Thursday 22 August 2019

Losing our religion? 'People in Ireland have turned from God and it's sad'

Ireland has undergone seismic change since the last papal visit in 1979, with most Irish Catholics now ­cultural or lapsed. Is faith now ­something to be ashamed of

Francis fever: Tom Byrne who runs a gift shop in Knock, is expecting brisk business for the papal visit. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Francis fever: Tom Byrne who runs a gift shop in Knock, is expecting brisk business for the papal visit. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Different times: Pope John Paul during his visit in 1979. Photo: Anway Hussein
Mary Walsh from The Irish Craft Centre in Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is a quiet Wednesday afternoon on Knock's main street. Incessant rain and the gusts of what will soon become Storm Hector are keeping pilgrims away. Those who have ventured to the Mayo village take refuge from the elements in the Apparition Chapel or the basilica, currently undergoing something of an internal facelift.

Tom Byrne has had a quiet day. He has run souvenir shops here for as long as he can remember but, with trade slow, he takes the opportunity to do a stocktake and to count the new batch of plastic holy water bottles that have arrived.

He is expecting brisk business over the next couple of months as the numbers visiting Knock increase in advance of the visit of Pope Francis. "It will be a really great day for Knock," he says, "we're all so happy that he is coming here."

Byrne was present in the village on that day in September 1979 when John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Ireland - and Knock. "If it wasn't for the centenary of the apparition, he wouldn't have come to Ireland at all," he says. "But Monsignor Horan had done a lot of work to convince him that he should come here."

Different times: Pope John Paul during his visit in 1979. Photo: Anway Hussein
Different times: Pope John Paul during his visit in 1979. Photo: Anway Hussein

Byrne recalls the former parish priest of Knock with great fondness. It was the visionary James Horan who had an airport built up the road in the boggy common ground near Charlestown.

"He married me in 1975," he says. "He was a really great man who wanted the best for Knock. He wanted people to be able to come here from all over the world. And that's what happens today."

This unique village, Byrne insists, is the place where Catholics can feel completely at ease in a secular Ireland.


The Ireland that Pope Francis will visit in August is unrecognisable to the one that John Paul II toured almost four decades ago. From a devout, God-fearing land where the Catholic Church ruled, the Ireland of 2018 has never felt more secular.

This week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that he abhorred the situation where some liberals had made "pariahs" out of those with deep Catholic faith: "I do not believe in the socialist ideology, which is to push religion out of the public space and force people who are religious to be ashamed they have religious convictions."

Mary Walsh from The Irish Craft Centre in Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Mary Walsh from The Irish Craft Centre in Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan

It would have been unthinkable for then Taoiseach Jack Lynch to utter such words in the weeks before John Paul II came here. That Ireland was a place without divorce and abortion, where the purchase of contraceptives was illegal and where homosexuality was deemed a crime. Mass attendance was high and dissenting voices were few.

Fast-forward to the present day to an Ireland where divorce was legalised in 1995 and condoms can be bought easily over the counter, to a country where two thirds of the electorate voted to make abortion legal for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and where gay marriage has been written into the constitution. Church-going has slumped in most parishes and now it's those who espouse religious belief who must feel like they are in the minority.

The most recent Central Statistics Office figures show how significant the change has been in just a couple of generations. In 2016, those indicating 'No Religion' accounted for 9.8pc of the population. This was an increase of 198,610 over the five years, bringing the total to 468,421 and making 'No Religion' the second largest group in 2016. By contrast, in the 1991 census, the total claiming 'No Religion' was just 67,413.

Back in 1961, 94.9pc of the population claimed to be Catholic. Today, that stands at 78.3pc. And for a country that was among the last in the world to ban divorce, there were more than 73,000 Catholic divorcees in Ireland in 2016.


Tom Moloney is sitting in silent contemplation in the Basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland - by far the largest of the five churches in Knock. He is in his early 70s and is visiting today from Tuam, Co Galway. Like many who make the pilgrimage here, he is seriously ill: colon cancer has spread to his lungs and he offers up private prayer.

Knock is a special place for him, he says. He has travelled here many times and feels great solace when surrounded by other people with strong faith. "The country has changed," he says, sadly. "A lot of the young people have turned from God and it is very sad to see. It was very different in '79. I was in Galway [at Ballybrit Racecourse] to see the Pope then and there was such excitement for old and young. It won't be like that this time. Too many young people have left church."

A pair of pilgrims from Co Tyrone, Collete Given and Patrick McEnhill, have chosen an especially wet day to visit Knock. They have been coming here for years. "It's a welcoming place," the woman says, "and for those of us with a strong faith, there's nowhere else like it in Ireland."

Given is dismayed at how secular Ireland has become, especially when contemplating the fact that two out of ever three votes were in favour of abortion rights in last month's referendum. But she says it's a source of solace that more than 700,000 people voted No. Many of them are proud of their Catholic faith, she insists, even if modern-day Ireland can be a cold place for them.

"It feels like a foreign place," she says. "A 'me, myself and I' culture rules now. There just isn't the sort of dependence on God as there was when I was their age."

"It's a pity what's been lost," McEnhill adds, "but maybe when Pope Francis comes here, some people might be encouraged to return."


Wendy Grace is a presenter on the Dublin-based Christian station, Spirit Radio. She has met Pope Francis in the past and is excited at the prospect of his Irish visit. "He is a great communicator," she says, "and he has a great connection with young people. I saw him in Poland and there were 2.2 million people present - most of them were young. They're excited by him."

