There’s never been a shortage of mystical visionaries in Ireland, or of dramatic, life-changing apparitions for them to gawk at. Some claim to have witnessed the sun dance, the clouds part and the entire Holy Family appear, others simply claim to have seen a holy statue move its head.
But the one thing all these rural visionaries have in common is this: they’re usually far from rich themselves, and very far from the big cities. The strong connection between the ordinary people of Ireland and the rural outposts the holy family choose to appear in suggests that the Irish believe that the deeper the devotion, the more likely it is to be rewarded by grace.
The spectacular apparition in the village of Knock in 1879 is a case in point. It’s probably the most famous Irish Catholic apparition ever recorded, and also one of the most remote. Locals in the tiny west of Ireland village claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to them accompanied by Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist and Jesus Christ (in the metaphorical persona of the Lamb of God). As visions go this, as they say, was a doozy.
But Church authorities are always hesitant to accept supernatural claims made by country folk, because for a start it’s a bit threatening: if ordinary people start having unlimited access to deities without the help of a middle man doesn’t that put them out of a job?
In the case of the Knock apparitions the Church eventually decided the visionaries – who included a priests’ housekeeper, a widow and an 8-year-old girl – were all telling the truth. Knock quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and to this day thousands visit every year in search of healing and hope.
In the 1980’s, when healing and hope were pretty much off the menu in recession rocked Ireland, a woman named Kathy O’Mahony appeared on television one night in 1985 to claim that she had seen a statue of the Virgin Mary moving gently in the grotto of the little town of Ballinspittle, County Cork.
O’ Mahony, one of the most devoted caretakers of the local shrine, was tending the almost life size statue of the Virgin in the grotto when she claimed it began to breath and move. “She started breathing and looking about from side to side,” a stony faced Mahony told the press. Not surprisingly, her stratelling claim caused a national sensation but she was scoffed at by the local Bishop.
The Church never endorsed the Ballinspittle apparitions, then or ever, and made no secret of the fact that they would have rather it had all gone away. This event, they suggested, was by the people, for the people and they wisely kept their heads out of it. But after years of recession and hopelessness the people of Ballinspittle were for throwing caution to the wind.
And just in case you think that all these visions and apparitions belong to yesteryear Ireland, would you be surprised to hear that thousands of people arrived to pray to a tree stump that looked like the Virgin Mary in Rathkeale, County Limerick in 2009?
The story goes that a couple of lads were cutting down a tree on the grounds of a church in Rathkeale when one of them thought he could see the image of a woman in the pattern on the tree stump which - on further examination - he decided was the Virgin Mary. Rathkeale parish priest, Fr Joe Dempsey, instantly took off for a fortnight’s holiday whilst 2,000 local people signed a petition to prevent the tree’s removal.