Northern Ireland

Pilgrims' progress: journey from Belfast to see Pope

Thursday spells a red-eye start for about 240 pilgrims from across the Catholic diocese of Down and Connor on their day-long pilgrimage to see Pope Benedict XVI in Glasgow.

Among those making the journey on a day they will remember for all of their lives is a father and his three children, a grandmother and her teenage granddaughter and several mothers and sons.

Travellers from the north Antrim coast are due to board their coach in Ballymena at 0545 BST on Thursday.

They will join those travelling from Belfast and County Down for the 0730 BST ferry to Stranraer.

At 0300 BST on Friday their feet will touch Antrim soil again - a round trip of 21 hours - and all for three hours with the Pope.

The decision to organise coaches to travel to Scotland was taken a few weeks ago.

Paddy Byrne, from the Knights of St Columbanus who has organised the Down and Connor pilgrimage, said he was "heartened" by the demand.

"Originally, there were three buses going - one from Downpatrick, one from Ballymena and one from Belfast," he said.

"But there are now five - two from Belfast and an extra one, collecting other people along the way.

"We could have filled six coaches but we could not get another bus on to the boat."

Mr Byrne has fond memories of his journey to Drogheda to see Pope John Paul II in 1979. He was among hundreds of thousands there.

"It was gridlock all the way to Belfast. We stopped and had a picnic on the grass afterwards," he said.

But he has no delusions about how life in Ireland and the role of the Catholic Church has changed over the past 30 years.

"The climate has changed totally," he said.

"This journey is a pilgrimage, it is a penance and it is a chance to say hello to the Pope - to support him and to say that we are thinking of him in these difficult times. Compared to 30 years ago, it is a dramatically different scene. But we remain a people of hope."

Kieran Downey is organising the Antrim pilgrimage.

He said he was pleased at the number of people who wanted to make the journey.

"There are a wide range of ages - some middle-aged and some older - quite a number of people aged in their 40s and 50s. We have 20 men and 30 women. People are travelling from the Glens of Antrim, Ballycastle and all along the Northern coast." he said.

"We have a number of mothers and sons and we also have a father and his three children."

Image caption Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Great Britain

"I still have people phoning me asking about a seat. We were surprised, given that it is Glasgow and given all the negativity in the press. But people want to go. For me, it is very heartening that people still want to go. It is a long journey and a long day for just three hours with the Pope.

"But people say they wouldn't miss the opportunity. I was surprised and delighted with the uptake."

Geraldine Donnelly, a retired medical secretary, from Belfast, is one of those lucky enough to get a seat.

She said: "I'm going to see him because I think he's a wonderful person and because I didn't see the Pope the last time he was here, in 1982. And I believe like many people that he's God's representative on Earth."

If she got the opportunity to speak to Pope Benedict, Geraldine said she would congratulate him on the job he is doing and ask him about one of his passions: "I heard he was a great cat lover. I don't know if he has any in Vatican City, so maybe I would ask him about that."

Suzanne Marshall from Aghagallon went to see Pope John Paul II twice and is looking forward to seeing Pope Benedict.

"It means the world to anybody that wants to go and see him. We saw John Paul II in Rome as well as in Knock in 1979 and it was just as good as the first time," she said.

Suzanne said she is disappointed that the papal visit is only taking in Scotland and England.

"I think he really should have been coming to Northern Ireland as well. It was disappointing in 1979 when the Pope came to Ireland that he didn't come north," she said.

Belfast woman Mary McCall is taking the bus on Thursday as well. She said she thinks it would be good if the Pope addressed the child abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic Church around the world.

"For the people who have been directly affected by it, it would be very nice if he did give them some reassurances," she said.

Another parishoner travelling to Glasgow on Thursday is Aileen McVeigh from Aghagallon. Except, in her case, it's not really to see the Pope.

"It's really to see Susan Boyle and to hear her singing. I've seen the Pope and he's lovely and all that but it's Susan Boyle I'm really going to see," she said.