People have been seeing things in Ireland for centuries: leprechauns, fairies, ghosts, banshees, vampires, angels and even the Virgin Mother herself on occasion. After the doleful history we’ve had, it would be surprising if we didn’t.
But usually they’re attributed to the visionaries quaffing vast quantities of homemade poitin beforehand. Every now and then, though, an apparition can be much harder to explain.
Take the case of the Knock Shrine in County Mayo. Some Catholics believe that in 1879 the Virgin Mary appeared there accompanied by Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist and Jesus Christ (in the metaphorical garb of the Lamb of God). As visions go this, as they say, was a doozy.
The Knock story began on the evening of the 21 August 1879, when a Miss Mary McLoughlin, 45, the longtime housekeeper to Archdeacon Kavanagh, and the least fanciful person you could ever imagine, took a short walk to the nearby cottage of her friend the widow Mary Byrne at about 7 p.m.
It was raining. Along the wearily familiar path that night she passed by the south gable of the little Knock parish church. It was, in every respect, a typical evening in a rural village so small that people noticed anything out of the ordinary. What Miss McLaughlin saw next surprised her, but – it has to be said - not so much that it stopped her in her tracks.
“On passing by the chapel, and at a little distance from it, I saw a wonderful number of strange figures at the gable,” McLaughlin later told investigators. “One of them looked like the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one like Saint Joseph; I saw an altar too.”
Odd, that she kept on walking, but she did. Miss McLoughlin assumed, she said, that the Archdeacon had been supplied with new statues from Dublin, and so she passed by the life changing sight without giving it another thought until she reached the home of the widow Margaret Byrne, where – it must be noted - she said nothing initially either.
I don’t know about Miss McLaughlin, but if I saw four giant floating figures by the side of a country church I might have had something to say about it. There again, the Irish have a much higher threshold for surrealism, having lived through a history where the unimaginable usually happens and the anticipated almost never occurs.
Remember, 130 years ago there really wasn’t much going on in Mayo - well not much to be cheerful about, anyway. The locals were being brutally exploited by the British crown, farming land could be snatched away and often was, and the famine had hit the area particularly hard within living memory. If ever a placed was primed from some Good News it was Knock village.
So after half an hour of exchanging mundane pleasantries about her day with the widow Byrne, Miss McLoughlin and her friend returned to the little chapel to lock up it up. This time both women plainly saw the extraordinary apparition floating above the gable wall. Immediately they decided the best thing to do would be to call others to confirm it.
The widow Byrne ran her heels off – she was still just 29 - to fetch her brother Dominick, 20. Like most people in the tiny Mayo village, Dominick also worked for Archdeacon Kavanagh. Shortly after that the widow Byrne ran into her niece, Catherine Murray, 8, so she sent her running to fetch her mother, Margaret Byrne, and her sister Miss Margaret Byrne, 21. It was a bit of a family affair, this apparition, in other words.
And all of this rustic carry on – which was eventually and rather quietly accepted by the Irish Church authorities as a genuine revelation - eventually inspired the construction of a massive basilica in a most unlikely setting. Knock Shrine, which commemorates the apparition, rises like a five star ocean liner from the middle of a bog, and is surrounded on three sides by heather, gorse and the occasional wandering cow. It’s a surreal sight to match a surreal story. It’s also vastly out of keeping with the humble origins of the original tale.
100 years after it happened Pope John Paul II visited Knock, looking like an apparition himself in pearl and canary. History does not record what he made of the place or the visions that inspired it. One thing is certain, nowadays on the main street of the village you can buy expensive plastic likenesses of just about any Catholic saint, made in China of course, and a simple ice cream cone will run you three and a half euro.
Interestingly, whenever she’s materialized in Ireland, the Virgin Mary has usually chosen a poor, rural community. She has never appeared in Foxrock, for example, or in any of the other swank suburbs of Dublin.
So it was one night in early 1985 when Kathy O’Mahony, one of the caretakers of the local shrine to Mary in Ballinspittle, County Cork, was tending the local grotto when she saw the statue of the Virgin moving. “She was breathing and looking from side to side,” Mahony told the press. Her claim caused a national sensation.
In the midst of the deepest recession in Irish history, busloads of Irish pilgrims began arriving and the local bars and shops of Ballinspittle did a trade like they’d never seen before. A quarter of a million people from every corner of Ireland came to see that statue move. What must our unionist neighbors to the north have made of the spectacle?
“We all experienced a sense of peace and protection, that we were all being protected,” Mahony told the press. Considering the general poverty of the times, it’s hardly surprising that the prospect of a little peace and protection attracted as many pilgrims as it did. The piety on their faces in the newsreels, and the hope, the bottomless hope, are very moving.
Of course the Church never endorsed the Ballinspittle apparitions and made no secret of the fact that they would have rather it had all gone away. This was by the people, for the people and they kept out of it. Bishop Murphy of Cork advised caution. But after decades of poverty 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 at 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.
Recession. Poverty. Visions. The link between the three in Ireland is now a matter of historical fact. And so is the disappointment experienced by tens of thousands when their brightest hopes go unfulfilled.
And just this week, when Ireland is once again mired in an intractable recession – two men who claim to be psychics – led almost ten thousand people back to Knock for an apparition of the Virgin they claimed would appear. She never did, though. They were on their own.