In their new book, bestselling authors Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan look at Ireland’s connections to the small town in southwestern France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, where, in 1858, the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a young local girl named Bernadette and which is now one of the most visited shrines on earth.
On a cold, dark February day in 1858, a 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous left her home in search of firewood. She lived in the worst slum dwelling in Lourdes. A one-roomed cesspit, it was dark, dank and infested with lice. It smelled of manure. There was mildew in the corners and in the cracks. This squalid basement, a former gaol, was home to Bernadette, her unemployed father, mother, sister and two brothers.
On that icy day, Bernadette headed with her sister and a sister’s friend to a rocky outcrop known as Massabielle. There, she became separated from her companions. All of a sudden, she was attracted by the sound of rushing wind. Startled, she looked towards a niche in the Massabielle grotto, where she saw a soft light and a figure resembling a lady. The story of that ‘beautiful lady,’ as Bernadette later described her, would transform Marian devotion and the lives of millions in the years ahead.
Over the next five months, Bernadette conversed with the lady on 18 occasions. Word spread like wildfire and captured the public’s imagination. It was revealed that the lady had smiled at Bernadette, prayed with her, taught her a special prayer, disclosed secrets – which were never publicly divulged – helped identify a previously-unknown spring, asked that a chapel be built at the site, and eventually declared that she was the Immaculate Conception.
Miracles were soon being reported. One of the earliest involved a two-year-old boy, Justin Bouhort, who was on the edge of death from consumptive fever. Late one afternoon, his mother ran with him to the grotto and immersed him in the spring which the lady had identified to Bernadette. After the mother had thrust the child up to his neck in the icy water, Justin was cured. Seventy-five years later, at the age of 77, he attended the canonisation of Bernadette in Rome.
Within weeks of the first apparition, news reports of the happenings at Lourdes reached Ireland. The first arrived by electric telegraph at the offices of The Dublin Evening Mail. The wire report used the word ‘miracle,’ which must have caught the editor’s eye in his Parliament Street office. On that day, in 1858, the newspaper – later renamed the Evening Mail – printed the first account in Ireland of the apparitions at Lourdes.