Monday 23 April 2018

Shining a light on a village like no other in Ireland

Aoife Kelleher, the documentary-maker behind the hugely successful 'One Hundred Dubliners', on why she turned to Knock for her latest project

Holy show: A scene from Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Holy show: A scene from Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village Photo: Michael Mc Laughlin
Film-maker Aoife Kelleher

On the evening of August 21, 1879, 15 residents of the tiny village of Knock converged on the parish church, where they claimed that they saw a most extraordinary sight: an apparition of the Virgin Mary accompanied by St Joseph, St John the Evangelist, the Lamb of God and a host of angels, along with an altar and a cross.

The witnesses ranged in age from five to 74 years of age; they came from different families and from different parts of the village, and yet their accounts of the evening, as presented to a Commission of Enquiry in October 1879, tallied precisely. The commission, appointed by the Archbishop of Tuam, found that the witnesses' testimonies were "trustworthy" and "satisfactory".

The story of these "strange occurrences" spread far and wide and was covered in news publications throughout Ireland, the UK and the US. Pilgrims from all over the world came to pay homage at the site of the "new Irish miracles".

A correspondent of the Daily News who travelled to Knock found the chapel "surrounded by a crowd of diseased persons, picking stones and cement from the walls and applying them to the ailing spot on their bodies". According to the Pall Mall Gazette in March 1880, "hardly a day [passed] without some miraculous cure being reported in the Irish newspapers, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the blind seeing".

The events that took place in Knock might seem like an unusual subject for a documentary in 2016, in an Ireland that voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Marriage Equality Bill and in which the role and influence of a church that has been rocked by numerous scandals is constantly under question. Yet the fact remains that today, 137 years later, the small Irish village continues to attract over one-and-a-half million visitors every year and the descendants of the 15 witnesses continue to tell their ancestors' story.

It was that story that first attracted me to Knock and to the idea of making a documentary there. Whether or not you believe in the apparition, the description of the events - the 15 witnesses; the dark night; a vision that lasted for over two hours then disappeared; the parish priest who, when told of that vision, reacted with incredulity and refused to venture out into the rain -reads like something from an Agatha Christie novel.

This mysterious event took place in a part of the country that was extraordinarily impoverished, which, even after the end of the Great Famine, continued to suffer mini famines. The Land League had been founded in Mayo earlier in 1879 and the county was the site of numerous rent strikes, evictions and, the following year, the first ever boycott. The people of the West of Ireland were in desperate need of hope and solace, which many of them found in the story of the apparition.

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is about Ireland, past and present, and Irishness which has for centuries been inextricably linked to Catholicism. My intention in the documentary was to tell the story of Knock Shrine, the events that led to its foundation and the hopes, fears and beliefs that continue to bring people there today. I also wanted to tell the stories of the people that work in Knock and those that live there, many of whom depend on the shrine for their livelihood.

The stories featured in the documentary vary from the quaint and quirky, such as that of Canon Joseph Cooney and Leona Connery, who run Knock Marriage Introductions, a Catholic alternative to Tinder; or Bernard Byrne, one of eight siblings, each of whom inherited his or her own religious goods shop on Knock Main Street. Others are genuine tales of the unexpected, such as that of Marian Carroll, who believes that she was miraculously cured of multiple sclerosis at Knock. Marian's story contrasts starkly with that of Carmel Donnellan, who, at only 43, has also been diagnosed with MS and has yet to experience the miracle she craves.

This extraordinary community is, in so many ways, an anachronism, a throwback to a very different Ireland, in which the teachings of the Church were accepted without question and a framed image of the Sacred Heart held pride of place in almost every home.

It's incredible to go to Knock today and see shop after shop selling Holy Water bottles and light-up crucifixes. When I was doing research for the film, I stayed in a bed and breakfast called 'Lamb of God'. During the annual Knock Novena, every August, crowds move in large processions around the grounds of the shrine, following a wheeled statue of Mary, as the rosary goes out over a tannoy. It's a town unlike any other in Ireland. But with Mass attendance now as low as 2pc in many areas, the faithful, on whom Knock depends, are dwindling in number. So what now for the shrine? Is it destined to languish, ever-more isolated, on the periphery of Irish culture and society?

The parish priest of Knock, Fr Richard Gibbons, is determined that this will not be the case. He is on a mission to modernise the shrine and to secure its future. Over the course of the two years our team spent filming in Knock, we watched as Fr Gibbons oversaw the complete renovation of the basilica. A structure that once appeared to be a time capsule from the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 is now a contemporary, comfortable building, complete with one of the largest mosaics in Europe, at a total cost of over €14m, raised entirely through donations.

Father Gibbons was inspired to raise the funds for the renovation by his friend, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, who has to date raised over $100m for the refurbishment of St Patrick's Cathedral. The controversial and charismatic Cardinal Dolan is a frequent visitor to Ireland who, in 2013, invited Fr Gibbons to give a homily at St Patrick's Day Mass in New York. In return, Fr Gibbons convinced one of the most powerful church leaders in the United States to lead a pilgrimage to Knock in August 2015.

The arrival of the cardinal, in the company of 180 members of the New York archdiocese, was a landmark moment for the shrine for a number of reasons: as the first transatlantic pilgrimage to have flown into Knock, it represented the realisation of the vision of Monsignor James Horan when he established Knock Airport in 1986; but it also presented a new source of visitors and revenue for the shrine. Just last month, Knock welcomed a second transatlantic pilgrimage, this time from Boston, led by Cardinal Seán O'Malley.

The question remains, though, as to whether one very industrious parish priest can do all that is required to preserve the shrine for the next generation. Is it time that the story of Knock was left to the annals of history? Or is there something in this small Irish village that will stand the test of time?

Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village opens in cinemas around the country on Friday, August 26

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