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.

People leaving the basilica were saying that Coleman and Henderson had indeed seen the Virgin Mary who had passed on "a message." The message (Don't put your money in Irish banks? Bring Andy Reid back into the Irish soccer squad?) was not divulged.

But Coleman predicted that there would be another, even better, apparition at Knock on December 8. He has also claimed that these Knock appearances by Our Lady were preceded by another apparition by her in September in a remote part of Donegal.

The local bishop and clergy in Knock are not happy about all this fanatical devotion, however. Bishop Neary, who had advised people to stay away, deplored the behavior as unhealthy and said it was bringing Knock into disrepute.

He pointed out that the apparition in 1879 had been neither sought nor expected, in contrast with these supposed apparitions which were being predicted and publicized in advance, leading to high levels of expectation among thousands of people. He could have said gullible, desperate people.

Meanwhile this headache for Bishop Neary is not going to go away any time soon. Coleman, who left Knock on Saturday afternoon claiming he had witnessed an apparition and had received communication from the Virgin Mary, has predicted that a third apparition on December 8 will be even more significant. And an even bigger crowd is expected.

You could dismiss all this as mass hysteria, although a lot of the people claiming to have seen the sun dancing in the sky over Knock last Saturday seem perfectly sane.

There may be a simpler explanation, of course. Coleman had predicted that the Virgin would appear "in the sky over Knock,” so the vast crowd was looking upwards.

And if you look at the sun for long enough it will indeed dance and when you look away you will indeed see shapes, as your eyes recover from the brightness. That and the waves of emotion and religious fervor sweeping through the crowd probably explains a lot.

Although I could be completely wrong and I may burn in Hell for daring to write Godless stuff like this. But for me (and all the other Dublin sophisticates) the answer is clear.

It cannot be an accident that this visionary, fundamentalist behavior is happening at a time of great uncertainty and unhappiness here when the country is grappling with its biggest economic crisis ever. (Maybe the Virgin's message on Saturday was "NAMA is not the answer!")

You may remember that the last time we had an outbreak of mass religious hysteria here was back in the mid-eighties when we had the moving statue phenomenon. People all over the country were standing before small Marian shrines for hours and seeing statues moving and weeping.

The mid-eighties, you will remember, was a time when we had a serious economic downturn in Ireland and there was mass emigration, which probably included some people now reading this page. And if you go back to the original apparition at Knock in 1879, that happened at a time of great upheaval and stress in Ireland. It was not long after the last pockets of famine in the west, and it was during the agitation of the Land War.

In the Knock area these tensions had been particularly high at the time of the apparition.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

All together now ... Faith of our fathers, Holy Faith, we will be true to thee 'til death ...