still has its problems, especially with the recession that has hit Ireland so hard, but the airport is still in operation, while more than a million-and-a-half pilgrims a year make the trek to the shrine Monsignor Horan helped build up.

So how did he create so much out of so little? "He was that kind of once-in-a-generation figure who comes out of nowhere," says Fahy now. "He was a local hero, no question. There's still Horan adulation."

Terry Reilly, whose book on the priest has the delightfully apt title of On a Wing and a Prayer, adds that, "He was probably the biggest Mayo man ever in terms of looking after his people, not only their spiritual needs but also their day-to-day social needs. He was a man of big gestures, and he could match that with ferocious commitment to see the job done. His life had everything: concern for people, enterprise, colour, humour, pathos, immense energy, unique vision, victory over adversity, and much more."

Father Michael O'Carrell, a priest who knew Horan well, once revealed a more personal angle: "There was a carefree side to him. He had neither time nor inclination to play the saint, to look like a Holy Joe. His language was spiced with wit which could be acerbic; he had a roguish side, too."

Monsignor Horan was known for his energy and initiative when he served in other parishes in Scotland and Ireland. In one parish in need of funds, he could see that on Saturday nights Irish teenagers would flock to dances in what were called the ballrooms of romance. So the clerical entrepreneur built his own ballroom of romance and made money by booking well-known bands and acts from all over Ireland and Britain. He is remembered as sitting at the till himself, collecting the entrance money.

He really got into his stride in 1967 when he became parish priest of Knock, a small village which has a particular place in Irish Catholicism as a place of pilgrimage. It was there in 1879 that 15 locals reported seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

Monsignor James Horan at his home in Knock in 1979

Margaret Byrne, 21, described the sight in a statement: "The Virgin appeared with hands uplifted as if in prayer, with eyes turned towards heaven, wearing a lustrous crown. I saw an altar surrounded with a bright light, nay, with a light at times sparkling." Dominick Byrne, 36, testified: "We saw the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, having her hands uplifted, and her eyes turned up towards heaven, as if in prayer. To her right I saw St Joseph, and on her left St John."

The Church set up a commission to investigate the apparition and, after hearing the accounts of all 15 witnesses, an archbishop declared their testimonies "trustworthy and satisfactory". When a shrine was set up, the faithful flocked to it. Within a year, more than 600 cures were reported. An old photograph in the shrine's museum shows an array of crutches discarded by people who said they had been healed there. Over the decades it came to be visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

When Horan took over in Knock almost 90 years later, it was, in the words of one local, "a bit of a shanty town". According to Fahy, "It was an absolute mess, awful – stallholders peddling cheap religious wares, incredibly garish and gaudy." A traveller from Belfast concurred, speaking of "muddy pavements and stalls that sold the most horrendously bad tat".

Setting to work, the priest got the whole place tidied up, with stalls replaced by proper shops. Then he turned to the shrine itself, improving it in small ways before his trademark ambition asserted itself: he plunged into building a vast basilica covering a full acre of ground and holding upwards of 10,000 people.

"A lot of clergy were aghast – it frightened the daylights out of them because it cost millions," recalls Terry Reilly. "It was the mid-1970s and money was very scarce, but here was a guy who was going to build an enormous basilica to provide shelter for the invalids, who had no shelter before that. But he campaigned hard, and raised the money."

In 1979, three years after the basilica was completed and exa ctly 100 years after the apparition was reported, the venture received the ultimate Catholic seal of approval: at Horan's invitation, Pope John Paul II visited the shrine, saying it was what had brought him from Rome: "Here I am at the goal of my journey to Ireland," he told almost half-a-million people.

Many Catholics are, of course, highly sceptical about the apparition, but the personal endorsement of the Pope impressed many. The huge crowds, meanwhile, set Horan thinking and spurred him on to even greater heights: surely, he reasoned, many thousands would come to Knock to see a shrine which had been personally blessed by the Pope.

To get to the remote west, however, they would need an airport. And since the government was never going to cough up all the funds for it, he decided to do it himself.

An airport, he figured, could bring in thousands of pilgrims who would not only receive a spiritual uplift, but would also spend money. It could open up that part of the west of Ireland, hopefully bringing new trade and even new industries to an economic blackspot suffering from the twin scourges of unemployment and emigration. Mayo people make up a large part of the Irish diaspora who travelled all over the world because there was no work for them at home.

Visitors sample holy water on tap at Knock

Horan once described the 1879 apparition as: "A symbol of hope, consolation and strength in a region where unemployment, evictions and emigration were the order of the day." A century on, he figured, an airport might kick-start the local economy.

At a lunch following a funeral, Horan buttonholed Charles Haughey, then Taoiseach (the head of government), and made the case for an airport. Haughey, who scented votes in the project, said, in essence, "Sure."

This was by no means a meaningful commitment, since Haughey, it was said, dispensed promises "like snuff at a wake". In any case, as a local councillor said, the Taoiseach "thought it was a grass strip he was promising".

But Horan took him at his word, found some land, recruited local contractors, got the earthmovers in and the enterprise was launched. He went full speed ahead and got local labour to start work on the airport well before the money – or the planning permission – was in place.

