Horan, James (1911–86), priest, community activist, and airport developer, was born 5 May 1911 at Tooreen, Partry, Co. Mayo, eldest of three sons and four daughters of Bartley Horan, farmer and builder, of Partry, and Catherine Horan (née Casey) of Kilkieran, Co. Mayo. After education in Partry national school and the diocesan seminary at St Jarlath's, Tuam, he considered pursuing a career in engineering but turned, instead, towards the priesthood and was accepted into Maynooth College. Awarded a first-class honours degree in Celtic studies, he was ordained in June 1936. In August 1936 he was sent to Glasgow and spent almost three years as a curate in Dumbarton parish, where he was deeply impressed by the Scottish church but distressed by the conditions endured by many of the migrant Irish. As a lifelong teetotaller, he was particularly upset by the effects of alcohol on the Irish community, especially the dependency of a large section of males on the powerful ‘Red Biddy’ wine. In July 1939 he travelled as chaplain aboard the liner California and after a summer in America, which gave him an enduring love for that country, he returned, firstly, to Scotland, before being transferred back to Ireland.
After a brief period as chaplain to the Fransciscan brothers at Ballyglunin, he was appointed curate at Tiernea and Lettermore in Connemara. His childhood in the breac-Gaeltacht of Partry and his Celtic studies in Maynooth facilitated his fluency in Irish and helped establish a strong rapport with his parishioners. In 1944 he moved to Tooreen near Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, where his progressive approach saw him pioneer the introduction of electricity. His determination to do something to alleviate the problems of emigration from the area and provide an outlet for its youth saw him travel to America in 1950 to raise money for a parochial hall. He toured for nine months showing films of activities in Tooreen and raised over £8,000. In 1952 a hall was built in Tooreen and he proceeded to organise and act as master of ceremonies at concerts, ceilis, and quizzes. In 1959 he moved to Cloonfad, Co. Galway, and embarked on a series of projects to improve the circumstances of the locality. Using his contacts, he won funding for a new school and improved road facilities, as well as promoting an afforestation scheme for the benefit of small farmers.
In 1963 he was transferred to Knock, the site of a reported apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879, firstly as curate and then, from 1967, as parish priest. A traditional place of Marian pilgrimage, the shrine had remained almost entirely undeveloped, having no toilets, seating, or shelter, and he set about transforming it. In conjunction with Mayo county council, he employed a consultancy group to formulate a plan for the village. Throughout the 1970s a hostel, rest and care centres, improved roads, and various social service centres, were provided, culminating in a new church, which was blessed and dedicated in 1976. Pope John Paul II travelled to Ireland in September 1979 (the centenary of the shrine at Knock) and elevated the church to a basilica and Horan to monsignor.
Inspired by the visit of the pope, Horan reactivated plans first mooted in the 1950s and 1960s to build an airport at Knock. Consultants were employed and a feasibility study undertaken, before the Fianna Fáil government sanctioned the plans (December 1980), and on 2 May 1981 the first sod was turned at the site at Barnacúige by Albert Reynolds (qv), minister for transport, with a pledge to fund the £10 million project. The political upheavals of 1981–2 left funding for the development in jeopardy and the Fine Gael–Labour coalition withdrew approval, leading to a collapse in state support despite the fact that construction had already begun. Opponents of the project, which was lampooned as an attempt to build an airport on a foggy bog atop a mountain plateau, condemned it as the ultimate white elephant and the symbol of national economic folly in the Haughey years. Undaunted, Horan began a series of fund-raising ventures, which through personal subscription and raffles raised over £3 million, and borrowed the remainder of the capital required. In May 1986 the airport was officially opened by Charles Haughey, then leader of the opposition, and planes flew from its runway to Rome and Lourdes. In July 1986 the first transatlantic flight into Knock saw the return to Mayo of over 250 emigrants.
A determined, eloquent visionary, Horan had a fine sense of humour and was an accomplished public speaker. He deplored the failure of successive governments to develop the west and abhorred obstructionist state bureaucracy that limited community development. Theologically orthodox, he concentrated on the social and spiritual development of his parishioners through self-help in all the parishes where he was based. A hugely popular figure in the west, he was chosen as ‘Mayo man of the year’ (1985), before dying (1 August 1986) on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Connacht regional airport at Knock was renamed Horan International Airport.