By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY
This is the first of two articles on the apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Knock in Ireland, on August 21, 1879. At the time the country was going through a period of upheaval in the aftermath of the Great Famine of 1845-1849, during which a million and a half people died of hunger and disease, and nearly another million emigrated, mostly to America.
The Land League was founded by Michael Davitt in 1879, and, by means of rent strikes and boycotts, sought to improve conditions for the poor, who often could not afford rents and were subject to eviction from their homes at any time. Its first great meeting took place in Irishtown, County Mayo, in April 1879, only a matter of months before the apparition at Knock, and so it was during this troubled period that our Lady chose to visit and console the poor Catholics of Ireland.
Knock was a remote village in Mayo, in the west of Ireland, consisting of a dozen houses scattered around the little church, whose priest was Archdeacon Cavanagh. He had a reputation for holiness, and it became known later that he had only just completed one hundred Masses for the holy souls in Purgatory on the morning of the apparition.
He also had a great devotion to Mary. He ministered to his flock from a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, which had been built about half a century previously and given a strangely prophetic inscription: “Matt. 11 Chapt. My house shall be called the house of prayer to all nations. Ps. 117. This is the gate of the Lord: the just shall enter it.”
A storm had badly damaged the church the previous year, and new statues, including one of Our Lady of Lourdes, had been ordered; these were placed in the simply ornamented building.
On Thursday August 21, 1879, Archdeacon Cavanagh spent the day visiting outlying parishioners, arriving home at about seven in the evening, drenched through by the heavy rain that had begun to fall.
He sat in front of the fire trying to dry his clothes, and later on his housekeeper, Mary McLoughlin, left the presbytery to visit a friend, Mrs. Margaret Beirne, walking past the church on her way. As she did so, she was surprised to see strange luminous figures, and an altar, at the gable end of the church, but thought they must have been more statues ordered by the priest.
Mary McLoughlin did not mention what she had seen to Mrs. Beirne, since the latter had just returned from a brief holiday and there was plenty of news to catch up on. Those present that evening were Mrs. Beirne’s 20-year-old son Dominick, her two daughters Margaret and Mary, and another young relative.
Mary McLoughlin eventually rose to return to the presbytery and Mary Beirne offered to walk with her part of the way. They set off in the rain, but as they came nearer the church, Mary Beirne noticed the figures at the gable and cried out: “Look at the beautiful figures!”
The brilliance of the light around the gable, despite the fact that there was still daylight in the evening sky, made them aware that they were seeing something extraordinary. Both women stood in amazement as they realized that they weren’t looking at statues at all, but strange, moving figures. A wall enclosed the grassy church grounds, and between it and the gable end they could see three figures, seemingly standing above the tall grass, a few feet away from the church wall. Mary McLoughlin was surprised to notice that neither the wall nor the ground near the figures was wet, despite the steadily falling rain.
They immediately recognized the central figure as our Lady, and the one on the left as St. Joseph, while Mary Beirne thought that the one on the right resembled a statue of St. John the Evangelist she had once seen, in addition to the fact that this figure wore a miter. After some time Mary Beirne went off to fetch her family, and they soon came back with her to stand in wonder before the church wall, as it gradually got darker and the rain continued to fall in torrents.
Other neighbors were alerted and also joined the group, and it is probable that many of the villagers saw the apparition at various times during that evening, although only 15 eyewitnesses were officially examined.
They stood entranced as the brilliant golden light with which the figures were enveloped, shimmered and seemed to rise and subside. Most of them saw an altar behind the figures bearing a large cross in front of a young lamb, and one young boy saw angels with wings fluttering over this tableau. The figures themselves wore beautiful white garments, and the Blessed Virgin also wore a crown and stood with her hands raised almost like a priest when saying Mass, gazing at the heavens, her lips moving in what the witnesses took to be prayer. One old lady, full of joy at what she was seeing, tried to grasp her feet, but, despite the lifelike and natural appearance of the apparition, felt nothing.
The witnesses could see St. Joseph inclining his head towards Mary in an attitude of reverence, while St. John was dressed as a bishop, holding a book in his left hand, with his right hand raised as though preaching or teaching. One boy, Patrick Hill, went close enough to see the writing in the book, but like the other witnesses he heard no sounds or voices.
He gave the most detailed information about the apparition, and those who interviewed him found him an intelligent and helpful witness. This is his description of Mary:
“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; her hands were raised to the height of the shoulders, as if in prayer, with the palms facing one another, but slanting inwards towards the face;…she appeared to be praying; her eyes were turned, as I saw, towards heaven; she wore a brilliant crown on her head, and over her forehead, where the crown fitted the brow, a beautiful rose; the crown appeared brilliant, and of a golden brightness, of a deeper hue, inclined to a mellow yellow, than the striking whiteness of the robes she wore; the upper part of the crown appeared to be a series of sparkles, or glittering crosses.”
The Figures Disappear
After about an hour, Mary McLoughlin hurried back to the presbytery to tell Archdeacon Cavanagh what was happening, but for some reason he did not realize the importance of what she was saying, and so remained at home. By about 11 o’clock the witnesses were tired and soaked through, and some of the men went home.
One woman, Judith Campbell, was worried about her mother, who was dying, and, after going to check, rushed back to say she was dead. The remaining witnesses followed her, but discovered that she was only unconscious and was actually to live until the next day; but by the time they returned to the church the mysterious light and the figures had disappeared.
Next morning the priest learned what had happened and questioned some of the witnesses, and it was discovered that a local farmer named Patrick Walsh, who lived about half a mile away, had seen a great light on the south gable of the church about nine o’clock the previous evening.
The next article will look at what happened after the apparition, and how it was eventually approved.
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(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk.)