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Why RTE needs its own Louis Theroux

I've often wondered something about the Ballinspittle statue. If the Virgin Mary is supposed to be such a groovy mover, how come she didn't fight back when vandals attacked her with an axe?

The heady summer of 1985, when thousands flocked to the Cork village -- and to 30 other locations around the country -- to worship lumps of painted plaster, were recalled in Aifric Ni Chianain's colourful documentary Apparitions.

The sudden need for the supernatural in the midst of a dire economic depression has been offered as an explanation for this outbreak of mass devotion/hysteria.

As to the supposed manifestations themselves, they could be due to a number of things, suggested one contributor, such as the disorienting effect of standing in a dark field, staring at a statue illuminated by uneven light.

In other words, if you stare at a lamppost for long enough without blinking, it will eventually appear to move -- which is, perhaps, why neither the press nor television cameras have ever been able to capture statues in motion.

Worshippers no longer trouble Ballinspittle in the same numbers, although there are still a few diehards -- including the retired local garda -- knocking around. The Celtic Tiger years, when confidence coursed through our veins while cash coursed through our banks, seemed to knock the phenomenon on the head.

Now, though, with Ireland once again caught in the teeth of a recession, the visionaries are on the rise. The prime mover and shaker this time around is Joe Coleman, the self-proclaimed "authenticated seer" from Ballyfermot, who claims the Virgin Mary has been appearing to him for regular, cosy chats since he was a child.

Over the past year or so, Coleman has been drawing thousands to the Knock Shrine to witness him receiving messages from Our Lady.

Ni Chianain's film followed him on several jaunts to Knock, where his excitable devotees claimed to see the sun dancing in the sky.

Though Coleman seems to have exclusive bragging rights to the Virgin Mary, his followers are bound by no such restrictions. One follower claimed you could see the face of Jesus in the clouds -- though you had to cock your head to one side.

Coleman is a queasy mix of piety, posturing, smugness and a kind of passive-aggressive arrogance. The official keepers of the Knock Shrine, which employs a full-time staff of 80 and has an annual turnover in the millions, aren't too enamoured of his brand of spiritual piracy and have placed restrictions on where he can do his thing.

"I'm not banned, but they don't like me going down," said Coleman, adding, in what must rank as one of the most disingenuously hubristic statements ever: "It's not my fault if I have 50,000 followers."

Entertaining as Apparitions was, it relied too heavily on academics and theologists to debunk Coleman's claims, when what it really needed was a journalistic hand -- an RTE equivalent of Louis Theroux -- to nail him down with some tough questions.

The reign of The Tudors has finally come to an end on TV3, accompanied, no doubt, by the mass weeping of the hundreds of Irish film technicians for whom it provided gainful employment over the last five years.

Forgive me if I don't shed a tear. I never took to the blend of soap opera and historical twaddle, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers's Henry VIII was so ripe you had to keep checking the fridge to see if something had gone off.

STACEY'S STARS

Apparitions ***

The Tudors **


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