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Dublin: 23°C Sunday 14 August 2022

We spent a day talking to Irish pilgrims about strange occurrences (and airports)

Do you remember the story of Knock? It’s still drawing in the crowds, in its busiest week of the year.


I haven’t read up on it yet, so I don’t know what’s supposed to have happened… I’m guessing probably Mary appeared here – that would be it?

— That’s the peculiar thing about Knock. It may have been a destination for school tours for generations of Irish kids – but it seems there are still plenty of graduates of the Catholic-run school system who retain only a hazy memory of what’s supposed to have happened there.

The quote above came from a Knock newcomer, who spoke to at the Mayo pilgrimage site this week.

Asking around the office, on our return, most people had an idea something miraculous was said to have happened in the village – some weren’t sure quite when, others were sketchy on the detail (although most, in fairness, guessed that Our Lady had some involvement).

For the record, yes, Mary is claimed to have appeared at the site. Not just Mary, though – the 15 villagers who gathered at the south gable of the parish church on 21 August 1879 said that St Joseph, the Lamb of God and St John the Evangelist were also there.

Reporters flocked to the village, and over the following years and decades it became a place of pilgrimage for Catholics the world over.

Hundreds of jobs are now supported in the area, thanks to the Marian Shrine – and an expansive campus of churches, chapels, retreat centres, and bookshops has been constructed over the past century.

Another unlikely arrival 

In the 1980s, another unexpected appearance at Knock made headlines internationally – as the village’s charismatic parish priest James Horan spearheaded a campaign to build an airport for the region.

The project was dismissed by many as a white elephant – but against all odds, Horan succeeded and the airport was declared open in 1986. Ireland West Airport, as it’s now known, broke new records in 2014 – with more than 700,00 passengers coming or going.

Source: RTENewsNow/YouTube

Located 70km from both Galway and Sligo, and around 50km from the west coast, Knock is still drawing in the crowds during its biggest week of the year – the Novena.

A mass at the recently refurbished Basilica was packed when we stopped by on Tuesday, for instance.

That said, attracting younger pilgrims has been a struggle in recent decades. While there were a few families wandering around in the sunshine, visiting the museum and the cafe, or filling bottles of holy water, during our visit – the age profile, generally, is as you would expect: mostly elderly or late middle-aged.

“Sure we were brought up with it,” one woman, part of a group from Athlone, said – as she filled tiny plastic bottles from one of the 18 holy water fonts at the site. “We’re just doing what our parents did.”

Fr Richard’s uphill battle 

As younger generations increasingly move away from religion and mass attendances drop, the current parish priest at Knock is facing an uphill battle to increase footfall to the village.

However chatting in his office, mid-morning, Fr Richard Gibbons struck an upbeat tone as he talked through his plans for the future of shrine.

Said the priest:

We’ve developed a project here over the last three to four years which will conclude at the end of 2017 – it’s the complete restructuring and revamping of Knock.

Getting the village on the international pilgrimage map is imperative for the future of Knock, he said.

Fr Gibbons (or Fr Richard as he’s known) has been heading up “outreach” himself since taking over the top job four years ago – resulting in high-profile pilgrimages from New York and Boston over the past two summers.

knock1 Source:

Boosting the appeal to young people is also important, he insisted. But there’s still plenty of work to be done, and it’s an ongoing, intensive, project.

“We’re firing on all engines, if you like. We know what we’re at. We can generate I think a space for people to come so that there’s no pre-judgement, there’s simply engagement.

“What we’ve done is we’ve restructured what we do inside here. So we’ve appointed people in charge of marketing, in charge of procurement, in charge of PR, in terms of outreach in terms of all our technology, and revamping completely our youth ministry.

“So we’re Facebooked, we’re online etc – all of the normal connections that we’re trying to make with people young and old. That’s what we’re at now. We’re focused on that.

We have to update ourselves technologically here to a great extent – but we have a plan for that as well.

Novena procession towards Calvary The Novena procession at Knock Source: Michael McLaughlin


The site was started to get busy as we ventured out for a closer look, coming up to midday – the car-park almost full, and almost all of the stalls on the shopping concourse adjacent the shrine open for business.

The younger pilgrims weren’t difficult to pick out in the sea of grey. One couple who stopped to chat said they weren’t aware it was a celebratory week for the shrine – they had simply popped in for a look around, by chance.

“We’d be religious ourselves,” said Kirsty, who decided to pay a visit with her boyfriend to break up a long car journey home to Derry.

We still have the faith, but you know yourself – young people these days.

80-year-old Margaret, out taking the air with her daughter, was a little more typical of a Knock visitor.

“It’s just nice,” she enthused, as her daughter Mags nodded gently.

It’s spiritual I suppose… Prayer gives you a tranquility in yourself. I suppose that’s what it’s about.

Margaret remembers cycling to Knock from Castlebar in the 1940s – and witnessed the transformation and expansion of the site first-hand in the following decades. The atmosphere is far more welcoming and open now, she said.

Like many others of her generation who stopped to talk throughout the day, she was full of praise for Monsignor Horan, who’s become something of an icon for the region.

In addition to his 1980s airport campaign, the popular priest also helmed the construction of a new church at the site in 1976; he hosted a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1979, too, when the church was given basilica status.

Fr Richard, according to Margaret, has much in common with Horan – occupying a role somewhere between community priest and tourist board chief.

“I know he’s on a hobby horse, but sure he has to be,” she said.

He’s been taking the lead there now for years.

As part of the parish priest’s “complete restructuring and revamping” project a massive mosaic was unveiled at the basilica in February of this year, capping an 18 month refurbishment project.

Made up of more than 1.5 million pieces, the mosaic is one of the largest of its kind in Europe and provides a dazzling backdrop to ceremonies at the hilltop church.

Constructed in Italy and transported in 300 sections by truck to the West of Ireland, it depicts the 1879 apparition as described by the 15 villagers who claim to have witnessed it, and who later gave their testimonies of the encounter to a commission of enquiry.

Novena Sunday 13th-4209 The Novena Sunday ceremony at the basilica (that's the new mosaic in the background). Source: Michael Mc Laughlin

In spite of the average age of visitors the preponderance of wheelchairs and walking aids still stood out, as yet more cars and coaches arrived throughout the afternoon.

Many pilgrims have a strong belief in the healing power of the shrine – and while the official emphasis these days is on spiritual comfort and reawakening, the Anointing of the Sick still takes place at masses everyday throughout the summer.

Healing the sick 

One of the information centres displayed leaflets advertising an event hosted by a woman who claims to have been cured of a decades-long debilitating illness after attending one of those masses.

Tales of other, less dramatic, rehabilitations are common too. In a shop, a middle-aged woman from Belfast explained how she found she could suddenly walk again on her sore leg, following an accident at the weekend.

As we spoke, an older man approached with a local parable – passed down through the generations, and no-doubt told to cynics and sceptics, whenever eyebrows are raised at tales of healings and apparitions.

“The day after, in 1879, the story goes, fellas like yourself came down from Dublin and asked one of the women who saw the apparition ‘How did you know it was the holy family?’.

The woman’s response:

Aragh, sure everyone around here knows the holy family.

Statues and CDs

Beyond the walls of the pilgrimage centre, dozens of shops and stalls sell everything from holy water containers to near life-size figures of Jesus, Mary, Padre Pio and St Patrick. Country n’ Irish CDs were selling well too (as were ice-cream cones – the day was pleasantly warm).

“We’re providing a service for the people,” said Mary Francis Walsh – proprietor of one of the larger shops in the village, the Irish Craft Centre.

“Monsignor Horan always said we were providing a service for the people that come to Knock.

So I sell Irish goods, and I try to do my best for Ireland with selling local goods.

Between the concourse and Main Street, there’s a startling array of items of offer – and a massive range in quality too, from the decorative to the downright tacky.

While the more striking souvenirs – holographic depictions of Jesus, etc – may catch the eye of passing tourists, most pilgrims tend to opt for smaller items like mass cards and rosaries.

So long, Marian 

Before heading off, there was just time for a quick drop by the basilica again to catch the first few minutes of the daily 3 o’clock mass.

Like the other ceremonies and events taking place this week, once again it was packed – but, yet again, younger faces were conspicuous by their absence.

Whether Fr Richard’s attempt to secure his village’s spot on the international pilgrimage map succeeds or fails remains to be seen.

But if it does, it’s likely his effort – and that of his staff – will be helped along by an outside factor: a new film about Knock, from the director of the award-winning One Million Dubliners, is set to be released next week.

Source: Underground Films/YouTube

Aoife Kelleher’s much-loved 2014 documentary about Glasnevin Cemetery sparked an increase in interest in the Dublin graveyard; her Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village has the potential to do the same for the Knock.

Speaking to us earlier this month, the director called it “a documentary about religion rather than a religious documentary”, adding:

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.

The documentary will be making an appearance in selected cinemas around the country this coming Friday.

Read: The “strange occurrences” that turned Knock into a place of pilgrimage >

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

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