IF you’re designing a special vehicle to transport the Pope, you have to think of everything... including a place to store a gun.
That was the task handed to Matt O’Brien and John Mulhare for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in 1979.
Matt and John ran OBAM Vehicle Builders and were given the job of designing the Popemobile for the first visit of a pontiff to Ireland 38 years ago.
Among the papal entourage was US Archbishop Pail Marcinkus and Matt recalled: “He carried a gun by his side. He was a tough guy. We had to put in a seat for him with a pocket [for the gun].”
That year, it was revealed that the Archbishop, who was President of the Vatican Bank, had been a target for assassination by a far-left Italian terrorist group, the Red Brigades. Three years later, in 1982, Archbishop Marcinkus thwarted an assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II in Fátima, Portugal, when a deranged priest attacked the pontiff with a bayonet.
The pocket for a gun was just one aspect of the Popemobile that Matt and John had to introduce for their special papal vehicles.
Now in their eighties, the two men, close friends since they started out in CIE in the late 1940s, recall the exclusive commission which helped put their name on the map.
OBAM had previously carried out specialised work for Ford. For the Popemobiles — there had to be two of them to be on hand to deliver the Pope and his entourage to the various locations they visited — Ford supplied the chassis.
“Ford couldn’t build the Popemobiles as they didn’t have the equipment,” says Matt. He and John were given just five weeks to build the two vehicles.
“We were under ferocious pressure. We had great staff who worked day and night on it. The funny thing about it is that nobody knew we were building the Popemobiles. We told the staff to keep it confidential.”
John remembers a detective inspector garda calling to OBAM with a Jeep, requesting that hand rails be put onto it so that the Pope could travel in it and be visible. John corrected the inspector, pointing out the vehicles that the Pope would be using.
“ ‘Where’s your protection?’ the inspector asked. I said ‘what about it?’ He asked if he could use our phone. He rang the superintendent in Blarney and in 10 minutes, there was a squad car in our yard for the whole five weeks.”
Matt says the gardaí were afraid of the likes of the UVF “coming down and damaging the Popemobiles”.
“We kept everything secret,” he says. “We were scared. We didn’t want any subversives watching the Popemobiles. So we locked the big gates and nobody could see in.”
George Colley, finance minister at the time, wanted bullet-proof glass on the Popemobiles, but this would have cost £200,000, according to John. When he and Matt asked for the money to be put in their business account, it wasn’t forthcoming.
“Nobody wanted to pay. We were in stalemate for two days,” Matt recalls. “Ford came along and said we could do it our own way, saying they trusted us.”
“We had shatterproof glass,” says John. “If a fellow threw a stone at the vehicle, the glass wouldn’t break.”
And so shatterproof glass had to suffice.
The Popemobile design was loosely based on a Roman chariot with the Papal crest on the exterior. It had to cover the Pope and his 15 passengers and was more than 20 feet long.
Building the Popemobiles required the input of all 27 staff at OBAM.
“John and myself designed them and we knew every screw that was going into them. We had a boardroom and we’d retire there every night and have a long chat about the work,” says Matt.
The plush red interior, which was carpeted and included luxurious seating, was in keeping with the splendour to which the Pope was accustomed. There were hand rails so that the Pope could step out and use them while addressing crowds.
“Bishop Eamon Casey and Fr Michael Cleary were there. They were nice men. We must not judge them,” says Matt.
Matt, a father of 10, and John, a father of four, ran a very successful business.
“We were in town one day having a pint,” says John. “When we were getting the bus home, there were trucks going up and down and we sort of said why not try and start a business building trucks.”
In 1962, Matt and John bought a shed for £400 at Blackstone Bridge (off the Commons Road). Apart from small repair jobs, they did very little work for the first 12 months. They decided to approach the bank looking for £2,000. When the manager asked them what exactly they did, they said they were building trucks. Asked what they owned, they said they had their hands. The bank manager decided to take a gamble on them.
In its heyday, OBAM was one of the biggest vehicle builders in the country. The men say they were the first to make refrigerated trucks in Ireland for transporting frozen foods.
They retired early — Matt at 58 and John at 60 — closed down the business and sold off land connected to it. As for the Popemobiles, Ford returned them to OBAM after the visit, instructing the company to scrap them. But Matt and John wanted to preserve an example of their work for Ireland’s first ever Papal visit. So one of the Popemobiles still exists today and is on view at the Dublin Wax Museum. It’s for hire for stag parties and hen nights and still contains the original ‘Pope’s Chair.’ From the sublime to the slightly ridiculous!