This presented to the world an image of the west as a region which was not sleepy and backward but energetic and determined. It also made it difficult for Haughey to rein the project in. A friend of Haughey's remarked that it was the costliest lunch he ever had.

It was mocked in Dublin, where the eastern establishment dismissed the idea as ridiculous. "The economic situation was so dire at that stage that it wasn't popular to be pouring money into a dark bog hole in the west of Ireland, as Dublin would have seen it," says Reilly.

Some money was made available, but when Haughey's government fell, the idea looked doomed. One minister famously derided it as, "an ill-advised project, far distant from any sizeable town, high on a foggy, boggy hill".

Horan himself recalled: "The media made a skit of it – called it lunacy." Undeterred by opposition, he proclaimed: "We will complete the project with the help of the ordinary people of Ireland." And he did.

He staged fundraisers and prize draws and sang in halls round the country. He waged a media campaign which paid off. "We got one contribution of 10 grand," he said at the time, "but most money poured in from ordinary people. We got hundreds of letters every morning; it was fantastic."

Contractors proudly boasted that it was one of the fastest airport constructions outside of wartime, saying they had managed to shift "a million cubic metres of muck, and the job was done completely by local people using local labour and local materials".

Then there was Horan's political lobbying. Although he liked to describe himself as a simple country priest, he proved an adroit manipulator during the particularly volatile Irish politics of the early 1980s, which saw four governments within three years.

"He played ducks and drakes with every politician," according to Fahy. Another local said proudly that, "He worked the political system to the nth degree to get concessions out of Charlie Haughey and people like that."

Pope John Paul II visits Knock in 1979

A recording survives of Horan crooning one of his campaign songs with the words: "I'm dreaming of a great airport/ With all the politicians that I know/ May the Taoiseach be happy and bright/ And may all the politicians do right."

And, amazingly, it worked. In 1986, the project was completed after Dublin coughed up some more money, Haughey being keenly aware that all politics is local, and that where there was muck, there were likely to be votes.

The airport was not a grass strip, as Haughey had once assumed, but a proper international airport with an 8,000ft runway capable of handling jumbo jets. Well over 10,000 local people turned out to cheer the first plane. Asked in his moment of triumph what he thought of those who had opposed his scheme, Horan smiled broadly and, with a remarkable show of goodwill, declared: "May God bless them too."

Yet within a few months he was dead. There was huge shock when, on his own pilgrimage to Lourdes on one of the first flights from his airport, he died suddenly. He was 75.

His remains were the first to be flown into the airport, large crowds weeping as he was brought home. "The emotional reaction that day was absolutely massive," a local man recalled. "People lined up and tossed coins into the grave."

Knock airport, now renamed Ireland West Airport, is still very much a going concern, offering flights to more than 25 scheduled and charter destinations. Its managers say 2012 was its busiest year ever.

Today, the arrivals hall features a large banner paying tribute to the monsignor. A little display case reverentially displays his breviary, rosary beads, reading glasses and trademark fur hat, while outside the terminal stands his statue, arms outstretched.

The shrine at Knock, too, is as popular as ever. The complex around it is trim and tidy, dominated by the basilica Horan built and a large cross commemorating the papal visit he helped engineer. There are five masses daily, six on Sundays between April and October, with special services twice a day for the sick. And although confessions are falling all over Ireland, they remain in demand at Knock, which has 60 confession boxes. "We did a survey and it staggered us," says Father Richard Gibbons, Horan's successor at Knock. "We have roughly 5,000 people a week going to confession. People tend to leave it till they come to Knock, where they get into a frame of mind where confession is more conducive to them."

The Horan basilica is impressive but, as Gibbons put it, "It's tired and jaded now – it's done fantastic work but it needs to be revamped. It will be a big project." And, he adds, with as much cheer as he can muster, due to Ireland's deep recession, "I don't have a penny." The shrine still gets visitors, but nowadays they can't afford to donate as much as they used to.

Asked what proportion of his visitors come via the airport, Gibbons readily admits that it is small: "The airport was built specifically to bring in pilgrims, but it's catering to the needs of people who wish to go abroad."

Indeed, roughly three-quarters of the shrine's visitors now come from Ireland itself, arriving by coach and car, while the airport is used largely by Irish people flying out to the Canaries, and by incoming holiday visitors, often on short weekend breaks. By a cruel irony which would have sorely vexed Horan, a sizeable part of the airport's business actually comes from the emigration which the priest sought to vanquish, but which in recent years has actually increased – and many of the cars in the car parks belong to a new class of commuting emigrants.

"Emigration is very much a pattern again – the same pattern as 1986, when Monsignor Horan opened the airport," explains Reilly. "But the airport is a boon for people who are working in the UK, because they can fly in on a Friday evening and fly back on a Sunday."

Yet, while the new wave of emigration is unfortunate, and the airport has not paved the way for all the jobs Horan dreamed of, the tourist authorities regard it as, "pretty vital for that part of the country".

Horan's most ambitious dreams, then, might not have been realised, but the shrine and airport are both crucial to the area. They, like the Horan statue, remain as monuments to a figure who was widely mocked as preposterously quixotic, yet who managed to make a valuable contribution. Although he couldn't work miracles, he showed that one man can make a difference.