Friday 19 April 2019

John Daly: 'Mass hysteria or miracle? Maybe both...'

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Aerial view of people who came to pray at the statue of the Blessed Virgin at Ballinspittle, Co Cork. Photo: Tom Burke
Aerial view of people who came to pray at the statue of the Blessed Virgin at Ballinspittle, Co Cork. Photo: Tom Burke

John Daly

It's not something I'm proud of, but I must confess that a fair amount of alcohol had been consumed the night I went to see the Blessed Virgin dance. Taking a few weeks' break in Kinsale that summer of '85, I was contentedly playing darts in The Bulman pub when a local fisherman rushed in with the announcement: "She's moving out in Ballinspittle."

On that quiet July 22 evening with not a whole lot else going on, the possibility that a statue had taken leave of its concrete was enough of a distracting notion to rouse all in the pub, myself included, on the road to investigate.

We weren't the only ones on such a Monday mission - discovering all tracks within two miles of the Ballinspittle grotto already jammed solid with abandoned tractors, vans, sheep trailers and cars to witness something otherworldly on Mary Magdalene's feast day.

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Mind you, this early gridlock was but a drop in the ocean compared to the tidal wave of humanity that would follow in the months ahead. Was it a trick of the light, a bit of local mischief-making or something of a glorious celestial nature - nobody could say for sure as we strained, squinted and scrutinised the saintly statue. Some swore they saw tears on the stone face, as the piles of gloves, hats, scarves and rosary beads grew larger at its base.

It seemed peculiarly ironic that in the time that Madonna released 'Like A Virgin', the shimmering of a Virgin Mary sculpture in a small Cork town would echo around the world - talk about your life imitating art. Debate grew from local crossroads tattle to a global media torrent as the curiosity begun in Ballinspittle quickly spread across Cork, Munster and out into the wider world. Within days there were hundreds coming, and then thousands.

As we gazed in wonder from cafés along the Kinsale seafront, the traffic chaos outdid legendary, with crowds one particular hot August night topping the 25,000 mark. In that Irish summer of murky weather, factory closures and pipe dreams of winning the Donnelly Green Card lottery, this 'miracle' in the misty south was a wagon the whole world wanted to attach itself to. "It seemed at first as if she was breathing, then slight motions of the head and the hands," one of the first witnesses, Catherine O'Mahoney, told me. "None of us that first night had any mind to make too much of what we saw maybe because we didn't understand what was happening - we thought it might just pass."

But it didn't. News outlets grabbed the story and ran with it - the 'New York Times', the 'Wall Street Journal', the 'Australian' and the 'Hindustan Times'.

Even the orthodox 'Time Magazine' weighed in: "Mass hysteria or clever tourist promotion? Scientists examined the statue and pronounced the entire effect an optical illusion. The finding has had little effect on the believers." Bejabers, we thought, Cork might be banjaxed from the Ford and Dunlop factory closures, but the Rebel County is still front page news around the world.

On the strange summer of '85, sightings of religious apparitions went global - Oliveto, Italy; Naju, Korea; Vassula, Switzerland; Cleveland, USA; and Ohlau, Poland. In Ireland too, at Asdee, Carns, Dunkitt, Enniscorthy and Foynes, and all with the same essential message - inexplicable occurrences experienced by normal folk at odds to understand. Was it a miracle in that small Cork village? Well, if a miracle is something that can't be explained, then maybe it wouldn't be wrong to call it that. Regardless of what belief you subscribe to, the fact remains that something extraordinary happened in Ballinspittle that summer of '85.

'Moving Statues - The Summer of 1985', RTÉ 1, Tonight 9.35pm

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