James Horan is born in Partry, County Mayo, on May 5, 1911. He is a parish priest of Knock, County Mayo. He is most widely known for his successful campaign to bring an airport to Knock, his work on Knock basilica, and is also credited for inviting Pope John Paul II to visit Knock Shrine in 1979.
Educated at St. Jarlath’s College, Tuam, Horan trains for the priesthood in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. He is ordained in 1936, and his first post is in Glasgow, where he remains for three years. Having served as chaplain on an ocean liner and briefly in Ballyglunin, County Galway, he becomes curate in Tooreen, a small townland close to Ballyhaunis, County Mayo. While there, he organises the construction of a dance hall, which becomes a popular local amenity. He secures financing for the project by collecting £8,000 on a tour of American cities. After also serving in Cloonfad, County Roscommon, he is transferred to Knock in 1963, where he becomes parish priest in 1967. He is troubled by the struggles of daily life and mass emigration in the west of Ireland and he works to improve the living standards of the local community.
While stationed at Knock, Horan oversees the building of a new church for Knock Shrine, which is dedicated in 1976. The shrine is the stated goal of Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979. The pope travels to Knock as part of a state visit to Ireland, marking the centenary of the famous Knock apparitions. Horan works with Judy Coyne to organise the papal visit. He is responsible for the refurbishment of the church grounds, along with the construction of a huge church, with a capacity of 15,000. This newly constructed church is given the status of basilica by the pope. The day after the papal visit, Horan begins his campaign to build an international airport in Barnacuige, a small village near Charlestown, County Mayo.
Critics regard the idea of an airport on a “foggy, boggy site” in Mayo as unrealistic, but funding is approved by then Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who performs the official opening in May 1986, five years after work commenced. Although Horan had secured IR£10,000,000 in funding from Haughey, following the Fianna Fáil party’s defeat in the general election of 1982, his funding is cut, with the airport unfinished. He raises the IR£4,000,000 shortfall by holding a “Jumbo Draw.” This large lottery succeeds in raising the required revenue, but only after a painstaking tour of several countries, including Australia and the United States. This takes its toll on the ageing Horan and leads to his death shortly after the completion of the airport. The airport is originally known as Horan International Airport, but is now officially referred to as Ireland West Airport Knock.
Horan dies on August 1, 1986 while on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, just a few months after the official opening of the airport. His remains are flown into Knock, the first funeral to fly into the airport he had campaigned for. He is buried in the grounds of the Knock Basilica. His life and work are chronicled in a musical written by Terry Reilly and local broadcaster Tommy Marren, entitled A Wing and a Prayer. It premières in The Royal Theatre in Castlebar, County Mayo, on November 25, 2010.