ON a quiet Sunday morning in March 2000, a small private plane touched down on the tarmac at Shannon Airport.
A tiny crowd waited on the runway as Nelson Mandela, then already the former South African president who had helped unite a nation torn apart by racial oppression, stepped off the plane and held up his hand in welcome.
No more than 10 people were there to greet him; there was little fanfare and no civic reception, as Mandela made his way to Dromoland Castle for a two day private visit as a guest of Sir Tony O’Reilly.
Limerick Leader reporter Laura Ryan and photographer Owen South were there to witness the historic visit, the only media standing on a runway with a select group of people who will cherish the memory long after Mandela’s sad passing last week at the age of 95.
“We went out and we waited on the tarmac – you wouldn’t get it now,” explained Laura, who later moved to TV3 and now works with the Limerick Communications Office.
“He got off this little plane and there were people in African dress, and they all came over. There was a line of people and he kind of did a communal wave to us and said hello.
“He could have just ignored us, but he actually took the time to make eye contact with all of us and wave. He must have been exhausted but he took the time, which you don’t really get now.”
Laura, who interviewed Bill Clinton and other high-profile figures, said the South African president had “an aura about him”.
“It was a pleasure to be on the tarmac to see him arrive.”
Mandela was taken to Dromoland, where he insisted on meeting the staff.
“We have great photographs of him with all the staff lined up and getting their picture taken with him,” remembered Dromoland managing director Mark Nolan.
“He spent a lot of time up in his room and ate up in his room, the chef looked after him with Irish stews and things like that, that was what he liked.”
The staff of the hotel were deeply affected by Mandela.
“Everybody was blown away, they were just amazed by him. I have been here a lot of years and we have had the two people that I will always remember in terms of a power and an aura - Clinton and Mandela.
“He just had that absolute ... not so much power, but there was a wonderful aura about the man. You just felt you were in the presence of greatness.”
Mr Nolan’s daughter received a signed copy of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, after presenting the former president with flowers when he arrived at the hotel, a gift she has kept as “an absolutely prized possession”.
The long serving Dromoland manager said staff were saddened by Mandela’s death.
“Nobody was amazed because they knew it was inevitable that he was dying, but certainly it was a sombre moment in the hotel,” he said.
“We have a very small turnover of staff in the hotel, so most of the people that are here now, most of them were there, they are still with us.”
Two books of condolences were opened in tribute in city and county hall this Monday, collecting hundreds of signatures. The books will remain open until this Friday.
Mayor of Limerick Cllr Leddin described the anti-apartheid politician and founder of modern South Africa as “the moral compass that guided an entire nation through dramatic, positive change.”
Former Limerick Leader reporter Fergal Keane is in South Africa this week to cover the extensive memorial services for the BBC and remembered Mandela as “always courteous and kind to me as journalist” whose passing was “such a sad moment”.
“He had extraordinary courage as a politician, immense grace as a human being. Only once did I see him reveal his inner sadness. The day he separated from Winnie I interviewed him in Jo’burg and he spoke of deep regret about the past.”
In his obituary for the iconic politician, Keane wrote: “To those who observed him closely, Nelson Mandela always carried himself as one who was born to lead.”