Ireland saw no dawn this morning, but if you were out on the roads early it seemed as if half the population was moving through a gray, clinging mist, heading west. An old bit of Irish verse speaks of a journey west in symbolic terms -- Westward look, the land is bright -- but there was a specific reason for today's massive expedition.

Pope John Paul II, who has been evoking Irish history and moving Irish hearts and challenging Irish consciences on the first papal visit to this troubled land, was crossing the country from Dublin to the west coast to celebrate two more huge outdoor masses at Galway and Knock. Every stop so far on his journey has placed him farther behind schedule, though no one seems to mind, and today's arrival at Galway was no exception.

Gathered were 300,000 people, many of them youths drawn together from every parish and every corner of the country. For hours they warded off the chill by singing, clapping, humming. Occasionally they linked arms and struck up an Irish jig in scenes reminiscent more of a folk festival than a religious celebration. Interspersed with their sons, to the accompaniment of guitars and pipes, were words from a priest or bishop spoken over loudspeakers from an altar rising 40 feet above the ground on a platform.

"Now, when you're all old men and women, you'll look back upon this day and tell your grandchildren, 'I was in Galway when the pope came,'" said a slim priest in a black cassock, the wind whipping his reddish hair and beard.

Throughout the early morning hours they focused on the altar and those who led them in song. But when the pope's Irish army helicopter appeared, a sea of faces turned upward. As the helicopter slowly circled the ground at Galway, at first better heard than seen through the mist, the pope could gaze down and again see a landscape covered with people.

Normally John Paul's Slavic features -- strong chin, high cheekbones, deep-set blue eyes, prominent nose and brow -- are wreathed in smiles or have the look of suppressed humor. But he was markedly solemn as he began walking down a red carpet through the crowds stretching out of sight around him. He bent his head forward slightly. Several times he pursed his lips as if struggling to control his emotions. The sound grew in intensity as he made his way toward the altar. Once he brushed away a tear and, seen close-up, looked almost ineffably sad as he climbed the carpeted steps, the cheers rising with him.

The service, lasting nearly three hours, was marked by one emotional peak after another. What gave it a special poignancy, though, was a broad awareness that this pope believes himself to have an affinity with youth -- and that he was addressing not so much the difficult Irish present, but, through them, its future.

"I wish to recall what I said so often before as archbishop of Krakow and what I have repeated as successor of St. Peter: I believe in youth. I believe in youth with all my heart and with all the strength of my conviction. And today I say: I believe in the youth of Ireland. I believe in you who stand here before me, in every one of you."

And, continuing in his slow, heavily accented English: "When I look at you, I see the Ireland of the future. Tomorrow, you will be the living force of your country. You will decide what Ireland will be. Tomorrow . . . you will have the power to make dreams come true."

He spoke of hatred, violence and Northern Ireland, and restated the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount -- "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." Again, he repeated: "Love your enemies." His message, he told them, was of the power of love. When he said in strong ringing tones: "Young people of Ireland, I love you," an extraordinary moment occured.

The huge throng burst out in applause and cheers. For five minutes, 10 minutes, and longer it continued. The sound rolled back and forth over the altar while the pope stood, tears welling in his eyes, obviously struck with deep emotion. They sang the American hymn, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." They chanted, "We want the pope, we want the pope." They sang again.

This reporter cannot recall, and cannot imagine, another moment of such spontaneous emotion.

The ultimate impact of John Paul on Ireland cannot, of course, be determined now. Certainly the arrival of any pope in an Ireland so steeped in history and tradition -- and in woes and tragedies -- would be an occasion of great national celebration. But let it be said that John Paul II has brought more than traditional religious ceremony with him. He has spoken forcefully and directly, and has addressed himself again and again, in terms beyond misunderstanding, to the violence that has torn Ireland apart and threatens to destroy it.

The message delivered in the late afternoon sunshine of Drogheda yesterday was an extraordinary document. There was no mystical theology in it, no turning away from the hard realities of this world through promises of salvation in the next.

"Christianity does not command us to close our eyes to difficult problems," he said, and then himself strongly commanded "this generation of violent men to desist from hatred and violence." He didn't try to shift the burden of guilt, either. To the Irish he said violence will only drag down to ruin the "land you claim to love" and "the values you claim to cherish."

What effect his words will have no one today can say. But he has been seen and heard by just about every person in Ireland. At the least, he will leave behind him memories of mass emotion and evidence that he intends to be the strongest sort of religious leader.

I'm told a number of readers called The Post yesterday to protest my reference to the playing of "that mournful cowboy lament," "The Streets of Laredo," aboard the pope's plane. They pointed out that those strains stem from a centuries-old Irish ballad, The Bard of Armagh.

They're undoubtedly correct, and I apologize for the error: Americans have been borrowing mournful Irish ballads and adapting them to American tastes for 300 years now, almost always to the detriment of the original. But then I speak as a lover of Irish ballads, and hereby publicly hang my head in shame at my stupidity. Readers might be interested to know, though, that Irish throngs were saluting the pope with that rollicking old Czech-American number, "Roll Out the Barrel," when his helicopter lifted off after his last celebration of mass today. Perhaps it really is an ecumenical world.