Knock, Knock, who's there?


November 4, 2009, 2:04 PM

There were lots of knock, knock jokes here this week. Or even Knock, knock jokes.

Knock, knock, who's there? It's Virgin.

Virgin who? Vergin' on the ridiculous.

And it was indeed verging on the ridiculous here last weekend, as thousands of people again gathered in the little town of Knock in Co. Mayo fully expecting to see an apparition by the Virgin Mary.

The true believers among you will, of course, know that Knock is Ireland's answer to Lourdes or Fatima. It's where the Virgin Mary is supposed to have appeared to a small group of people 130 years ago at the gable end of the local church.

The Blessed Virgin was accompanied in the apparition in 1879 by two other figures, thought to be St. Joseph and John the Evangelist, although since they were all shimmering away in the twilight it was hard to be certain.

The vision continued for a few hours, and other local people who arrived claimed to see not only the three main figures, but also a few angels hovering above them and an altar beside them with a lamb on it (the lamb of God being Jesus).

The event was an international sensation and was even covered extensively in The New York Times. The local bishop at the time and the Catholic Church treated the claims of an apparition with caution, but over the years Knock acquired a degree of credibility and is now given some recognition by the Vatican.

Over recent decades it has developed into a major international pilgrimage site, the little church is now sidelined by a vast basilica with a processional square in front, and well over a million pilgrims a year come to visit. Which is great for business, especially in this remote area in the west of Ireland.

There have been various reported sightings and happenings over the years, but nothing significant and certainly nothing to match the original event. Even so, the fame of this Marian Shrine has spread around the world.

And it was given a huge boost in 1979, the centenary of the apparition, when Pope John Paul II visited the shrine during his trip to Ireland.

The real test for a shrine like Lourdes is miracles, of course, and on that score Knock has not done very well, if at all. The New York Times reported on claimed miracles after the original apparition. But the main miracle is more recent.

It's Knock Airport which the famous Monsignor Horan, the priest who built the basilica, created a few miles away on a boggy hill in the middle of nowhere in an area plagued by mist and fog. Everyone thought he was mad when he came up with his plans for Knock International Airport but it worked and it's still successful, mainly because of its popularity with west of Ireland emigrants who live in Britain and don't want to go through Dublin Airport on visits home.

The shrine at Knock (and the miraculous airport) is busy throughout the summer but usually is quiet at this time of year. However, the outbreak of religious mania there over the past few weeks has been a late season bonanza for the local shops, pubs and B&Bs. The place has been packed, with an estimated 15,000 people there last weekend.

If you were cynical you might think that the sudden surge of interest has been whipped up by the local business people. But mass devotion (or hysteria) on this scale is not so easily contrived or explained. There is something much more fundamental going on.

This latest outpouring of religious fervor (or madness) really began a few weeks back when a clairvoyant and faith healer from Dublin called Joe Coleman made a prediction that the Virgin Mary would appear above the shrine at Knock on October 11. The prediction was repeated on an afternoon show on RTE television and around 10,000 people turned up at Knock to see what would happen. Many of them subsequently claimed to have seen the sun dancing and faces appearing in the sky.

By last weekend, when according to Coleman the next event was due, up to 15,000 people were in Knock. At 3 p.m. on Saturday, the predicted time when things would happen, the basilica was crammed and a big crowd was in the square outside staring upwards at the heavens (or outer space, depending on your point of view). Coleman and his fellow spiritualist and visionary Keith Henderson were inside kneeling before the altar, apparently transfixed by what they were seeing.

According to reports, both were focused "on a point on, or beyond, the altar. Mr. Coleman's face betrayed little emotion, but Mr. Henderson wore a large smile for much of the event."

Whatever they were seeing was not visible to the rest of the crowd, who prayed and sang hymns. Outside, there were cries of people who claimed to be seeing things in the sky and waves of applause and prayers moved through the crowd.