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oh mary

"I saw little birds flying in and out of Mary's crown": When Irish statues moved, and the world came to stare

It’s 30 years since Our Lady started ‘moving’ in Ballinspittle. Within days, the village was doing a roaring trade in ‘grotto burgers’.

NEW TOILETS, NEW footpaths. Brand new public payphones.

Within eight weeks of the statue’s first movements, the tiny village of Ballinspittle had seen a raft of improvements – and business was booming.

Hotels and B&Bs were booked out.

‘Grotto Burgers’ were flying out of the fast-food vans parked up in the tiny Cork village.

As one local noted to a BBC Newsnight crew sent to investigate the phenomenon, it was great for the area, but the religious miracle wasn’t something locals had exploited.

“As yet,” he added, with a barely perceptible grin.

Sullivn / YouTube

News footage from the era – from both the Beeb, and our own national broadcaster – makes for fascinating viewing.

This was July 1985 – 30 years ago.

Around the time, elsewhere in the country, people were glued to their TV screens watching Bono make his first faltering steps on the world stage in Live Aid.

But down in Ballinspittle, thousands were enraptured in the sort of peculiarly-Irish religious fervour that the writers of Father Ted would mock mercilessly, just a decade later.

What happened? 

It all started on the evening of 22 July.

Kathy O’Mahony – one of the volunteer caretakers of the Marian shrine – was taking her nightly walk past the grotto, when she stopped by with her two daughters to pray.

As they knelt, they saw the statue apparently come alive.

“To me, it was as if she was breathing or lifelike. Maybe breathing or sighing… chest movements,” she said, in the weeks after that first experience.

Others saw the statue’s hands move.

There were 13 of us there on that particular Monday night.

They were filled immediately, she insisted, with a “sense of peace and protection”.

peace BBC BBC

Growing fervour

Around a quarter of a million people flocked to the village in the weeks and months following that first sighting - bussed in from as far away as Dublin and Belfast.

The phenomenon had a huge effect on the town. And not just on business….

“Husbands are returning to their wives and that sort of thing,” one local said.

Another visitor to the shrine described how he had seen “the Pope’s face” as he stared at the statue during one of the nighttime prayer sessions.

“I’ve seen a face with a beard,” he continued.

I’ve also seen a head – bald, with no hair and the head turned down.

As the hype spread and the crowds grew, more and more reporters and camera crews made the journey to the grotto.

Agnostic Conor Cruise O’Brien, speaking to RTÉ’s David Hanley, noted that he was surprised how middle-class the phenomenon was.

For the record, the former politician noted that as far as he could see it was “a perfectly genuine statue, and is motionless as you would expect a statue to be”.

Scientists (and others) pointed out that the apparent movements were simply an optical illusion caused by staring for prolonged periods at the crown of electric lights above the Virgin Mary’s head.

“There were lights all around it – and there were moths flying in and around the lights all the time, casting shadows,” Eanna Brophy, a journalist sent to cover the story for the Irish Press, told

Sightings of the Pope’s face weren’t uncommon, he remembers. He also spoke to one woman who said she had seen “little birds flying in and out of Mary’s crown”.


To some worshipers, it didn’t really matter whether the events were supernatural or not.

In fact, it was beside the point.

“This is my third time here and every time I’ve seen movement,” a young man from Templeogue in Dublin told Hanley, late in September.

“As long as people are praying I don’t think it really matters [whether it's an optical illusion].

It doesn’t worry me either way what it is. I just came to see it and I saw it appearing to move. And now I’ve come back again to pray with people here.

bishop BBC BBC

What did the Church think? 

The whole thing left the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in a slightly awkward position. After all, bishops and priests are supposed to believe in miracles (otherwise they’re in the wrong line of work).

“Direct supernatural intervention in the affairs of men is a very rare occurrence,” a cautious Bishop of Cork and Ross Michael Murphy said.

Because of that, obviously common sense would advise caution in regard to the alleged happenings at Ballinspittle.

He hadn’t visited the village he said, because ”if I went down, it may be a signal that I was promoting it perhaps”.

Just a few miles to the south of the city, however, tales of apparitions and healing kept coming.

“One lady got her hearing back after 33 years. She heard the bells of the Angelus being sung here,” one local said.

Another lady who had the aid of a stick for many years – she saw Our Lady become alive… She got a shock and she left her stick, and she walked away without it.

Another worshiper, who had recently had a stroke, walked away “a perfect man” despite having previously been paralysed down one side.

mary2 BBC BBC

Other moving statues

It’s worth pointing out that by the 1980s, Marian apparitions were nothing new in Ireland – by any means.

As Peter Mulholland of NUI Maynooth observes, there’s a history of similar phenomena stretching back to to the late 19th century – the most famous of which happened in Knock in 1879.

There was also a slightly less well-known event during the War of Independence when a household statue of Our Lady was said to have shed blood.

The phenomenon appears to have peaked in the mid-1980s, however – as a raft of similar reports appeared in the media.

As Mulholland notes:

“While the 1980s apparitions took various forms and involved a range of saints and other divine beings, the majority and the most famous of them were centered on or revolved around statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

“Many of the statues were located in the hundreds of outdoor grottoes that were built all around Ireland after Pope Pius XII marked the centenary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption by designating 1954 a special ‘Marian Year’.

The record would suggest that Marian apparitions were relatively rare events, but it should be remembered that these were the only ones that the relatively small Irish media industry of the time picked up on.

From Mary to ‘Minder’

In Ballinspittle, the hubbub eventually petered out – but not before one final act of drama at the grotto, in October of ’85, when a group of hammer-wielding evangelical Protestants attacked the statue.

Robert Draper and two others were acquitted of the charges – but the Dublin-based preacher was later jailed for six months for damaging two other statues, in Ballyfermot and Clondalkin.

Within six months, the crowds had disappeared completely.

“We happened to be in the area – and we dropped by the shrine to see if there was anything going on, but there was nothing,” Eanna Brophy recalls.

“The only life in the village seemed to be in the pub… Locals were gathered around the bar’s TV set, watching the latest episode of ‘Minder’.”

Looking back…

Three decades on, the summer of the Moving Statues is part of Irish folklore.

It’s been covered by books, documentaries, Terry Wogan-hosted travelogues – and, notably, this hard-to-watch sketch from satirical series Brass Eye, in which a statue of Mary drives a car through a field in the village of ‘Ballakreen’.

mary3 Brass Eye Brass Eye

Locals, of course, still talk of the events.

Usually around this time of year, when journalists call down to put together nostalgia pieces…

First published 22 July 2015

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