Monday 14 October 2019

'Pareidolia' hits the shores of Ireland again - as Tralee antique shop sells cabinet with 'uncanny resemblance to Virgin Mary'

We love a Marian sensation but scientists have a name for it

Antique apparition: Shop owner Tom O’Connell with the cabinet in his shop in Tralee, Co Kerry. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Antique apparition: Shop owner Tom O’Connell with the cabinet in his shop in Tralee, Co Kerry. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Remarkable reports emerged this week of devotees kissing and rubbing the cabinet, and we can assure you that it has nothing to do with Leo Varadkar and his ministers.

The phenomenon involves visitors to an antique shop in Tralee, Co Kerry, puckering up to a wooden cabinet, which appears to have a shape and form bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary.

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Not since the emergence of the Holy Stump of Rathkeale - the crowd-pulling vision of the Virgin on a tree in West Limerick - has there been such a Marian sensation on these shores.


Of course, few holy visions can match the Holy Toast of 2004, the imprint of the Virgin on a cheese toastie in Florida.

The haunting vision of Mary had been spotted on a snack by startled householder Diane Duyser.

The Holy Toast found in Florida in 2004. Photo: AFP/Getty
The Holy Toast found in Florida in 2004. Photo: AFP/Getty

She recalled: "I went to take a bite out of it, and then I saw this lady looking back at me... It scared me at first."

The Vintage Vendors shop in Tralee has become a centre of attraction for pilgrims and the merely curious in recent days, and some visitors are praying to the image on the door of the wooden cabinet.

Damien Culhane, who works with owner Tom O'Connell in the shop, bought the cabinet but did not spot the figure of Mary for some time.

He recalled: "A woman came in and she commented, 'Oh my God, that's Our Lady." She couldn't get over it, and then I looked at it and I could kind of see it."

The crowds have not stopped arriving since to hobnob with the sacred piece of furniture, and there is now talk of the cabinet being worth €10,000.

It's not nearly as much as the $28,000 fetched by the Holy Toast, when it was sold on eBay.

Of course, we have had the tendency to see the image of a human being in an inanimate object - including Jesus, Mary or one of the better known saints - since time immemorial

Salvador Ryan, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Maynooth University, told the Irish Independent: "Most probably for as long as there have been people, this has been part of the human experience.

"Scientists even have a name for the phenomenon - pareidolia."


Prof Ryan says humans are hardwired to recognise human faces in virtually any object, or even in natural phenomena such as clouds.

Or in the case of Shakespeare's Hamlet, it could be an animal: "Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?"

According to Prof Ryan, when it's a sacred image that appears, devotees may feel a heavenly presence - touching, rubbing and kissing the object as if it were a relic.

This is not just found among Christians.

Muslims, for instance, have sometimes reported seeing the name of Muhammad in Arabic script in everyday foodstuffs.

Even in a secularised age, people are still inherently curious about the supernatural, and reported "signs and wonders" will always attract people's attention.

Professor Ryan quotes a line that is frequently attributed to G K Chesterton: "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything."

Some scientists also believe that seeing human forms in everyday objects is an evolutionary response.

We are hardwired perhaps to respond to human faces so that they nurture us and look after us.

Tom O'Connell, the owner of the shop in Tralee, has said the crowds coming to his shop are growing every day.

In one interview, he said: "It has legs of its own at this stage - I'm not saying it's moving or anything - it's gone viral."

Dr Jurek Kirakowski, former lecturer at the Department of Psychology in UCC, has studied Marian apparitions and moving statues.

He says that the images of faces and holy figures are illusions.


Devotees may see an image and then tidy it up in their brain so that they see what they want to see.

Dr Kirakowski offered a scientific explanation for the moving statue phenomenon in the mid-1980s when crowds suddenly started to see statues of the Virgin Mary shifting about at Ballinspittle, Co Cork, and elsewhere across the country.

"What happened at Ballinspittle was a perfectly normal effect of our visual system when you are standing in a dark field and swaying while you are looking at bright lights."

Irish Independent

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