FIVE people who stared at the sun in the hope they might be witnessing religious apparitions are being treated for serious eye damage, a top eye surgeon has revealed.
Reports of pilgrims to Knock seeing the sun dance in the sky and changing colour indicate serious eye damage.
And a number of people who attended the recent religious gathering at the Catholic shrine are reporting symptoms of damaged retinas, said Dr Eamonn O'Donoghue, of University College Hospital in Galway.
Dr O'Donoghue revealed he is treating five patients for serious eye injuries caused by staring at the sun at recent gatherings at Knock organised by Dublin "spiritual healers" Joe Coleman and Keith Henderson.
And he has warned those planning to attend a similar gathering this Saturday that they risk damaging their eyes if they stare at the sun for any length of time.
Dr O'Donoghue's patients were part of the 10,000-strong crowd that visited the Marian Shrine in October in the hope of seeing an apparition.
They have since suffered a serious condition called solar retinopathy, caused by the sun's rays burning into the central part of the eye's retina.
Victims have suffered 50pc vision loss which seriously impairs basic abilities such as reading and driving.
Dr O'Donoghue said that it was "monstrous" to mislead people into thinking that altered vision and effects, such as seeing the sun dance, were a religious apparition when they were classic symptoms of solar retinopathy.
"If it did not have such monstrous effects you could describe it as a cheap circus trick," he said.
Dr O'Donoghue, a renowned opthalmic surgeon who also lectures in NUI Galway and works on vision-aid schemes in developing countries, warned that many others could have suffered similar damage to their eyes. And he fears that children attending the next event will suffer loss of vision as they are particularly vulnerable to sun damage. He warned pilgrims that they could accumulate further problems if they repeated the practice of staring at the sun at the next gathering.
"Any person who has any sort of eye problem would be well advised to give this a very wide berth," he said.
While some of those who have damaged their vision may recover some of their sight in the short term, the damage this has done could cause serious sight problems as they age, Dr O'Donoghue said.
He warned that people would be doing "grievous bodily harm" to themselves if they insisted on staring at the sun in the hope of seeing visions.
Although the Catholic Church warned against attending, some 10,000 pilgrims attended a gathering at Knock on October 31 in the hope of seeing a vision of the Blessed Virgin -- the mother of God according to Catholic doctrine.
Mr Coleman, of Ballyfermot, Dublin, has again predicted an apparition for this week.
The Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh, and the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, have both appealed to Catholics to stay away from the event.
Mr Coleman was unavailable for comment last night.