One hundred and forty years ago this month fifteen residents of the tiny Mayo village of Knock were witnesses to an extraordinary apparition which appeared on the wall of the local church. Ray Cleere recounts the events of the time and the testimonies of some of those who witnessed the apparition.
Knock, in County Mayo, could easily claim to have one of the most interesting histories of any place in Ireland. In the 19th century, it was typical of the villages dotted around the West of Ireland: a small collection of thatched houses and two school houses with the parish Church at its centre.
The story of Knock, as we know it today, began 140 years ago on the evening of Thursday, August 21st, 1879, when Our Lady appeared at the gable of the Church in the company of St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. Unique to the Apparition at Knock is the representation of the Eucharist in the appearance of the Lamb on the altar, standing before a cross. The message at Knock was unspoken and each of us can take our own meaning from this complex Apparition which is both Marian and Eucharistic in dimension.
On that wet August evening 140 years ago, fifteen local people ranging in age from Bridget Trench, who was 74 years old, to a small boy, John Curry, who was just 5 years old at the time. Those 15 witnesses stood and prayed in the pouring rain for almost two hours and, although they were soaked, no rain fell on the gable wall of the Church or on the ground beneath it.
Shortly after the Apparition, those people gave their written testimonies to an official commission of enquiry and each gave details of what they saw that evening. By 1936, 57 years later, just two of the witnesses were still living in Knock and a second commission of enquiry was held to hear once again the testimonies of Mary Byrne (then Mary O’Connell) and Patrick Byrne.
By then both were elderly and Mary Byrne gave her testimony from her bed as she was too ill to leave it. At the time she said: “I am clear about everything that I have said, knowing that I am going to meet my God”. Mary died in October 1936.
John Curry had emigrated to the United States in his youth and when he read the papers about the second enquiry, he made contact with the priest who was in his home parish of Knock at the time. In July 1937, John Curry made his way to the offices of the Archdiocese of New York and gave his sworn testimony to a specially convened commission of enquiry.
The elderly gentleman who had seen such a wonderful vision with his neighbours almost 60 years earlier, said, when he was asked whether he could remember the night: “I remember the night of August 21st 1879, as well as I remember last night”.
In his old age, John found himself in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in New York and was buried in a plot owned by the Order. In 2017, the remains of John Curry were re-interred in the cemetery at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and 180 people from Ireland attended the ceremony.
News of the Knock Apparition spread very quickly and pilgrims began to visit the village very soon afterwards, firstly in small family groups but by 1880 the first organised pilgrimage came from Cork.