Anthony Edward Dundon recalls the events of August 1879 and profiles the man who ‘put Knock on the map’
The town of Knock, which is derived from the Irish word ‘cnoc’ meaning a hill, is in the north-east corner of Co Mayo, Ireland. It has a population of about 2000 (comprising 590 urban and 1400 rural). After Fatima and Lourdes, it is one of Europe’s principal shrines and 1.5 million pilgrims visit it every year.
Knock is equidistant from the towns of Claremorris and Ballyhaunis. Claremorris is in a valley in the south. Ballyhaunis has an abundance of castles, and barrow graves within miles of the town, many of which date from the Bronze Age (1200–2000 BC).
Mayo was seriously affected by the Famine (1845–1852) when oppression from merciless landlords, evictions and mass emigration were rife, and Knock was described as ‘a place of forgotten fields and forlorn farmhouses’.
Torrential rain had swept the country on August 21, 1879. Mrs Mary McLoughlin, housekeeper to Fr Cavanagh, Archdeacon at Knock, left the presbytery at 8pm to visit her friend Mrs Byrne, who lived at the other side of the village.
As Mrs McLoughlin walked past the church, she saw three statues outside brightly illuminated in the rain. The first was of the Virgin Mary; the second was of Saint Joseph; and the third, of Saint John the Baptist, wearing white clothes and holding an open book in his left hand.
Later that night as Mrs McLoughlin walked with Mrs Byrne towards the church, she told her about the beautiful sight she had seen by the gable wall of the church. Mary Byrne, on seeing the apparition, rushed home and urged her family to see the sight, which beamed for two hours in the misty rain.
Fr Cavanagh assured the women that the illuminations were probably a reflection of the stained-glass windows in the rain. But they were not reflections, and Knock would henceforth become a legendary site of a Marian (veneration of the Blessed Virgin) apparition.
The first reported cure after the apparition was in September 1879. Delia Gordon, a 12-year-old girl, was affected by an ear condition. Her mother took her to Knock and put some of the mortar from the wall of the apparition church into the girl’s ear.
The same year the First Commission into the apparition was set up and the 15 people who had seen the apparition were questioned at length.
Monsignor James Horan (1911–1986) was appointed curate at Knock in 1963. The eldest of seven children (four boys and three girls) and a farmer’s son, he was born in Partry, Co Mayo. He trained for the priesthood at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth and was ordained in 1936. He served as a curate at Tooreen, a town near Ballyhaunis, and was appointed parish priest of Knock in 1967. He was above average build, balding and his gentle eyes were in harmony with a relaxed and calm demeanour.
He was concerned with emigration, unemployment and the education of young people in the west of Ireland. Described as a ‘genuinely kind and humble man, friendly and approachable’, he was liked by young and old alike. He was also deeply devout and spiritual – a man of prayer, who displayed charity and profound pragmatism at all times and with a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
He is often referred to as the Builder of Knock. It has been said that he could be a wily operator but never in a nasty, unjust or underhand way. He could be quite witty at times, and was a very human person and generous of spirit. His generosity was expressed in his great hospitality.
His deep faith was without question and he was close to his family, the community and to Ireland. He accomplished the building of the Basilica at Knock, a circular building with a capacity to hold 20 000 pilgrims and invalids, which opened on July 18, 1976.
From the time of the golden jubilee (1929) of the apparition, Mrs Judy Coyne was instrumental in reviving the interest in Knock and bringing it to its present status. A native of Claremorris, she founded the Knock Shrine Society in 1935 and she worked closely with Mgr Horan. In 1976, she arranged a meeting with him to discuss the invitation of the Pope for the centenary of the apparition.
As the centenary approached, Mgr Horan told Mrs Coyne confidentially that the Pope had been invited to Knock the previous year. People did not believe this, but on July 21, 1979, it was officially reported that Pope John Paul II was coming to Knock.
Pope John Paul II landed at Dublin airport on September 29, 1979. Mrs Coyne spent many days with her helpers in preparation for the Pope’s visit to Knock that Sunday. Roads were practically impassable and on the Sunday an open-air Mass had been well planned for that day and was attended by multitudes who had waited in the drizzzle.
When the Pope had come to the shrine of Our Lady, he knelt and prayed and lit a candle and blessed the statues. The Pope announced that Knock was ‘the goal of my journey to Ireland’. It was said that when Mgr Horan saw the Pope’s helicopter lift off that night, that the time had arrived to build an airport in Knock.
Critics regarded the concept of an airport at Knock, which was to be built on a hill at Barnacúige, Co Mayo, with a lot of scepticism. The project was approved by the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who provided £10 million in 1982.
However, the airport was unfinished and Horan needed an additional £4 million. He raised this by undertaking a tour of several countries, including the United States and Australia. These painstaking efforts had a toll on his health.
The airport, originally known as Horan International Airport, was later called Ireland West Airport Knock, opened in 1985. In 1986, he flew to Lourdes, but did not return as Our Blessed Lady called him to her in his sleep on August 1, 1986.
Mrs Judy Coyne, who worked tirelessly until her death at the age of 97 in 2002, could not accept that the man whom she had worked with for so long and had done so much for Knock, had been called away from them. Mgr Horan was the superhuman power who undertook so much responsibility, publicity, incessant travelling and was the butt of jokes and sarcasm from the so-called lesser intelligentsia.
But he was still very human, despite the determined, jocose and what appeared to be solid exterior. He will always remain the man who was responsible for building the present-day Knock.