I might be getting soft in my old age, but I seem to be developing sympathy for other people’s feelings. So, before I get on with the deconstruction, let me assure readers of a sensitive disposition, this is not about whether Knock is a sacred site.
There are lots of sacred sites pre-dating Christianity by thousands of years. And many Christian churches are now built on them. Sites remain sacred. It’s just the gods that change.
Neither is about Jesus, his mother, or the any of the principles of Christianity. Although to be fair, if you count the number of appearances the Virgin Mary made, even in the last century, it must be said she has been on more world tours than the other Madonna.
This article is simply about whether the Catholic Church is the type of organisation that would deliberately dupe innocent people in an attempt to quell country-wide unrest among the devout, who were beginning to suspect that as one of the biggest landowners in Ireland, the Church’s true sympathies lay with other landlords rather than its own flock.
If you believe the Catholic Church could not possibly sink so low, then I suggest you look away now.
Knock in Country Mayo, is Ireland’s biggest Christian pilgrimage site due to an apparition on the Church of St John the Baptist’s gable wall in 1879.
It was an apparition of the Virgin Mary dressed in flowing white robes and wearing a radiant golden crown. She appeared with two men: one elderly and bearded, the other wearing a Bishop’s mitre and holding an open book. Although no one really knew who they were, it was later decided they were St Joseph and John the Evangelist. Behind them stood a cross on an altar, and the Lamb of God adored by angels.
The apparition was seen about 8 pm on 21 August 1879 by 2 women. In the days before daylight saving this would be early dusk. In all there were fifteen witnesses ranging in age from five to seventy-five. According to them, the apparition was suspended a few feet above the ground.
The small group prayed in front of the apparition for two hours. For the entire time the figures did not move, and although it grew dark they remained visible, glowing in a whitish light. It was lightly raining during the visitation yet the figures did not become wet even though the church wall did. One of the women reported when she kissed the Virgin’s feet, she felt only the wall and could not understand why she could not feel what she so clearly saw.
Twenty-one years earlier in 1858, a peasant girl in the village of Lourdes saw the Virgin Mary: one of her first appearances in the modern world. Despite the church’s initial skepticism there was a great revival of faith and a surge of renewed devotion towards Jesus’s Mother: the likes of which had not been seen since medieval times.
Miracles were quickly reported in Lourdes, swelling the crowds of the faithful and the curious who flocked to this new place of pilgrimage. The new railways established Lourdes’ success by turning this previously inaccessible location into a tourist destination.
In the 1870s, Ireland was undergoing social upheaval. The previous generation saw the potato famine and the diaspora which almost emptied the country. There was civil unrest among the remaining population. From this time we get the word ‘boycott’, from a rent collector Captain Boycott, who was ostracised for taking the landlords’ side against tenant farmers.
The church, as a major landowner, was perceived to be more concerned with rents than the material well-being of its desperate flock, and its authority suffered. It was not in the Church’s own interest to knock Knock. Not when a miracle could bring the faithful to heel; just as Lourdes had.
A Church inquiry, established in October, investigated the miracle and concluded it was genuine. The gap is important. Delays mean witnesses discuss events and come to common opinions about what they saw – like deciding the identity of the 2 ghostly men.
There is an old German Proverb that runs… ‘He lies like an eye witness.’
Many investigators maintain the apparition was nothing more than a magic lantern slide. The illusion relied on the fact country people would have never seen such a thing. One investigator demonstrated how the light from a magic lantern, located in a nearby building, could be redirected onto the Church gable wall using a shaving mirror.
Magic lantern slides, used to inspire terror and awe, have a long history. The first record is in a book by the Venetian engineer Giovanni Fontana in 1420. It is an engraving of a lantern projecting an image of the devil and his demons entitled a ‘nocturnal appearance to frighten spectators’. Leonardo Da Vinci also sketched a projector that used a lens to focus an image.
In 1671 a magic lantern image of Death was projected on the wall of the Danish King’s palace, much to the consternation of the courtiers and the amusement of the king. Unfortunately the king died 3 days later, which rather put the kibosh on things.
By the 1770s magic lanterns were being used as entertainment by traveling showmen in fairs. In 1820, a London company, Carpenter and Westley, started manufacturing sturdy portable ‘Phantasmagoria Lanterns’ known to produce high quality images.
A witness said, when he tried to touch the figures at Knock, his fingers caused shadows to appear in the image (as if he broke a beam of light). Yet the local policeman swore to the Church Commission there was no light beam.
At this point, one must ask if the local policeman’s allegiance lay with his oppressed fellow countrymen or his employers, representing the prosperous and landed lords temporal and spiritual. Personally my testimony would be influenced by thoughts of losing my job and pension.
The Church Commission, aware of accusations of trickery, showed magic lantern slides to witnesses some 6 weeks after the event. The witnesses swore the apparition was not the same. Some claimed they were not as bright and clear as the original vision. Others the apparition was more ghostly. Some testified the light bathing the unmoving figures kept flickering. It is interesting to note the Church Commission says it ignored ‘subsequent apparitions that occurred after the original vision’. And so there are no records of these.
One of the commissioners was the parish priest, Father Bartholomew Aloysius Cavanagh. Rather than a simple country clergyman, Father Cavanagh was also Archdeacon of the Diocese. Having been the parish priest for a dozen years Father Cavanagh was well regarded by the locals, in spite of him siding with landlords against the growing popular Land League movement.
Newspaper reports quickly excited public curiosity and the place became a Marian pilgrimage site, as with Lourdes. When it did, Father Cavanagh made the most of the apparition and was responsible for publicising the subsequent miracle cures.
In 1936, a 2nd Church Commission re-examined the apparition. With most of the original documentation from the First Commission assumed lost (how?), they relied on newspaper reports; which obviously unlike our news reports were neither biased nor sensationalised. They also spoke to surviving witnesses with the intention of having them confirm their original statements from half a century earlier. Unsurprisingly 2nd Church Commission also declared the apparition that occurred at the now most famous shrine in Ireland, genuine.
In 1987, an Irish TV program claimed Father Cavanagh: Parish Priest, Diocese Archdeacon and Church Commissioner, had perpetrated the fraud himself. As a century had passed, they only had newspaper reports and the 1936 Commission’s notes to go on, and so could only reconstruct events by discrepancies in the witness statements that were ignored in the official story.