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The "strange occurrences" that turned Knock into a place of pilgrimage

A new documentary examines what life is like in Knock today and the legacy of the apparition.

IN AUGUST 1879, 15 people were at the south gable of the parish church in Knock, Co Mayo, when they saw something unusual: three figures glowing against the side of the building.

The 15 onlookers claimed they saw Our Lady accompanied by Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, and the Lamb of God, while angels hovered above.

Even some passers-by recalled seeing the glowing site, with some saying they thought the figures were new statues that had been delivered to the church.

But those who were there said the apparition glowed, appeared to move backwards when people tried to touch it, and was there for hours.

“I was filled with wonder at the sight I saw; I was so affected that I shed tears. I continued looking on for fully an hour, and then I went away to visit Mrs Campbell, who was in a dying state. When we returned the vision had disappeared,” said one witness, Dominick Byrne.

His cousin of the same name recalled:

The night was dark and raining, and yet these images, in the dark night, appeared with bright lights as plain as under the noonday sun.

A commission of enquiry into the apparition took place, with the Archbishop MacHale of Tuam declaring based on its findings that: “The testimony of the witnesses, taken as a whole, was trustworthy and satisfactory.” The town was declared a Marian shrine.

The apparition of Our Lady of Knock transformed the small village into a place of pilgrimage. Reporters flocked from around the world to visit the apparition site, and Catholic pilgrims visited to see the very place where it was claimed Our Lady appeared.

The impact on Knock was huge, bringing jobs, tourism, and an airport – as well as huge numbers of visitors – to what was an ordinary rural Irish village.

Strange occurrences

Now a new Irish documentary looks at how Knock has become a place that is visited by over a million people a year, where most of the inhabitants either directly or indirectly benefit from that rainy night 1879.

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is directed by award-winning director Aoife Kelleher (who was also at the helm of One Million Dubliners). The film’s title is derived from the international press coverage the Knock apparition received at the time.

The documentary looks at the various people who visit Knock, from invalids seeking miraculous cures, to the shrine’s handmaids; the Knock Marriage Bureau; and the parish priest, Fr Richard Gibbons.

knock 2 Source: Roger Lacey/YouTUbe

“It’s not a religious documentary”

Kelleher describes the film as “a documentary about religion rather than a religious documentary”.

Though she had never been to Knock before, she quickly realised the story was both fascinating, and, she says, universal.

“These 15 people aged from five to 74, they’re not all from the same family and they all end up converging on this one site and seeing something incredibly unusual.

First of all there’s the narrative of that and how interesting it is and that’s always great for a documentary and it’s always exciting for a director. In a more broader, more sociocultural way, I think now is a good time to look at these kind of stories that have been handed down from generation to generation in Ireland and re-examine them.

She suggests there is perhaps a responsibility on each generation to familiarise themselves with these stories and “re-appraise them and re-examine them and make an active decision as to whether these stories are relevant in a contemporary sense”.

“The reality is that religion is still something, and particularly Catholicism, that is hugely embedded in Irish culture – whether it’s just through the stories we tell like Knock, or what we do when we get married, when we die, when we’re born, how we’re educated, even within the health system,” said Kelleher.


Kelleher said that there can be a tendency these days for people to “live in a bubble” and not know what’s going on around the rest of the country.

So for her, this documentary and One Million Dubliners are “about a boring down into Ireland and a real examination of what it is we think - what our rituals are, where we go for solace”.

She said that the story of Knock has something in it for everyone – not just the faithful.

“It comes out of a particular point in Irish history in the late 19th century when there was this extraordinary poverty in Mayo – you’ve got the land wars, the first ever boycott… it was such a difficult time and there is a real sense both within the story itself of coming out of hardship, and there is this theme of hardship for so many people who go there, and yet on the other hand there’s lots of light there.”

Bringing the crowds

The people of Knock were very open to talking to the documentary makers.

“They are really into spreading the word about their village and attracting people to the area,” said Kelleher.

Loads of people in Knock make a living whether directly or indirectly from the shrine, and they want to get the word out there.

There was a huge amount of pride, and protectiveness around the village, yet people are aware of the church scandals and willing to talk about that, said Kelleher.

“At the same time you can’t but notice the demographic of the people at Knock. A lot of elderly people are there and that is just a fact. A lot of this profile raising that is going on is about attracting new people to Knock and that’s what Fr Richard is doing.”

Indeed, the parish priest in particular interested Kelleher for his approach to attracting people to Knock.

“He is very much aware of the impact of the scandals in Ireland on the Catholic church, he’s interested in driving up numbers for Knock, interested in raising awareness of it and doing a lot of public relations work on Knock’s behalf,” she said.

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She realised that there is “all shades of belief in Knock”.

We have a woman in the film who said she wouldn’t really have much of a belief herself and yet she comes to Knock because her husband wanted to go before he died. They went together and she always thinks of him.

Even those who visit Knock regularly admitted to Kelleher and her team that sometimes they struggle to believe.

“It’s extraordinary that people come back to the place as a ritual. Even people who work there talk about how doubt is normal and talk about periods of time where they doubt,” said Kelleher.

“But it’s funny, people were more likely to doubt the existence of God than doubt the truth of what the witnesses in 1879 saw.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The handmaids’ tale

The documentary also looks at the shrine’s handmaids, who wear a white uniform that echoes what Mary was said to have been wearing during the apparition.

The documentary looks at the struggle these handmaids are fighting for recognition and equality “within what you might imagine was a framework that was inherently unequal”, said Kelleher.

“A lot of the women around Knock in different forms are definitely questioning gender roles,” she added.

Even the notion that these are inherently submissive women who would feel that they are [submissive]… While it’s very, very different to feminism as it would be in other forms in other places, there is definitely that engagement there and kind of an acknowledgement that things need to change.

For Kelleher, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish village is a story about Ireland, about faith, and about where we’re going as a country.

“It’s about Ireland, it’s about Irishness and it’s about where we’re at with faith and religion and what that means for us as a nation,” she said.

But it’s also about the spectacle that the apparition itself created by shining an international light on a small Irish town.

“Everyone is looking for the best statue and light-up crucifixes,” she said of the many religious shops that line the town’s main streets.

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is an Underground Films production in association with RTÉ and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in association with Shoot for the Moon and in association with Bord Scannán na hÉireann / The Irish Film Board.

The film is released in Irish cinemas – including Dublin’s IFI and Lighthouse, Galway’s Eye Cinema and Mayo’s Movie World – on 26 August.

Read: “I saw little birds flying in and out of Mary’s crown”: When Irish statues moved, and the world came to star>

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