“AND they said it couldn’t be done” reads the slogan under the silhouette of Monsignor James Horan, high on a wall in Knock Airport’s lobby. The image is based on that famous photograph of the Mayo priest, arms outstretched, at the official opening of the airport back in 1986.

Scenes from that official opening and the airport’s extraordinary background are documented in RTÉ’s excellent documentary On a Wing and a Prayer, presented by the late Jim Fahy. Someone who walked the proposed site with Horan was the late Claremorris architect Seán Balfe.

Together, the pair canvassed local farmers about selling land on a “foggy, boggy hill”, as it was infamously described by one critic, to build what some regarded as Knock’s second miracle.

Another photograph of the Knock parish priest takes pride of place in the boardroom of what is now a non-State-owned community-owned airport. “Monsignor Horan was my grand-uncle,” reveals Tomás Grimes, who is the airport’s Infrastructure Manager.

“I don’t really recall him as a kid, I was too young but I remember his funeral and being here when the airport opened first. Being family, we got the VIP treatment and were up on the roof for the official opening.

“Obviously we were very proud of that [connection] down through the years and when I started working here, no-one knew. I didn’t come in here announcing I was a grand-nephew of Monsignor Horan and it took people a good few weeks to piece the jigsaw together of ‘that guy is related.’”

No better country for solving jigsaw puzzles. “Sure, isn’t that what the Irish do! ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Do you know such and such a one? I went to school or college or worked with them’. I think the airport here epitomises that connection.”

Knock’s relaxed atmosphere is renowned amongst its passengers, some passing - speedily - through its security screening area. “The majority of the staff are pretty local. There’s families and extended family working here and we still have a number of staff that have been here since 1986.

“We’re well renowned for having fantastic staff here in the airport and there’s always a big welcome here, whether you’re travelling out or coming back in. We’re very proud of that reputation and the staff here.”

Next stop is the Duty Free zone, which prides itself on promoting locally produced goods. “Supporting Local Artisan Food Producers” reads the labelling on shelves and fridge units, stocking everything from O’Hara of Foxford fruit cakes to the “Full Irish breakfast” ingredients supplied by award-winning butchers Kellys of Newport, another to benefit from the Westport to Achill Greenway.

Full circle

Waiting in the Departures area are passengers for Ryanair’s flight to London Gatwick. “There’s a huge Irish diaspora, particularly across the UK. Our biggest part of the business here is our UK routes, whether it be Manchester, London, Bristol, Liverpool or East Midlands.”

As he points out, airlines, not airports, determine routes. “We’re an airport, we service the airlines, we don’t decide what routes they do. We had transatlantic routes here back a number of years ago that were quite successful and it would be lovely to see them again in the future. But where we are at the moment is our core business is the UK and continental Europe, with routes right across the Mediterranean, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Cologne in Germany.”

The convenience of flying through Knock is a big selling point. “You’ll even see the different posts on social media; passengers will park in the carpark outside the airport, they can travel through with minimal hassle, relax in the Departures lounge and get on their flight and get going. It’s one of the things we’re known for in the business. There’s a community feel about the place, it all adds to the atmosphere.”

Compared to previous generations, emigration is not the life sentence it once was. Ryanair, born just after Knock’s own arrival, in 1986, has revolutionised air travel by making visits home accessible and affordable.

“Absolutely, that’s what it’s about. My sister is in London since 1995, she’s married and I’ve two nieces. They live between Stansted and Luton so can go from either of them very handily and my mother can go over at the drop of a hat to visit. That’s the beauty of it.

“It has kind of come full circle. The construction business is big, we do still have a lot of people in the west of Ireland, particularly from west Mayo and the Erris peninsula, they’ve worked all of their lives in the UK but they still technically live at home. They’ll go and work their couple of weeks in the UK, then come home to their family at the weekend but that’s by choice nowadays, as opposed to when this airport was first envisaged back in the ‘80s.

