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date: 08 March 2021

Knock, visionaries offree

(act. 1879)
  • Eugene Hynes

Knock, visionaries of (act. 1879), numbered more than a dozen local people who, about sundown on Thursday 21 August 1879, reported a complex supernatural apparition at the gable of the church at Knock, a poor rural village in co. Mayo in western Ireland. The central figure was the Virgin Mary, crowned and praying; she was flanked by St Joseph and St John the Evangelist. On an altar to these figures' left was a lamb and a cross and the whole scene was surrounded by a brilliant silvery-white light. The vision persisted for several hours, the life-size personages neither moving nor speaking. The first to see it summoned others, and all who came saw it, although not everybody saw all parts of the scene.

On 8 October 1879 fifteen witnesses gave depositions to an investigating commission of priests. Whether there were other seers is not clear. Those interviewed were subjected neither to intense ecclesiastical cross-examination nor to civil prosecution as happened at other apparition sites. Journalists who interviewed them later were generally more sympathetic than sceptical and, equally unusually, the local priest, who chaired the investigation, was an enthusiastic promoter.

Relatively little is known about the individual seers. Up to nine of those giving depositions were connected by ties of kinship. Many considered Mary Beirne [Byrne; married name O'Connell] (c. 1850–1936) to have been the chief witness. Single and twenty-nine, the daughter of Dominic Beirne, she was living with her widowed mother, Margaret Beirne [née Bourke] (c. 1810–1909), aged sixty-eight; her unmarried siblings Margaret Beirne (c. 1858–1880) and Dominick Beirne (c. 1858–1885), both in their early twenties; and her eight-year-old niece, Catherine Murray (1870/71–c. 1882). All five were seers. Also present were Dominick Beirne (c. 1843–1915), aged thirty-six, one of Mary's cousins; his five-year-old nephew, John Curry (b. 1873/4, d. in or after 1936), who lived with him; and their neighbour Patrick Beirne (c. 1863–1943), aged sixteen, who was also probably a relative. Another Beirne cousin, Patrick Hill (c. 1868–1927), aged eleven, gave the most detailed description of the apparition.

The Beirnes were described as honest, industrious, and respectable people, and Mary Beirne in particular was said to have been intelligent, forthcoming, earnest, and truthful. The main Beirne family were small tenant farmers in an area of small farms, poor soil, and abject poverty. To earn their rent, a majority of the men in the area worked as harvest labourers in England, and one Beirne son was on such a trip when the apparition occurred. Yet the family appeared better off than most of their neighbours: reporters described their cottage as comfortable with 'substantial' furniture, and they could afford occasional visits to a seaside resort 40 miles away, perhaps visiting a relative who was a priest there.

Apart from a few whose families probably benefited from the pilgrim trade, the witnesses' unspectacular lives were outwardly generally unaffected by the apparition. Mary Beirne married a local man, James O'Connell (d. c.1926), on 1 July 1882; they had six children. Throughout her life she often told her story to pilgrims, and like the other surviving witnesses, John Curry and Patrick Beirne, repeated it to a second church inquiry shortly before her death in 1936. Her siblings did not long survive the apparition, Margaret dying in 1880 and Dominick in 1885, both of tuberculosis. Catherine Murray died at age eleven. The widowed Mrs Beirne lived to be ninety-eight, her house later catering to pilgrims. The elder Dominick Beirne continued as a farmer and cattle dealer; he had five children and died in 1915. By 1936 John Curry was living in a New York city home for the aged run by nuns. Patrick Beirne, allegedly drinking to excess and disagreeing with priests, later ran a grocery shop in Knock. Born about 1863, he married Rose Curry on 8 April 1911, was widowed in 1919, and died childless in the County Home, Castlebar, co. Mayo, in 1943. Patrick Hill married a local girl, Annie McNabb, on 16 October 1897; they had five children born between 1898 and 1907. By the time his wife died in 1917, Patrick had emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts, where he died in 1927.

Six people besides the Beirne relatives gave depositions. The priest's housekeeper, Mary McLoughlin (d. after 1904), was middle-aged and allegedly fond of alcohol. Although she lived in Knock for at least another quarter of a century, when or where she was born or died is not known. The same is true of John Durkan (c. 1855–c. 1925x35), a 'servant boy' estimated to be about twenty-four in 1879. Apparently he lived into his seventies but never married. Bridget Trench (c. 1804–1886), aged seventy-four, lived seven more years; one sceptical priest alleged that she depended on the charity of neighbours. Mrs Hugh Flatley (c. 1835–1923) outlived two husbands, and Judith Campbell (1857–1893) married a local man and had six children. Patrick Walsh (b. 1813x24), whose age was reported as both fifty-five and sixty-five, was a more substantial farmer than most in the area. Unlike the others he was not at the church gable; he testified that he saw a bright light at the church from his farm half a mile away. He had twelve children; three of his six sons became priests.

Press reports of the apparition began in January 1880 and quickly became extensive. Other visions, sometimes more elaborate, were reported in Knock and several other places in Ireland in the following months. Hundreds of reports were published of people being miraculously cured of various ailments through use of cement from Knock church. The publicity and the miracles brought throngs of pilgrims to Knock in the early 1880s but ever fewer came later. An attempt by Mary Francis Clare Cusack, the Nun of Kenmare, to found a convent in Knock in 1882–3 ended in controversy and failure.

A 1930s revival led by lay people and encouraged by the local priest and archbishop again turned Knock into a major pilgrimage site, and Knock became a centre of the pronounced Marianism in Irish Catholicism in the decades after the Second World War. The history of Knock paralleled developments on the European continent where a 1917 apparition at Fatima in Portugal, interpreted as anti-communist, led to numerous Marian apparitions, especially in the Cold War era, along with their associated pilgrimages and devotions. Following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, an interpretation of the apparition that had been present but secondary from the beginning was given greater prominence, one highlighting the altar, the cross, and the lamb. In the 1970s and 1980s Knock's position as one of the leading Marian shrines was reinforced and confirmed by a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979, the building of a major basilica adjacent to the apparition church, and the opening nearby of an international airport.

Sources

  • C. Rynne, Knock, 1879–1979 (Dublin, 1979)
  • J. MacPhilpin, The apparitions and miracles at Knock, also the official depositions of the eye-witnesses (1880)
  • [T. Sexton], The illustrated record of the apparitions at the church of Knock (1880) [generally wrongly ascribed to T. D. Sullivan]
  • Sister Mary Francis Clare [M. A. Cusack], Three visits to Knock, with the medical certificates of cures and authentic accounts of apparitions [n.d., 1882]
  • L. Ua Cadhain [W. Coyne], Venerable Archdeacon Cavanagh, pastor of Knock (1867–1897) (1953)
  • M. Walsh, The apparition at Knock: a survey of facts and evidence (1955)
  • Father F. Lennon to Father Cavanagh, 16 May 1880, Archdiocesan archives, Bishop's Residence, Tuam
  • J. Donnelly, ‘The Marian shrine of Knock: the first decade’, Éire–Ireland, 28/2 (1993), 54–97
  • W. Christian, ‘Religious apparitions and the Cold War in southern Europe’, Religion, power and protest in local communities, ed. E. R. Wolf (1984)
  • d. cert. [Mary Flatley]