An ex-monk from Western Australia carried out one of the most bizarre hijackings in history, dragging Ireland, France and Iran into the plot as he tried to expose a tightly held secret of the Catholic church.
On May 2, 1981, Laurence Downey hijacked an Aer Lingus Boeing 737 demanding Pope John Paul II reveal the ‘third secret of Fatima’, which had been guarded since 1917.
West Australian man Laurence Downey is pictured after hijacking an Irish plane flying from Dublin to London
The secret was eventually revealed by the Vatican in 2000 as a vision of the 1981 assassination attempt on the pontiff.
Downey boarded flight EI 164 along with 112 other passengers and crew on the Irish national carrier’s Dublin to Heathrow route.
If the ‘holy hijacker’, as he came to be known, initially stood out at all, it was only for his good manners.
‘He was very polite to (my daughter and I),’ passenger Terry McCormack said.
But Downey had a dark past – he had been a mercenary, a merchant seaman and professional boxer – and was about to hijack a plane armed with a bottle of what he claimed was cyanide and his faith.
And he was no ordinary terrorist. Downey had been a Trappist monk in Rome in the 1950s but was expelled for punching the head of the order in the face.
He then worked as a tour guide in Fatima, Portugal, where on May 13, 1917 three children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a vision and were told three great secrets.
Downey returned to Perth but later fled to Ireland, leaving behind a wife and five children and an alleged $70,000 land fraud.
He initially settled in the coastal town of Shannon, but later lived in Dublin up until the point he hijacked a plane.
Captain Edward Foyle at Le Touquet Airport, Le Touquet, France, May 3, 1981. The previous day Aer Lingus flight EI 164 had been hijacked by Laurence Downey. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection – photo by Independent News and Media/Getty Images)
With a strong tailwind, the flight went quickly and was five minutes from landing in London when one of the cabin crew saw a passenger going into the toilet despite the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign being on.
Ms McCormack remembered him.
‘He looked like a very prosperous business man, very well dressed, grey hair and very tanned,’ she said.
But Downey had a desperate plan on his mind.
‘When I got up and turned around this passenger was there and he was covered in petrol,’ said air hostess Deirdre Dunphy.
‘And he had two little vials and said they were cyanide gas. That was the start of it.’
A NEW CONSTITUTION
Downey moved quickly to the cockpit and demanded the plane not land in London, but carry on to the Iranian capital Tehran.
He said he had a new constitution for the Iranian people.
Captain Edward Foyle explained that if he wanted to fly the extra 5,000km to Tehran they would need to refuel, so they changed course and landed at Le Touquet airport in the northern French region of Normandy.
French authorities were waiting for the plane to arrive and an almost eight hour stand-off ensued.
A report of the hijacking from the Sydney Morning Herald on May 5, 1981
As most of the passengers were from Ireland, the Irish government in Dublin was kept abreast of what was happening 637km away in Normandy.
Albert Reynolds, Ireland’s then-transport minister and later prime minister, made his way to Dublin airport.
Journalist Sam Smyth, who reported on the story for the Sunday World newspaper, said Mr Reynolds was also worried about the plane as Aer Lingus, at the time, was state owned.
‘(He) was obviously concerned for the crew and the passengers on the plane, (but) also had a very real concern for the aircraft because (he) would turn to me from time to time and say “That’s our bloody aircraft. We have to get that aircraft back”,’ Smyth recalled years later.
But why had Downey really hijacked the plane?
Hijackers at the time often demanded prisoners from the terrorist organisation they belonged to released, but he had made no such requests.
Eventually, Downey came clean about what he really wanted – and his real motive was even odder than pretending he wanted to fly to Tehran.
While stuck on the tarmac at Le Touquet, he demanded that Pope John Paul II reveal the third secret of Fatima.
Two of the secrets were revealed in 1941 and are related to the two World Wars, but the third was sealed until 1960, at which point it was quickly resealed.
The then-Pope John XXIII reportedly had a look of horror on his face when he read the secret, adding to the huge mystery and fear of what it was.
HIGHEST LEVEL OF ALERT
As weird as Downey’s demand was, the situation still had to be treated with the utmost seriousness and the highest level of alert.
He had 112 people under his command, he was armed with cyanide and sometimes hijackers murdered their hostages.
Downey wanted Ireland’s top selling newspaper, the Irish Independent, to publish an account of his efforts to reveal the secret.
He was put in contact with the paper’s then-editor, Vincent Doyle.
A 3,500 word manifesto was transcribed and sent to the Independent by telex.
But just as Doyle came on the radio to tell Downey he agreed to publish the document, French paratroops stormed the plane and overpowered him without firing a shot.
Passengers and crew are pictured on Aer Lingus flight EI 164 after an Australian ex-monk had hijacked it.
As well as the diversion of the hijacker being on the radio, there was also a sick woman leaving the plane at the time to be taken to hospital.
That he allowed the back door to be opened to remove a passenger showed Downey was not an experienced terrorist.
Using the double distraction, the paratroopers rushed through the rear exit and within seconds it was all over.
‘Perhaps he had an explosive system,’ one of the troops said.
‘(There is) always a risk … But each action we do, we try to do rapidly.
‘It was the key of success (in) this case. In two seconds, we caught the man.’
Minister Reynolds, who had arrived from Dublin along with dozens of other Irish officials 50 minutes earlier, entered the plane shortly after.
Ireland’s then transport minister Albert Reynolds (front left) is pictured with Captain Edward Foyle at Le Touquet Airport, France on May 3, 1981. The previous day Aer Lingus flight EI 164 had been hijacked by Laurence Downey
He later told reporters that ‘they came in from behind … and surprised him.
‘He didn’t offer any resistance, there was no trouble. And that was it. Nobody was hurt.’
Mr Reynolds said though the Irish government did not know the French plan before he left Dublin, he knew before he arrived in France as there was ‘constant contact on the plane coming over’.
‘It wasn’t a hijack as we would normally associate with a hijack. This fella had a small bottle of liquid, which he claimed was cyanide,’ he said.
The ‘cyanide’ turned out to be just water, and there was much more strangeness to come.
Eleven days after Downey’s hijack, a Turkish man called Mehmet Ali Agca shot and almost killed Pope John Paul II in the Vatican – and this, too, had links to the third secret of Fatima.
May 13, the date of the assassination attempt, is the anniversary of the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to the three children of Fatima.
Agca had an obsession with Fatima and during his trial he did what Downey had done and called on the Vatican to release the third secret.
One of the bullets that struck the pope was later encased in the crown of the image of Our Lady of Fatima.
On June 26, 2000, Pope John Paul II finally released details of the third secret of Fatima, saying it had predicted Agca’s assassination attempt.
A report from the Spokane Daily Chronicle about Australian Laurence Downey hijacking an Irish plane in May, 1981
Downey was sentenced in February 1983 in France to five years’ imprisonment for air piracy, but was released after 16 months and deported to Australia.
Years later, he spoke to Irish broadcaster RTE for its Holy Hijacker documentary on the case.
‘The hijack was only a bluff to attract the media into taking notice of me,’ he said.
‘The whole idea was a publicity stunt to draw attention to the suppression of this information (about the third secret of Fatima).’
Downey said knowing the contents of the secret had not brought him happiness.
‘All my life I have had a sense of being alone, like the only person in the world,’ he said.
As well as a documentary, one of the most peculiar hijackings the world has ever seen has also been turned into a comedic play, radio drama and podcast in Ireland.
Downey has not been heard from in decades, but if he is still alive, living a quiet life somewhere in Western Australia, he would be close to 100 years old.