By Margaret Canning
Praying at Knock has long been a routine part of Irish Catholic worship. Margaret Canning hears how one study is delving more deeply into the 1879 apparition
AN ACADEMIC has set out to use the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Knock to illuminate the time and place it happened –- and vice versa.
In the first scholarly study of the apparition, sociologist Eugene Hynes unravels the historical, social and political background to the events of August 21 1879 which transformed a poor Co Mayo village into one of the most visited places in Ireland.
There, within a light which shone on the chapel’s gable wall, and witnessed by about 12 people, were the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist.
Mr Hynes, an associate professor at Kettering University in Michigan, said: “What I wanted to do was look not just at the apparition but at the popular religion and the popular faith of ordinary Catholics, which was very different from what the priests were preaching.”
Relationships between clergy and lay people were complex, and remain so today.
Mr Hynes draws a parallel with the conflict which sometimes existed between the clergy’s condemnation of IRA atrocities during the Troubles and the support of some people in their parishes.
“Often times you had clergymen condemning some violence or explosions and ordinary Catholics didn’t always accept that. The same was true of Knock.”
He said some parishioners resented their priests at that time for failing to defend them against what they saw as oppression and exploitation by the British.
And most damning for the clergy was that they were seen to side with landowning classes in the struggle for land rights.
For frustrated faithful, an apparition could prove whose ‘side’ the divine arbiters of right and wrong were on.
Stories of Marian apparitions had long been in circulation.
“Some might call them folklore, but that is a dismissive attitude. People took such stories seriously even if not always literally and they could have great impact,’’ Mr Hynes said.
“When the Virgin appeared at a church in Co Cork in 1832, she told people to distribute ashes to ward off cholera –- an epidemic was threatened at the time –- and the message and the distribution spread through the whole island in less than a week,” he said.
“To call them ‘just folklore’ is to dismiss these stories and implicitly discredit people who told or believed them.”
In other examples, an apparition could carry a ‘could do better’ message for clergy.
“In some of their stories, the Virgin Mary came to chastise the priest – and not necessarily just in terms of politics.
“There were stories of a priest being too lazy to go on a sick call or too slow to do what they should do, like visit the dying. In cases like that, people believed the Virgin Mary would visit them to support the people.
“In many ways the people believed the Virgin Mary was on their side and not on the side of the hierarchy.”
Mr Hynes claimed the Church was “almost always sceptical” about apparitions, although an investigation did ultimately credit the events witnessed in Co Mayo.
“Local priests in Knock initially tried to cover up the apparitions and there was no newspaper report of them until 1880.
“Journalists who reported it admitted they knew about it for months but the priests told them not to report it. They feared the apparition.”
But he added that priests themselves “mixed and matched” the teachings of Rome with the faith habits of the people, with Knock’s parish priest Fr Cavanagh mixing mortar or cement from the gable wall with water to give to a dying person.
Mr Hynes said Knock only became a popular part of Catholicism –- with the backing of the Church –- around 50 years after the event.
“That was for a lot of reasons. Fatima [when Our Lady appeared to poor children in Portugal in 1917] had just been publicised, and twentieth century visions often carried an anti-communist message.”
The new Ireland of the Republic also looked to Knock as an example of the rewards of purity.
“The hierarchy at the time was concerned about Irish women’s sexual purity and the dangers of foreign dances and films, and Knock was promoted as a way to maintain that,” he said.