Last Saturday I was in the west of Ireland for the weekend and took the opportunity to pay a visit to Knock Shrine in Co Mayo. The journey from Ballaghaderreen, where we were based, is a pleasant one through tranquil countryside. We made our way past houses and shop fronts festooned with Mayo flags in anticipation of the All-Ireland final against Tyrone on Saturday.
I had not been to this Marian Shrine in over thirty years and my memories of it were somewhat hazy. The first thing I noticed was the absence of stalls on the main street. Apparently, they were moved some time ago up to a side road some quarter of a mile away. Now the main street of this very small town is lined with a series of souvenir shops.
There were fewer people there than I had remembered from before which made getting around a lot easier. Our first stop was the Basilica for Mass. This beautiful building has a spire which can be seen across the Western skyline. Inside is the magnificent Apparition Mosaic specially crafted in Italy and comprising over one million tiny mosaic pieces of Venetian glass, natural marble, mosaic and gold smalti. It is a depiction of the event as described by the witnesses in 1879.
The story begins on 21 August 1870 when fifteen people from the village witnessed an apparition of Mary on the gable wall of the parish church. They said she appeared with St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, a lamb and a cross. They watched in pouring rain for two hours, reciting the Rosary.
Although the watchers were soaked in rain the gable wall and the apparitions stayed dry. At least two of them did not speak the same language. The oldest of them, Bridget Trench, knew only Irish while the youngest, John Curry knew only English. The witnesses gave their testimony to the Commission of Enquiry later in 1879. It found their words trustworthy and satisfactory.
In 1936 a second Commission of Enquiry heard from the two surviving witnesses, Mary O’Connell and Patrick Byrne. Mary ended her sworn statement with the words, “I am clear about everything I have said, and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God.” She died later that year.
Knock was unique in two ways from other apparitions of Our Lady. She did not pass on any spoken message, and she was accompanied by others, most particularly the figure of the lamb standing before a cross on a plain altar, surrounded by angels.
The people generally interpreted the vision as a sign of comfort during a time of need, with the threat of impending potato blight and evictions. By the time the visions finally faded they had assured a future of fame and prosperity for this tiny, bleak village gripped by a second Irish Famine.
During the Mass, I was struck by the huge number of young volunteers who acted as both Stewards and Ministers of the Eucharist and generally ensured that everything ran smoothly.
The singing was absolutely beautiful and enhanced the feeling of being in a very special place.
Our next stop was the Museum, admission is free and there is an audio guide available in seven languages. The museum showcases how Knock developed from a small rural village into an international shrine.
It is a fascinating place. I loved the replica thatched cottage with its half-door and hag bed, but my most favourite exhibit was the engrossing three-dimensional Knock village model which shows the place exactly as it would have been on the evening of the Apparition. The detail is amazing; little hayricks and a woman feeding hens to name but a few.
In the Apparition Chapel, we were not able to be seated because of the Covid restrictions but there is a great sense of peace there and the sculpted figures of the Apparitions remind you of what this place is about.
In a 2016 documentary on the Knock Shrine, the parish priest Fr Richard Gibbons said he believed that Knock Shrine has much potential to spiritualize the Irish and has a role to play in revitalizing the Catholic Church in this country.
I am looking forward to my next visit and it will not be so long this time.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan