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Explainer: What were the 'strange occurrences' that turned Knock into a global pilgrimage site?

Pope Francis is visiting today – but what’s reputed to have happened in the Mayo village?

knock1 Pilgrims praying at the apparition gable of Knock church in 1880. Source: Wynne Photographic Collection via Knock Shrine

POPE FRANCIS IS paying a visit to Knock in Co Mayo this morning ahead of the main event of his Irish visit, his Phoenix Park mass, this afternoon.

45,000 free tickets for the Mayo visit were snapped up hours after being made available earlier this summer, and more than a million-and-a-half pilgrims visit the holy site each year.

As the village once again finds itself at the centre of global media attention, here’s a quick guide to the history of Knock and the events said to have happened there just over 139 years ago.

Strange occurrences

Fifteen villagers who gathered at the gable end of the parish church of Knock on 21 August 1879 later testified that they had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the site.

Not just Mary, though. They also told the local archbishop that St Joseph, the Lamb of God and St John the Evangelist were also there.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The villagers’ testimony is available to view in the history section of the Knock Shrine website.

The night in question was a dark and rainy one, the locals said. Between 7pm and 9.30pm, people began to notice something extraordinary on the outside walls of the church.

Amid the gloom of the evening, Mary and the other holy figures appeared to be glowing.

“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,” 36-year-old Dominick Byrne later said.

Nearly all the witnesses said that Mary was standing and praying, in a white cloak, with her eyes cast upwards, and with a golden crown.

St Joseph stood to her right, with what one called “iron-grey whiskers”.

On her left was St John the Evangelist, identified because almost everyone mentioned he was holding a book, “as if teaching”. Some said he had a mitre on his head.

knock2 Our Lady was in the centre of the group, a small height above the other two. The handwritten testimony of Judy Campbell. Source: Knock Museum Collection

At least two of the witnesses claimed to have seen something that surely must have terrified them – figures floating above the ground.

Mary Byrne, who was 29 at the time, reported:

They stood a little distance out from the gable wall, and, as well as I could judge, a foot and a half or two feet from the ground.

Patrick Hill said:

I distinctly beheld the Blessed Virgin Mary, life size, standing about two feet or so above the ground clothed in white robes which were fastened at the neck.
Some of the villagers said they were overwhelmed by what they had seen.

Said Dominick Byrne: “I was so affected that I shed tears. I continued looking on for fully an hour.”

Bridget Trench, then aged in her 70s, said she immediately threw herself on her knees upon witnessing the three figures, exclaiming:

A hundred thousands thanks to God and to the glorious Virgin that has given us this manifestation.

She attempted to kiss the feet of the Virgin Mary but “felt nothing in the embrace but the wall”.

As you might imagine, news of the apparition spread far and wide. Reporters flocked from around the world and Catholic pilgrims soon began to visit.

Pope Francis visit to Ireland Pope Francis memorabilia on sale in Knock this week. Source: Niall Carson

Inquiries 

The 1879 Commission set up by Archbishop MacHale of Tuam consisted of three local parish priests and six local curates.

They took a deposition from each of the witnesses – fourteen in English and three in Irish – and the Commission went on to find that the words of the witnesses were “trustworthy and satisfactory”.

Surviving witnesses were interviewed again in 1936. Mary Byrne, then 86, told the later inquiry:

I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God.

She died six weeks later.

knock5 Witness Mary Byrne, pictured in 1935. She saw the three figures hovering "a foot and a half or two feet from the ground". Source: Knock Museum Collection

Knock today

Now, 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.

Monsignor James Horan, who was parish priest from 1967 t0 1986, is credited with reinvigorating the site and transforming it into a modern religious destination.

One of his most ambitious projects was the building of Knock Basilica, which was completed in 1976. The following year, he began the annual public novena – now attended by over 100,000 people each year.

In 1979, he also played a major role in preparing for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Knock in what was the centenary year of the apparition.

Knock Prayer Vigils A Rosary procession at Knock in 2013. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

In the 1980s, another unexpected appearance at Knock made headlines internationally – as 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 last year – with more than 750,00 passengers coming or going.

The current parish priest, Fr Richard Gibbons, has been presiding over a further revamp of the site in recent years. As part of that process a massive mosaic, constructed in Italy and transported by truck in 300 sections to East Mayo, was unveiled in the basilica in 2016.

Made up of more than 1.5 million pieces, it depicts the apparition as described by the 15 villagers who claimed to have witnessed it.

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, a documentary by award-winning director Aoife Kelleher, was also released in 2016. The film took its title from press coverage the Knock apparition received back in 1879.

Pope Francis visit to Ireland People visit the basilica in Knock Shrine. Source: Niall Carson

Many pilgrims who visit Knock 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 throughout the summer.

TheJournal.ie spent a day at Knock back in August 2016. According to our article from the time, one of the information centres on the site displayed leaflets advertising an event hosted by a woman who claimed to have been cured of a decades-long debilitating illness after attending one of those masses.

We also spoke to an elderly man in one of the many giftshops that now lines the village’s main street. He imparted the following parable - passed down through the generations, and no-doubt told to cynics and sceptics, whenever eyebrows are raised at tales of healings and apparitions in Knock.

“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.

- With reporting by Aoife Barry and Dan MacGuill 

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