“It was forced emigration then, people had no choice but thankfully Ireland has developed fantastically well over the past 30, 40 years and you can see the results.”

Another of Monsignor Horan’s hopes was to bring industry to the west and since the closure of Galway airport in 2011, Knock is another alternative gateway. “We’re at the crossroads of Connacht here, you have Sligo and Ballina to the north of us, Westport and Castlebar to the west, Galway to the south. All of those towns and urban centres, they have a lot of foreign investment so you do see a lot of business travel,” Tomás explained. “We would see their executives coming in here for AGMs and meetings, it’s only a short spin down the road to their site.”

Heart-wrenching stuff

By now, we’re reached the air traffic control tower with its panoramic views over surrounding counties. A private jet zooms past on the runway and soars skywards towards Croagh Patrick, visible in the distance, on its way to Boston.

“We’re lucky enough to have a reasonable level of private business. We’re here in the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way, we’re the airport of the west of Ireland. Ashford Castle is a popular choice for people for that market.”

The Cong hotel is where US President Ronald Reagan stayed during his official visit and Knock was also where current president Joe Biden touched down in Air Force Two during his vice-presidential visit back in 2016. Pope Francis, en-route to Knock Shrine four years ago, is another VIP arrival.

With the runway cleared, Tomás drives us along what once doubled as the ‘driving school’ for Seán Balfe’s children, including his son, the New South Wales farrier James.

“Cleared for takeoff”: Darren Dunleavy, Gareth McDonagh and Andrea Nixon oversee the departure of a Boston-bound jet \ Susan Finnerty

The same runway also accommodated one of Air France’s former A380 fleet, one of just 272 such aircraft manufactured by Airbus before production of the world’s largest passenger plane ended. It landed in Knock in February 2020 to be scrapped at the nearby EirTrade facility. That was just before Covid-19 struck. What was it like at the airport during the pandemic?

“It was awful to be honest with you, heart-wrenching stuff. There was large chunks of the pandemic that we were closed or fully closed. Myself, in my role, I was able to use the opportunity to get some infrastructure projects done that we could do a lot easier while we were closed than if we were open. That was probably the only upside of all of this.

“There was only a handful of us here. You were coming into the empty carpark, it was horror story stuff. You got opened up, got routes up and running, then different variants arrived and we were closed again.”

Thankfully, numbers have bounced back. “We’re delighted with the return to business and how successful it has been. Everyone in the industry was talking about returning to passenger numbers in 2025, people were kicking their holiday plans down the road and there was a lot of pent-up demand, Easter was the first opportunity people had to travel and the numbers here were phenomenal.

“We’ve a very busy schedule this summer, January, February, March would have been slower months than we would normally see but we’d be hoping that 2022 overall will be a good year for us with passenger numbers getting back to 2019 numbers. And then from 2023 onwards, if we don’t have any more hiccups with the pandemic, it’s onwards and upwards, pardon the pun!”

The airport’s 40th anniversary is on the horizon in four years’ time. “We had fantastic celebrations for the 30th anniversary,” Tomás recalled about their celebrations in 2016. Events included the Runway Run, which typically raises €30,000 for three nominated charities. And with the news that Connacht had just beaten Leinster in the Pro-12 final in Edinburgh, Ireland West swung into action to welcome the heroes’ home.

“Connacht had chartered a plane and flown out of here. We were closed for the runway run and the next thing we got the word that the homecoming was going to be here!

“We had all the equipment already set up for the runway run; crowd barriers and the stage set up on the back of the lorry. Then we had to reopen the airport because we were closed with the run. There was thousands of people out in the carpark to welcome Connacht home and it was nice that coincided with our 30th anniversary.”

Four years until the 40th anniversary of a pipe dream turned reality.

“I suppose that was Monsignor Horan’s vision: to have an airport for the people in the region and it’s great that it’s going from strength to strength.”

