An unusual feature of the apparition at Knock on August 21 1879, was that it was silent. On all other occasions when the Virgin Mary has appeared, a verbal message was imparted to the visionaries. It was usually an exhortation to pray. But the Knock vision, consisting of Mary, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, and other religious images, was motionless. There was no verbal message.
By an extraordinary coincidence the apparition coincided with an explosion of popular feeling at the injustice of the landlord system. It was a system which effectively kept the tenant in shackles, and beholden to the landlord for his survival. But in the summer of 1879 Mayo tenant farmers bravely stood up against what was the accepted way of life on the land. There were ‘monster’ rallies and marches; and in some cases landlords and their agents were murdered, their buildings burnt, their animals maimed. But the Land League, established in Castlebar two months after the apparition, channelled that anger into effective peaceful protest and parliamentary reform.
The apparition lasted about three hours and was witnessed by more than 12 local people. There are various interpretations suggested why these two particular saints accompanied the Virgin. It is generally accepted that they were saints whose chastity made them role models in post famine Ireland, where the archaic land system further burdened people by requiring the postponement of marriage, making personal chastity an economic as well as a religious virtue.
While the Mayo people were gathering their energy of defiance against landlordism, whose protest was to grow into a national movement, thousands were rushing to the gable end of the church in Knock, marvelling at the miracle that had occurred. Was the vision a sign of support for the unrest in the county, for the just demands of the people? Or was it an affirmation of the Church which had condemned the movement and its leadership from its inception? Because the vision was silent, its interpretation, and its ‘ownership’ was up for grabs.
The one hundred Masses
One of the factors which allowed the church control the impact of the apparition related to archdeacon Cavanagh himself, the parish priest of Knock. Remember he was bitterly criticised for his condemnation of the Land Movement. A ‘monster’ meeting was held in Knock as a protest against his attack the previous June. Furthermore, the editor of the local paper The Connaught Telegraph, James Daly, represented a new kind of threat to the clergy. Daly was economically independent, and educated enough to challenge the priests on their behaviour, and lack of support for the plight of the tenant farmer. But although Daly could write stinging editorials, when it came to reporting the apparition, the priests retained the upper hand. Archdeacon Cavanagh and his curate Fr Bourke monopolised the presentation of the apparition to the press. Reporters could only access the witnesses that they selected.
One of the witnesses, caught up in the excitement of it all was Mary Beirne. She was very religious, and blessed with a natural ability to speak about her experience. She let it be known that the Archdeacon began a special series of 100 Masses shortly after the conflict with the land agitators. He had just completed his 100th Mass when the apparition happened. What greater proof could Mary Beirne need that the apparition was none other than a heavenly sign affirming and validating the embattled priest? Many of the other visionaries were related to Mary Beirne, and all were devoted to the Church. To them there was no contest.
But perhaps the authority of Archbishop John MacHale, his great standing with the Irish community at home and abroad, ensured that the apparition was a firm validation of the Church’s stand against the Land Movement (and later it was to adopt an ‘I told you so’ attitude when the scandal of Parnell’s affair with Kitty O’Shea rocked conservative Ireland ). He could be quite tyrannical when he felt his authority was being challenged, be it from other religious and certainly not from lay people. In Eugene Hynes’ interesting book* he lists some of the battles that the archbishop fought and won, including his opposition the declaration of the Pope’s infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. Around the same time he resisted moves by most of the Irish bishops that led to a Papal condemnation of Fenianism. He defied the Roman authorities, including the Pope, in refusing to discipline the ‘Fenian priest’ Fr Patrick Lavelle. He considered the ‘Apostle of Temperance’, Fr Matthew, ‘a vagabond friar’, and absolved those who had taken his life-long pledge against alcohol from keeping it. He simply refused to allow the Sisters of Mercy in his diocese to attend a conference of their order called to discuss the nuns’ relationship with Episcopal authority. Archbishop MacHale simply did not compromise. Even his own nephew admitted that as MacHale aged, his ‘unwillingness to cooperate...became a settled state of mental conviction’.
Given MacHale’s history it is not surprising that when he believed the Land Movement was a challenge to his authority and his priests, and the protests against his condemnation manifested itself in parades in Knock and Tuam, that he wrote publicly castigating the leaders as a ‘few strolling men’.
The Land League, however, was the first mass movement in the rural west started by lay people without priests being involved at its inception. It did not have the blessing of the church, nor was it able to claim that the apparition at Knock was a sign in its favour; nevertheless it went on to be a remarkably successful agitation. It was a miracle of sorts**.
* Knock - The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth -Century Ireland, by Eugene Hynes, a detailed reconstruction of troubled times in Mayo, and the miracle at Knock. There are many strands in this scholarly book, I have merely touched on a few. Published by Cork University Press, on sale at €49.
**Within decades of the League’s foundation, through the efforts of William O’Brien and George Wyndham ( a decesdent of Lord Edward FitzGerald ), the Land Purchase Acts of 1885 and 1903 allowed Irish tenant farmers to buy their freeholds with British government finance over 40 years through the Land Commission (an arrangement that has never been possible in Britain ).
For agricultural labourers DD Sheehan and the Irish Land and Labour Association secured help from the Liberal government elected in 1905 to pass The Labourers (Ireland ) Act 1906, and The Labourers (Ireland ) Act 1911, which paid to build 40,000 new cottages. By 1914 the vast majority of Irish land and rural housing was in the hands of small and middle sized farmers, not the large landowners. Often the holdings were described as ‘uneconomic’, but the overall sense of social justice was undeniable.