If any reader thought that spirituality was a dying aspiration of the Irish people, they might recall the 20,000 or so who climbed Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July, or go to Knock, Co Mayo, on August 15, the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Assumed into Heaven, to see thousands of people, many in family groups, happily attending Mass, saying the Stations of the Cross, eating ice-cream and chips, thoroughly enjoying the day out.
The annual Knock pilgrimage is in honour of an amazing event that happened 130 years ago this month. The Virgin Mary came to Ireland. On a wet windy night of August 21 1879 a group of local people witnessed an apparition against the gable wall of the old parish church. Two subsequent clerical investigations identified the supernatural visitors as the Virgin Mary, St Joseph, and John the Evangelist. Furthermore they expressed satisfaction that what the visionaries saw was true.
Over a dozen people saw the vision. Some saw, in addition to the figures, an altar, a lamb, and a cross. Angels’ wings surrounded the altar. According to reports the apparition persisted for several hours, remaining motionless and without speaking. Even though the rain sluiced down, and the people were soaked to the skin, the place where the vision appeared remained dry.
Almost immediately, Knock became a place of pilgrimage, and prayer. We, in Galway, might think that the sole purpose of the visit by Pope John Paul II in 1979 was to tell the young people of Ireland, gathered in their hundreds of thousands at Ballybrit, that he loved them; but in fact the main purpose of his visit was to pray at Knock. The Pope, known for his devotion to Mary, came on the invitation of the late Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Joseph Cunnane. The Pope’s visit, where he bestowed the title of Basilica on the new church, and his gift of a golden rose, consolidated Knock’s place as one of the world’s premier Marian shrines, enjoying the same status as Lourdes and Fatima.
A curious posture
Of course when you look at any major event in Ireland, history is not far behind! At the time of the apparition, parts of the west of Ireland, particularly in Mayo, was coming to the boil. Exactly two months after the apparition, at an excited and passionate meeting in the Imperial Hotel, Castlebar, on October 21, the Land League was founded. The formidable Charles S Parnell was elected its president, while Andrew Kettle, Michael Davitt, and Thomas Brennan were elected honorary secretaries. It was to prove a turning point in Irish history, and an interesting recent book by Eugene Hynes, a professor of sociology at Kettering University, Michigan*, explores the possibility that the Catholic Church, grasped and held on to the apparition projecting it as some kind of validation for its attitude to the Land League, rather than being a ‘voice’ for a risen people.
The Church in Mayo and Connemara did not emerge well from the Great Famine. It was seen as wanting in its initial support for a devastated people. It allowed a vacuum to develop which was filled by evangelising Protestant groups. They built schools and orphanages, operated ‘Soup kitchens’, but in doing so, gave the word ‘souper’ a nasty connotation. Among some of the Catholic faithful it was inferred that if the destitute accepted food and shelter, they had abandoned their faith for material gain.
The Catholic archdiocese of Tuam is a far flung realm. Much of its church and school building in the 19th century had been concentrated on its wealthier eastern side. Now, following the initial success of proselytism, the Church reacted vigorously. There were shameful scenes of priests urging the crowds to spit at and stone Protestant ministers and their families, and to shun the so-called ‘soupers’. New Catholic schools were hurriedly built and the Church eventually recovered its lost ground. But now the Land League, whose primary aim was to abolish landlordism, and enable tenant farmers to own the land they worked on, had once again caught the Church off guard. In a curious posture against what was to become a massive popular movement, the Church vehemently opposed its development.
One of the most outspoken protesters against the Land League was Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh, the parish priest of Knock. On the last Sunday in May his sermon so incensed the population that a ‘Monster Indignation Meeting’ was called for at Knock to show the people’s anger at the priest’s words. The Connaught Telegraph, edited by an important supporter of the Land League James Daly, wrote at length about the meeting, which attracted ‘between 20,000 and 30,000’ people on the evening of June1 1879. Cavanagh was accused of shielding certain landlords ‘who were not inclined to accede to the just and reasonable demands of their tenants’. As for the priest’s allegation that Mr J O’Keane, one of the organisers, was ‘engaged with others in preparing the country for a revolution’, was dismissed as ‘ malicious and gross misrepresentations from a quarter they least expected’.
During the meeting (which was also the subject of a confidential report to Dublin Castle ), a local respectable tenant-farmer Tobias Merrick, said he regretted the need for such a demonstration. He said they were accustomed to having their motives and actions maligned by their enemies but not by their priests from whom they expected protection and support. Merrick said he would be sorry to say anything disrespectful to a priest but would say: ‘Don’t stand between the people and their rights; if you do you must be prepared to accept the consequences.”
There were other ‘monster’ meetings too, in Irishtown, Claremorris, Tuam, and Castlebar. James Daly describes the march to Irishtown: ‘Since the days of O’Connell a larger public demonstration has not been witnessed than that of Sunday last. About 1 o’clock the monster procession started from Claremorris, headed by several thousand men on foot - the men of each district wearing a laurel leaf or green ribbon in hat or coat to distinguish the several contingents.’ Further along the road, they were joined by a contingent of tenant-farmers on horseback ‘showing discipline and order that a cavalry regiment might feel proud of’. They were followed by a ‘train of carriages, brakes, cars, etc, led by Mr Martin Hughes, the spirited hotel proprietor, driving a pair of rare black ponies to a phaeton’...A further 500 carriages from other towns and neighbourhoods joined the procession, the marshals wearing green and gold sashes. The sight was truly imposing. The endless train directing its course to Irishtown, a neat little hamlet on the boundaries of Mayo, Roscommon and Galway.’
It was a strange time in Co Mayo. There was the miracle of the apparition, and the people were standing up for themselves at last.
Next week: Archbishop of Tuam John McHale, the great champion of O’Connell, surely he will support the just demands of the people?
*Knock - The Virgin’s Apparition in 19th Century Ireland by Eugene Hynes, published by Cork University Press, expensive at €49.