Fr James Horan of Knock features in new musical for hospice

Fr James Horan of Knock features in new musical for hospice

When I was researching On A Wing and a Prayer, my book about Fr James Horan and his truly amazing achievement in building Knock Airport back in the recession-hit, emigration-ridden 1980s, the words of one of his favourite songs, If I Can Help Somebody, had a habit of entering and whirring around at the back of my mind.

The more I delved into his audacious efforts to build an international airport the more I heard about his great penchant for singing a song or two to make a few bob for his last and perhaps greatest project. I had, of course, heard him sing on occasions, most notably in Rome in 1985 when he led a pilgrimage to the Holy City, direct from his not-yet-opened airport on top of Barnacuige.

Three Aer Lingus planes had taken us to Rome, and one evening after a group visit to the magnificent Tivoli Gardens, we adjourned for a meal in a nearby hostelry. A local musician was there to entertain us, and before long the Monsignor, now aged 74, was on his feet, singing two more of his favourites, When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and Danny Boy. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he had finished.

So when I was researching the book, between 2004 and 2005, it was so easy to visualise him singing a song, and the rapport there was between him and his audience. So much so that I knew that one day he had to have his very own musical, with him up there on the stage again, singing not always very well but with true feeling as he remembered the songs of his youth, songs his parents would have loved, songs John McCormack for instance would have sung.

The first rough draft of the ‘musical’ was in place before the book was finished, and ever since it has been returned to time and time again as flesh was put on bones, cameo moments dressed up (not that they needed much dressing for in the case of Fr Horan truth was sometimes stranger than fiction!). The musical I called ‘On A Wing and a Prayer-The Musical’. I showed it around, got positive feedback and continued to write and revise. Old songs loved by Horan form the backbone of the work, with some new tunes added.


All the great moments in Horan’s and Knock Shrine’s life are there: the Apparition in 1879, the devil in Tooreen dancehall, the invitation to the Pope and his acceptance and visit to Knock, ‘the goal of my journey’; the building of the airport despite the protestations of the mandarins in the Department of Finance, many politicians, and, by and large, the Dublin media, went ahead. The musical explores his ‘understanding’ with Charles J Haughey, the official opening on a ferocious day when planes could not fly into the airport, his death in Lourdes, his coffined body being the first back into the airport he built.

Then, one day, in the middle of present recession, I thought: why not put this to good use, why not offer its first public performances to a local cause? I approached Cynthia Clampett, Chief Executive of Mayo/Roscommon Hospice Foundation, with the offer. She did not hesitate in accepting the offer, despite my earnest question: ‘are you really sure?’

Before you could say ‘Fr Horan’, Cynthia had booked Pat Jennings’s wonderful  Royal Theatre in Castlebar for a 4-night run from November 25 to 28, 2010. And equally as quickly the management and staff of Ireland West Airport Knock came forward with an offer of support which was gladly accepted.

Proceeds from the November shows will go to the Mayo/Roscommon Hospice which must raise in excess of 1 million euro each year through donations and fundraising efforts to maintain its palliative care service in the two counties.

Cynthia Clampett, Chief Executive of Mayo/Roscommon Hospice Foundation,based at Knock, said the Palliative Care Service in Mayo and Roscommon was heavily dependent on voluntary funding.

“Unfortunately the economic downturn has impacted severely on fundraising and as the HSE continue to cut back on services the Palliative Care Teams are calling on the Foundation more and more to meet the increasing needs of patients and their families.  Providentially, Terry Reilly has generously offered the proceeds from the first performances of his novel and entertaining musical and it will now be a case of all systems go to ensure its success,” she said.

The Foundation’s Palliative Care Teams cater for patients with cancer and other life limiting illness such as Motor Neurone, Muscular Dystrophy, MS and end-stage dementia, heart failure, etc.  The service is available for patients in their own homes and in hospitals and nursing homes throughout the two counties, with comfort, dignity and respect at its core.

The number of patients, both adults and children, being referred to the Service has increased annually since 1992. In 2009 there were 565 patients cared for by the Palliative Home Care Teams alone, in Mayo 363 and in Roscommon 202.

Monsignor Horan’s Herculean effort hastened his demise and he passed away a few months after the official opening in 1986. Ironically, his coffin was the first into Knock Airport as thousands flocked to pay homage to their hero. Of course, his vision, his dream, succeeded as he said it would. In the interim millions of people have used it and enjoyed it, with countless jobs being created in an area once known as the Black Triangle in East Mayo.

On A Wing and a Prayer- The Musical is a tribute to the heroic endeavourof an old man in a hurry. It also heralds the 100th anniversary of his birth to be celebrated in May 2011.

By any measure, the life of Monsignor Horan and his commitment to his people and the region would be hard to surpass. It had everything, concern for people, enterprise, colour, humour, pathos, immense energy, unique vision, victory over adversity, and much more. The objective of the musical is to transmit this wonderful Horan package to the stage in an entertaining, uplifting manner. The hope is that people will enjoy a really good night out, full of nostalgia and inspiration. Some of the Monsignor’s favourite songs will be featured together with some new ones specially written for the occasion.

“Talented people from the region will take to the stage and bring Horan’s amazing work to life again in what we want to be a memorably colourful production, and all in aid of a great cause within our community,” he said.

The promoters have expressed thanks to Ireland West Airport Knock for ongoing help and encouragement in bringing the musical to the stage, and said Monsignor Horan would be most pleased to see that the Airport now employ on average 100 people and was having such a significant impact on the region.

Auditions for volunteers will be held in June when the best acting/singing and back-stage talent from the region will be sought. Look out for further details shortly in local press, or on  or   while Tommy Marren of Mid West Radio has kindly offered to log emails sent by those wishing to audition. These will be compiled and got ready for the audition process for which date and venue has et to be announced..

Please tell your friends about the show. We need everyone’s support to create a memorable show….and to help the Hospice service.  Monsignor Horan built his airport, but he did not build it on his own: he had a great team around him. On A Wing and a Prayer-The Musical will succeed in its ambition but only because of the great team around it! It has to be a Team effort.

Read regular updates here on the progress of the Musical from script to live performance. Join us on the journey. Meet the people behind the scenes, the cast, the directors, the crew.  And if you can help in any way please get in touch. If you would like to become a Patron great – we need all your help!

Monsignor Horan started his airport crusade in the middle of a recession. His attitude was that if one waited for the opportune time nothing would happen. Today we are again in tough times, but the spirit of Horan lives on.

Additional contact points are:

Cynthia Clampett, Chief Executive Mayo/Roscommon Hospice Foundation, Knock, Co Mayo, who can be contacted at 0035394 9388666 or 0035386 8565252. Email:


Terry Reilly who can be contacted at  See also

For details on Ireland West Airport Knock contact Donal Healy, Sales & Marketing Manager (094) 9368108

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