Faithful flock for devotions and a little matchmaking
There were quiet hopes and mutterings that there may be another miracle at Knock as a vast crowd turned out yesterday to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption on the second day of the Novena.
Up to 10,000 people packed into the Basilica in the afternoon and joined in a procession.
A statue of the Virgin Mary with what appeared to be an elaborate steering mechanism was wheeled from the church, surrounded by lilies and accompanied by handmaids clad in white.
As pilgrims said the Rosary and sang Ave Maria, the procession wound its way across the tarmac through the manicured gardens to the top of Calvary Hill.
A further 10,000 pilgrims were expected in the Basilica last night, on what is traditionally one of the busiest days of the Novena.
At Knock, there is always something of a culture clash on this feast day, regarded as a time for matchmaking as well as Marian devotions by the Travelling community.
The vast majority who attended the Novena on Thursday had been grey-haired men and women of advanced years - the sort of devotees who fill up pews in parish churches every Sunday.
But yesterday's event gave the Novena a shot of vibrant youth, and some of the pilgrims were almost apparitions in themselves.
Teenage girls and young women, heavily made-up with beehive hairdos, bare midriffs, hot pants and pencil skirts, tottered into the grounds in high heels as if they were entering a somewhat louche nightclub at one o'clock in the morning.
At the entrance to the shrine there is a sign showing what type of dress is prohibited - including short skirts, hot pants and a garment that looked suspiciously like a Victorian swimming costume. But these sartorial strictures were cheerfully ignored.
The more soberly-dressed pilgrims occasionally cast disapproving glances at the Travellers, but this did not dampen the mood of peace, serenity and occasional rapture on a sunny afternoon.
The teenagers, the young parents and their kids running around the lawns added a splash of colour.
On the benches around the shrine, there was the constant murmur of devotees saying the Rosary.
Among the couples who came to the Novena this week, some of the menfolk sometimes seemed less enraptured than their wives. A typical dutiful husband walked in with an ice cream cone in one hand, and his wife's holy water bottles, ready for refill, in the other.
During the longueurs, with the praying continuing relentlessly, the men took to discussing Mayo's prospects against Kerry in the All-Ireland football semi-final next weekend.
And no doubt there were prayers said on behalf of both counties.
Our Lady may not have put in an official appearance at the Shrine since she was spotted by 15 witnesses 135 years ago on August 21.
But hopes are rising for a special appearance of a different type.
Rumours have swirled around Knock that the Pope might possibly grace the Shrine with a visit in 2016, after the Basilica has been given a thorough revamp.
Builders will move in this October to refurbish the Basilica, built at the instigation of Knock's charismatic priest, Monsignor James Horan in 1976. Father Richard Gibbons, the parish priest who is spearheading a campaign to reinvigorate Knock, declined to inflame the speculation yesterday that there might be another Papal visit.
He merely commented: "People hope for many things."
In his souvenir shop in the village, Bernie Byrne, a grandson of Dominick Byrne, one of the witnesses of the supposed apparition in 1879, welcomed moves by the Church to give the visionaries new prominence. He is an absolute believer in the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the Mayo village.
"How could anyone come up with an apparition as complicated as the one at Knock. As well as Mary, you have St John and St Joseph and an altar. It is too sophisticated to make up."