Shrine of the times... how faithful still visit Knock in their thousands
The Catholic hierarchy have been again plunged into controversy, this time over the training of priests at Maynooth, but the faithful still came in their thousands to Knock this week for the Novena, hoping for miracles.
Under a radiant blue sky at the Novena in Knock as they fill their bottles with Holy Water, Ciaran McCarthy and his extended family are hoping and praying that this will be a day for miracles.
"When you come to Knock, you never know who is going to appear to you," says Ciaran as the bottles fill up with litre-upon-litre of the holy stuff.
"If you have a lucky day, you could see Our Lady."
The crowds came in their tens of thousands this week, a few hoping for visions and apparitions of the Blessed Virgin.
Others were looking for blessings, prayers, special cures, statues, rubs of relics, souvenirs, spiritual knick-knacks, sweet Knock rock - and enough Holy Water to fill an Olympic swimming pool. Some even come dressed up to the nines, looking and longing for a husband or a wife. They call it Holy Love.
The Feast of the Assumption, which fell on Monday, has traditionally been a day for matchmaking among the Travelling Community.
Young women, heavily made-up in short tight outfits that are regarded by some of the middle-aged devotees as much too scanty for upright Catholic tastes, paraded up and down outside the basilica.
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 strict sartorial rules are not enforced, and often ignored.
For most visitors during the week, the dress is sober and the mood serene - with a constant background noise of the murmur of the Rosary.
A few devotees seem to go into raptures every now and again.
This emotional intensity reaches its peak during the afternoon Rosary procession through the grounds surrounding the basilica.
A statue of the Virgin Mary, with what appears to be an elaborate steering mechanism, is wheeled from the basilica, surrounded by lilies and flanked by the loyal Handmaids of Knock Shrine, all clad in white.
The procession is led by two Stewards of the Knock Shrine society in red capes and white gloves, bearing a large crucifix.
A throng of thousands follows them, mostly clutching rosary beads with eyes half-closed.
Someone tells me that the trolley of Our Lady has an electric engine that can be turned on when the procession is heading up hills.
As pilgrims say the Rosary and sing 'Ave Maria', the procession winds its way across the tarmac through the manicured gardens to the top of Calvary Hill. By the time we reach the apparition chapels, some worshippers seem almost in a trance.
It is said that apparitions frequently happen "in the middle of nowhere", and if that is the case, Our Lady could not have picked a more ideal location for her appearance than Knock in the middle of Mayo.
The shrine not only brings spiritual succour, it also brings crucial business to an area that always seems to be at the sharp end of recessions.
Certainly, if one woman from Castlebar was to be believed, Our Lady has done more for the local economy than Enda Kenny could ever dream of.
"Enda would never have caused an airport to be built," she tells Review. "He has done nothing since he got in as Taoiseach."
Statues may have moved in Ballinspittle and elsewhere across the country in 1985 and there have been countless reports of other apparitions, mysterious glimmerings in the sky (sometimes attributed to drink), and things that go bump in the night.
But none of these visions created the same sensation as the "apparition" of the Virgin to Mary Byrne and 14 others on a rainy evening in August 1879.
Father Richard Gibbons, the go-ahead parish priest who has helped to give the Shrine a thorough facelift, says around one-and-a-half million people visit every year, an estimate based on the distribution of Communion wafers.
Father Gibbons proudly shows me the vast new mosaic depicting the apparition, made up of over one million pieces; it was donated by Joe O'Toole, a supermarket owner from Tuam.
How did the original Knock visionaries, who spotted Mary, Joseph, St John the Evangelist and the Lamb of God on the gable wall of the Church, succeed where others failed - attracting such stars of the spiritual firmament as John Paul II and Mother Teresa to Knock?
Grace Mulqueen, curator of the Knock Museum, says it was the sheer number of visionaries and the support of the parish priest at the time that helped the obscure Mayo village to find fame.
"After the apparitions at Knock, there were others in Ireland, but they tended to be witnessed by just one person.
"The fact that 19 people saw it and 15 were recognised officially made it special."
For thousands who come to Knock during the Novena, it is the hope of a cure that draws them.
On Tuesday afternoon, those hoping for miraculous effects queued patiently to rub, caress, and kiss the original stone gable wall where the apparition happened. They dip their fingers in Holy Water and press themselves lovingly against the stonework.
Mags O'Malley from Ballinrobe approaches me next to the holy stones and I am somewhat taken aback when she remarks: "I am actually not religious at all, and I don't go to Mass and confession.
"I suffered from migraines, and laughed at the idea that rubbing the wall at Knock could cure you, but I thought I would just give it a try.
"Four months ago, I rubbed the wall, and rubbed my eyes and my forehead and blessed myself. It actually cured me and I don't have the pains in my eyes."
There were plenty of other similar stories of stunning health benefits from this week's visitors to the Novena.
Deirdre, a retired nurse, tells me she has been a believer since she came here in an ambulance with patients many years ago.
"I was looking after a patient who was riddled with TB, and she was cured when she came to Knock."
Museum curator Mulqueen tells me that the first known cure at Knock came only 10 days after the apparitions in 1879.
Delia Gordon, a 12-year-old girl from Claremorris, had suffered deafness and violent pains in her ear until that day when she was brought to Mass in Knock by her parents.
According to one account, she was in such pain that she had to go outside with her parents.
They knelt in prayer before the place where the apparition was seen. Mrs Gordon picked out a piece of cement from the gable, made the sign of the cross over it and placed it on the afflicted ear.
According to one historical account, almost immediately the pain vanished, never to return. No trace of deafness remained.
Pilgrims may have arrived in Knock in their hundreds from that day on, but there were also plenty of sceptics who firmly believed that the apparitions were a fake, or a practical joke
One theory that has circulated since the events of 1879 holds that apparition was an elaborate light show put on by local police constables as a prank.
According to this account, the policemen created the effect using a magic lantern, a popular device at the time, which was used to project images on to a wall.
Grace Mulqueen says scientists from Maynooth carried out an experiment to see if they could recreate the apparition with a Magic Lantern, but they could not do it.
Other theories hold that the apparition was a simple light trick carried out by two boys with paraffin lamps and glass pieces.
A more plausible explanation suggests that the causes of the apparition were psychological. Under the severe economic pressures of the time, with poverty-stricken tenants facing eviction during an era of political conflict over land, local people were said to susceptible to these visions.
They might have seen a bright light in the sky, but were the details of the apparition the creation of fertile imaginations?
In his souvenir shop in the village, Bernard Byrne, a grandson of Dominick Byrne, one of the witnesses of the apparition in 1879, remains convinced that the apparition was genuine.
"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."
Bernard always felt special growing up knowing that he was a grandson of a Knock visionary.
His father, John Joe, owned land along the street adjoining the site of the shrine and he saw the business potential of the growing number of pilgrims in Knock.
John Joe built eight shops, one for each of his children, assuring them of a good living. Bernard says there has been a surge in sales of grave ornaments, while the other big sellers remain constant: medals, Holy Water bottles and statues.
Some might consider the souvenirs tacky, but Bernard has standards to maintain. He once turned down the opportunity to sell a hard-boiled egg with the Pope's face on it.
He says the crowds have been fairly constant in recent years.
The Catholic hierarchy may have been at the centre of scandals in recent weeks over the training of priests in Maynooth, but the Novena at Knock shows how at grassroots level, popular devotion continues unabated.
Millions have turned up at the shrine since Our Lady was the first to fly into Knock 137 years ago, and there is every sign that they will keep on coming.
Photos by Frank McGrath