STORY OF A FAMED IRISH SHRINE
Nazareth the unknown! Nazareth the insignificant! Our Divine Lord yet abode a Man in the midst of men, lips of the worldly-wise contemptuously curled at the claim to everlasting renown made for a village possessed of no more convincing material memorial of its vaunted distinction than the site of a wayside carpentery.
Can any good come out of Nazareth? Throughout the intervening ages, unbelief has repeatedly flung forth the olden challenge. But as frequently, through grace of Almighty God, has Faith returned the answer.
It is noteworthy that often when it has pleased God that that answer should be given, as it were, in terms of miraculous manifestation, the chosen circumstances should have been as those of Nazareth itself.
A century ago, Lourdes was a place unknown and unimportant even among those living in its nearest vicinity. Paray-le- Monial, Rue de Bac, La Salette, almost all the now universally besought shrines of Catholic Faith similarly associated with actual Heavenly indication, were scarcely distinguishable names in the ear of the outside world before there had come to pass the holy occurrences in proof of which they stand.
The fact is notably true of Knock, the now piously venerated shrine of Mary-let us say of Our Lady Queen of Ireland-set upon the gently-sloping hill from which the village would appear to have taken its name, about six miles beyond Claremorris, upon the road between that town and Swinford in Mayo.
“It is a big jump in time and space from Nazareth of Galilee to Knock in County Mayo,” said an eloquent pilgrimage preacher in 1936,”But how like the resemblance one to the other, of those divinely-favoured hamlets?” There are in Ireland many places called Knock, for the name is simply the common Cnoc, meaning a hill. There are even other villages of the name to be encountered in the western Irish counties. Nevertheless, it is not exaggeration to suggest that prior to the close of the eighteen-seventies, the Knock that has through such blessed wonder become Knock-Mhuire, or Knock of Mary, was the least known of all.
They were a lowly, plain-going folk that inhabited the place, having nothing of the social importance or industrial association that would have commended them to the interest of the world that lay without their parish confines. They were, consequently, so wholly absorbed in pursuit of their own humble affairs that few living even within a few miles of the village thought of it, whilst by many its existence was undreamt of.
In the condition of the villagers of the later “seventies,’ the resemblance between Knock and Nazareth bore with remarkable fidelity. The priest already quoted, a native of the Knock of that period, has said that the social plight of the people was in every respect akin with that of the people of Nazareth in the time of Our Lord.”Poor, peaceful and unknown, dead to the outside world: rich only in the treasures of grace and faith.” Privation had been their lot longer than the oldest among them could remember. The tyrannical landlordism that crushed human hope in the hearts of the West of Ireland generally, pressed mercilessly upon defenceless Knock. The village, too, experienced ever-recurring periods of crop failure and scarcity, one spell of anxiety quickly succeeding another, the latter differing from the former, perhaps, in category, but seldom in dread.
Thus opened the year 1879, presently to be rendered dismally historic for Knock by a potato blight which stigmatized the year as possibly the worst known in that part of Mayo since the desolating Famine of 1847. But the tender glance of Divine Pity rested upon the village.
“Cum ipso sum in tribulatione-I am with you in your tribulations!” That period of greatest trial in the memory of the inhabitants of the time had been the chosen of God for the wonderful manifestation of His Grace, which, under Heaven, they were induced to appraise as Mary’s mission of compassion and comfort to them in their sorrow and suffering.
It was auspiciously upon the octave-vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, 21st August, 1879, at about half-past seven in the evening, the daylight having not yet faded, and at the moment in which their human anguish had reached the climax, that villagers, men, women, and children, came forth among the homesteads, crying out in voices of joyous conviction that Our Blessed Lady, with St. Joseph and St. John Evangelist, had been seen by them in an indescribable glow of heavenly light at the gable of the parish church.
At once, the hearers hastened to the spot, and the wonder, which lasted without the slightest diminution for about two hours, was seen by many persons. Fifteen of these witnesses subsequently made their testimony in writing, and later withstood the test of rigorous examination as to. their experience, with, of course, special reference as to compatability of detail in respect of first impressions as related to after recollection, and in regard of the distinct accounts of the several persons concerned. These recitals comprised a beautifully simple, and in that connection, convincing record of the vision.
Mary Beirne, afterwards known as Mrs. O'Connell, who lived until October, 1936, was at the date of the vision, a girl of twenty-six. Her testimony, which is the most convenient for inclusion here exactly as given, stated that”it was eight o‘clock, or a quarter to eight, at the time . . . The first I learned of it was on coming at the time from my mother’s house, in company with Mary McLoughlin, and at a distance of three hundred yards or so from the church, I beheld standing out from the gable, and rather to the west of it, three figures which appeared to be that of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, and St. John. That of the Blessed Virgin was life-size. The Virgin stood erect with eyes raised to Heaven, her hands elevated to the shoulders, or a little higher, the palms inclined slightly towards the shoulders, or bosom. She wore a crown on her head, rather a large crown, and it appeared to me somewhat yellower than the dress, or robes, worn by Our Blessed Lady.”
“When I arrived there, I threw myself upon my knees, and exclaimed: “A hundred thousand thanks to God, and to the glorious Virgin, that has given us this manifestation!” attested seventy-five-year-old Brigid French, whose evidence was given in Irish. This witness added that she was so taken up with the Blessed Virgin, and felt such great delight in looking at her, that, although she saw the other figures, she did not give much attention to them.