'We love it, it’s full-on, it’s intense'

“I’M originally from Ballinrobe, about 45 minutes drive from here,” said Tomás Grimes who, along with wife Fiona, daughter Blathnaid “15 today!” and son James (13) breeds their Copperbeech-prefixed Connemaras in that part of south Mayo.

“My own extra-curricular love is the Connemara ponies and Clifden is the home and heartland of that. You have the sales going on throughout the year, going phenomenally well the way the market is at the moment.

“If you take the Society themselves and the events they run– that kicks off with the Spring Festival, held usually in the last weekend in March and normally coincides with colt inspections. So you’d have a nice influx of visitors from the UK that take in the few days and stallion parade on Sunday. That’s all about inbound tourism for the area and we’re here to support that.

“Obviously the big one is August: Clifden Show and there’s a huge influx of visitors for that. We’d have German connections ourselves through the ponies and the Cologne flight has become a popular flight for those coming to the west of Ireland.

“We fly to Bergamo, which is close to Milan and Italian buyers are regular visitors to Clifden. We cover the UK, from Edinburgh right down to Gatwick and points in between, so there’s a fantastic range of routes for people to utilise.

“It’s rocking here when Cheltenham is on! You have the punters going out, the Bristol flights are wedged during Cheltenham week and it’s fantastic to see it. For the Horse of the Year Show, Birmingham NEC is right on the doorstep. You can land at Birmingham, walk over and you’re in the NEC. For Olympia at Christmas time, we service Gatwick. Stanstead and Luton. You have more and more Irish competitors going abroad so they’d send their horses out ahead and fly out, or their friends and family will fly out from here to support them.”

Evening Parade: Tomás Grimes leads Lishin Star through the streets of Clifden in the traditional parade of prizewinners \ Susan Finnerty

He and Fiona had just returned from a “whistlestop” judging engagement in Germany. “We were very fortunate and honoured to be asked to judge the 50th anniversary show, which was held just north of Frankfurt. We know a lot of the German breeders down through the years, fantastic people, so a lovely opportunity to go and saw lots of lovely ponies.

“We arrived on the Saturday and went back on Sunday night as both of us had work commitments on Monday morning but fantastic hospitality from the Germans. That’s the third international show we’ve done. It’s a fantastic opportunity to meet the international breeders, a very different showing scene than here in Ireland. Feedback is very important so you have to be able to give your comments to the exhibitors.

“We stood Bunowen Paddy for three years so he went back to Sweden at the end of last year. This year we’ve a stallion from the UK called Innellan Condor, he won in Clifden in 2015. That’s an added element to it because not alone are you juggling your own breeding work, you have to facilitate those we’re lucky enough choose to use our stallion.

“But we love it, it’s full-on, it’s intense when you’re foaling and getting your mares back in foal and you’re deciding then what foals will I keep, what will I sell.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a reasonable amount of success down through the years so we get a lot of enquiries for stock. The foals usually get sold over the summer, we’ll wean them and get them ready to travel to their destination in October.”

Germany, France and the UK are their main overseas markets. “It’s lovely to watch their development, if it’s showing in-hand or getting ready for competitions. It’s not everybody that wants to win HOYS, the main thing is the new owner is happy and the pony is doing the job they want it to do. There’s great pride when you see that.”

Ireland West Airport Knock – By The Numbers

€182 million - estimated tourism contribution by Ireland West passengers in 2018.

12 million - overseas visitors since the airport officially opened in 1986.

1.2 million - people living in the airport’s catchment area within the West, North West and Midlands regions.

807,000 - passengers in 2019.

2,400 metres - runway length, the third-longest on the island.

€696 - the average amount spent on accommodation, food, beverages, etc. per overseas visitor arriving through the airport.

175 - staff.

90% - of the airport’s operational costs are self-financed.

87% - of airport traffic in and out of Ireland is through Dublin Airport.