Grace, who was a high-profile campaigner for a No vote in the abortion referendum, says the pontiff's appeal is wide-ranging and encompasses those "of all religions and none". She believes even lapsed Catholics appreciate his inherent goodness and the fact that his care for the poor isn't just a PR exercise.

"When he visits the Capuchin Centre [for Dublin's homeless] he'll do it privately. And wherever he goes, he makes a point about seeing the poor, of going to them. It's something that he did from his earliest days in the priesthood."

Comparisons with the '79 visit will be inevitable, although Grace insists one cannot compare like with like. "Just because people may not go to the Phoenix Park in the sort of numbers they did then does not mean they're not interested," she says. "Many of them will watch from home on their couches. Big events like that didn't happen here when Pope John Paul II came so people went out in great numbers. Similarly, while a lot of people were on the street when Obama was here, farm far more came out for JFK - a different time."

Grace believes many people are not as comfortable about declaring themselves to be Catholic as they were a couple of generations ago. "It's sad that it's happened, but many so-called liberal people are very intolerant of those with faith. It shouldn't be like that but people can be afraid to put their heads above the parapet for simply being proud to be Catholic."

A papal visit, she reckons, will embolden many silent Catholics. "It will show them they're not alone, that there are many people - including many young people - who have a very strong faith and are not ashamed of that faith."


Young people are thin on the ground in Knock on Wednesday. The only millennials to be seen are working in the various information centres and book stores run by the Church here. Others wait tables in the old-fashioned restaurants and chintzy gift shops.

Some twenty-somethings staff the mass card centres - and the facility close to the vast car park is an eye-opener to the first-time visitor. It looks like a bank, with a row of semi-private 'windows' where you can pay for mass cards and have 'tellers' take down the details of whom you wish to have prayed for.

A common motto in this shrine village is 'I prayed for you in Knock' and the legend adorns all manner of religious artefacts and the ubiquitous plastic bottles that are typically sold for €1 apiece. There's no difficulty accessing holy water - a row of taps providing consecrated water is built into the perimeter wall in front of the Apparition Chapel and alongside the wide open space that will accommodate 45,000 ticketed pilgrims during Pope Francis's whistle-stop visit here.

Estimates vary widely, but anything between 200,000 and 400,000 descended on Knock for John Paul II 39 years ago. He was supposed to spend much longer in Knock, but as Tom Byrne recalls, the pontiff was detained over a lengthy lunch by the Bishop of Galway, Eamonn Casey. Consequently, his tight schedule was thrown out of sync.

"And the Pope said the very reason he was visiting Ireland was to see Knock," Byrne says. "He was always so devoted to Our Lady and he wanted to come to the place where the apparition had happened."

Knock enjoyed busy years in the decade and a half after that visit, according to Mary Walsh who has run the Irish Craft Centre in the village since 1985. "The numbers wouldn't be as big today," she says, "but they're still coming, and thank God they're still coming. No matter what you might hear, there are still an awful lot of people in this country who have a strong religious devotion. You'll see that when the Pope comes."

Brian Crowley, manager of the Knock House Hotel, says the large proportion of repeat visitors is testament to the unique appeal of Knock. "People of all ages feel a very strong connection with this place and for those of faith it is a hugely important destination that they want to visit time and again."

The hotel is especially busy this time of year and booked out around the time Francis will arrive in Ireland, but the manager insists that his establishment will not ratchet up prices. "That's not how we operate," he says, adding that the papal visit is not an opportunity for the hotel to make a quick buck. "Our guests are much more important than that."


Connaught, and parts of Mayo in particular, suffered enormously in the long period from the Great Famine in 1840s until the birth of the 20th century. Poverty was rife in the 1870s and the Land War would be especially pronounced in the province. Captain Boycott owned a huge estate not far from Knock and his name would enter the English language as a result of the ostracisation practices employed against him.

Poverty may have been acute, but deep religious devotion was just as ingrained. Pope Pius IX had elevated the Virgin Mary in the eyes of Catholics with his Immaculate Conception dogma in 1854 and four years later Mary allegedly appeared to a peasant girl in Lourdes in the south of France.

The story of the apparition was well known in Ireland by 1879, when up to 15 people in Knock allegedly witnessed a vision of Mary, Saint Joseph, John the Baptist and Jesus, in the spiritual form of a lamb. They reportedly appeared on the gable end of the church that had been built in 1828. One of those locals, Dominic Byrne, is an ancestor of souvenir shop owner, John Byrne.

Church 'commissions of enquiry' in 1879 and 1936 were satisfied that the incident had taken place and Knock's shrine status was secured. And while major religious events were held there, it wasn't until the construction of the basilica in 1976 - another achievement by the industrious Monsignor Horan - that the village started to attract numbers that would peak at 1.5 million per annum in the mid-1980s.

Only last year, the remains of John Curry, the youngest person to have reportedly witnessed the apparition, were taken from a communal plot on Long Island, New York and buried at St Patrick's Cathedral, Manhattan.

Fr Richard Gibbons, parish priest at Knock, celebrated mass in the famed church for this member of the "forgotten Irish who had faced the desolation of leaving home never to return".

"Secular Ireland doesn't understand this place," says one woman, a native of Knock, but who declines to be named. "And it doesn't want to. It's somewhere it can laugh at and think of as a relic of the past.

"But for those who believe, it's a vital place and I feel very fortunate to have spent all of my life in a place where Our Lady chose to appear.

"And she is very welcome to come back at any time - everyone who comes here would be so happy to see her."

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