Patrick Hill, then about fifteen years of age, testified, however, that he saw with Our Lady, “St. Joseph and St. John, and an altar with a lamb on the altar, and a cross behind the lamb. The figures were full and round, as if they had body and life. As we approached, they seemed to go back a little towards the gable.” It rained during the manifestation, he continued, but the people remained there, some praying, all looking at the vision. When he, himself, had prayed a little, he went into the chapel yard, and thus closer to the vision. seeing everything distinctly. Obviously, the figure of the Blessed Virgin as then seen, and afterwards scrupulously attested by this boy has been perpetuated in the study which, thanks to the reverent concern and genius of artists of recent years, we may now happily distinguish as that of Our Lady of Knock.
“I distinctly beheld the Blessed Virgin life-size,” he declared, “standing about two feet or so above the ground, clothed in white robes which were fastened at the neck. She appeared to be praying. Her eyes were turned, as I saw, towards Heaven. She wore a brilliant crown on her head, and, over the forehead, where the crown fitted the brow, a beautiful rose. The crown appeared brilliant, and of a golden brightness, or deeper hue, 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. I saw her eyes. I noticed her hands and face, and her appearance.”
The general testimony showed that St. Joseph appeared upon the right of Our Lady, his head inclined towards her, whilst St. John occupied the left of the vision, his left hand clasping a book, and his right hand raised as if in preaching. No word was uttered by any of the heavenly visitants. Such was the Apparition of Knock, the convincing appeal of which has been unshaken in countless hearts not only in Ireland but in every part of the world in which the name of Mary Mother of God is known and loved, for three score years.
The vision upon the evening of the 21st was not, however, the only one. Several further manifestations took place at intervals during the ensuing seven months.
Prodigious lights, flaming orbs, and stars of extraordinary radiance were seen about the spot of the Apparition on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6th January, 1880.
A little more than a month later, 10th February, eve of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, silvery clouds appeared, with red tongues of flame shooting down from the skies, and in the midst of the wonder, standing upon a cloud, the Immaculate Mother. Three figures, with Our Blessed Lady again in the central position, were seen two days afterwards, 12th February. Finally, on 24th March and the two following days, embracing the vigil and Feast of the Annunciation, Our Saviour crucified was manifest. A peculiarly illuminated figure of the Blessed Virgin was also seen, and, ultimately, St. Joseph with the Divine Child.
Long inherent traditions of a characteristic devotion to the Mother of God had, so to speak, prepared the people of Knock for the worthy acceptance of the wonder. Mary had been the loved intermediary of their trust in God through years of temporal travail. The humble piety with which they celebrated the Apparition shows how clearly they appreciated the unparalleled favour as an occasion only for the rejoicing of the soul. All their pious appreciation of the occurrence was concentrated in quiet thanksgiving to Almighty God. Spoken pride in the matter there was none, and their innocence of any endeavour to advance the fact of the Apparition to the material advantage of themselves, or of their village, and, indeed, of any desire that it should be availed of for the glorification of Knock, a hamlet of poor sinners, as one of them declared, or even be noised beyond the parish boundaries, was very marked. It was evidence of their worthiness that such a heavenly manifestation should have taken place in their midst.
The parish priest of Knock at the date of the Apparition was the Ven. Bartholomew Aloysius Cavanagh, Archdeacon of Tuam, a man of great sanctity and austerity, who was referred to as a saint even whilst he lived. In his priestly labours, it is said, love for the Mother of God, and attachment to the Holy Souls in Purgatory, were two particular characteristics.”His sermons, always simple, were full of that ever-present devotion to the Mother of God, for whom his favourite title was “the ever Immaculate Mother of God.” We now know that his people attributed the great favour of the reported vision of Our Blessed Lady to the holiness of their pastor. The late Mrs. O'Connell (née Mary Beirne), who was one of the most important witnesses, held that view strongly, and repeatedly, expressed it.”
Archdeacon Cavanagh was not himself a witness of the Apparition, nor yet of any of the visions of the subsequent months. But in the seclusion of the thatched and whitewashed cottage, than which he would suffer no grander parochial residence, he had, it would appear, his own intimate visions of Our Lady.”I heard the Blessed Virgin speaking on two occasions, and saw her more than once, he has related. The same personal account reveals how from the Feast of St. Francis Xavier, 3rd December, 1880, when he was so favoured for the first time, he frequently, in the morning as well as at night, saw heavenly lights in his room, particularly on the Feasts of St. John Evangelist, 27th December and the Epiphany, but oftener, as he declared, than he would relate.”I called my niece and my servants on two or three occasions to -witness these lights,” the account concludes,”and they saw them for nearly an hour each time, as they can testify. A great many other manifestations took place, which I would not wish to speak of.” It should, however, be added that the saintly Archdeacon also testified as to having seen at the gable of the church at noon-day, heavenly lights in four columns with a figure surmounting one. Two men, who had seen this phenomenon at a considerable distance, drew his attention to it. There was a representation of an altar with stations grouped upon it to the east of the columns, he stated, whilst the remaining spaces of the gable were scrolled.