Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Apparition at Knock Ireland, 1879.

The intention of this post was to shift gears from the run of UFO-related anomalies that have preceded it. As you will read, I have only partly succeeded in that. To set the stage, I should state for those who don't already know it that I am a practicing Catholic [albeit a pretty "far left" one] and therefore have no built-in prejudices against the possibility of miracles nor apparitions. As an old scientist, however, I am in line with most Church authorities as being highly skeptical of Marian apparitions, believing most of them to be unsupported claims of people who desperately need their shaky faith-levels bolstered. I believe that the Church sanctions only five Marian apparitions as veridical [I may be off in my number but the number is a small one].

This post was inspired by the purchase of the pictured book from our famous/notorious bookseller-to-the-UFO-community, Bob Girard. Bob doesn't believe in any of this "christian" stuff himself, but has curiosity about all things anomalous. He therefore offers, occasionally, unusual and sometimes very rare items on a variety of "Fortean" type topics. I didn't need a history of Mary, but Bob stated that this book had an appendix which was the first report of the witness testimony to the Knock apparition. THAT was interesting, and so I bought the book. This post is my attempt to you to pass on what was in that appendix.

The picture above is a colorful if not very accurate rendition of the sight. The most particular change which should be made would be painting the scene at night and in the rain. The bright aura which surrounded the figures would then stand out more impressively. I'm not going to retell the person-by-person coming and going, because it doesn't seem important. Suffice it to say, that a couple of people saw the images in dusk/daylight, night rapidly fell and the rain came, and several other witnesses, told by one of the early sighters came out to view the apparition while the skies were dark and ultimately rainy. The apparition was like a three-dimensional life-like sculpture which never moved [sort of like what we would call today a very well done holographic projection of a skill probably still a bit beyond us today]. The apparition lasted a few hours and was gone before morning. The event happened on August 21, 1879.

The event gets its strength from the early testimonies of more than a dozen residents of the small village of Knock. These testimonies were taken not long after the event and with churchmen present along with the questioner. Particularly of interest to the modern field investigator is the fact that not all testimonies precisely agree [showing a great deal of independence in the witnesses] while perfectly agreeing as to the main outlines of the event. The witnesses were all well known people in this village, and they were considered credible persons beyond reproach. Many of the witnesses didn't know what to make of the apparition and were far from forming some kind of instant cult. The picture at the left is one of the witnesses. It is labelled [on an internet site picturing some later book on the subject] as "Mary Byrne". This is probably not true. The main family name in the village was spelled "Beirne" and this is probably the elder Margaret Beirne rather than the 26 year-old Mary. This is not essential to our tale, but it demonstrates the simple goodness of going to the earliest closest sources possible. Mary and Margaret Beirne [there were actually two ladies named Margaret who witnessed] were among the 14 witnesses whose testimonies were recorded in the book cited above. [8 females and 6 males, ranging in age from a six-year-old to a lady of 75.] A thumbnail listing of the elements of their testimonies has been included below.

The "sociology" of this little parish is worth a mention. The priest was one Bartholomew Aloysius Cavanagh --- no doubt what ethnic stock he. Cavanagh himself had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin. In fact it is rumored in other books that not only was he devoted to Mary but had visions of her himself at earlier times. [this is not confirmed in the book that I own, however]. But it is puzzling that when one of the women called on Father Cavanagh with the news that people were seeing a vision behind the chapel, he never left his house to go see. The book says that he misinterpreted his housekeeper's words to mean that the vision had come and gone, and rather bitterly rued the circumstance of not venturing out in the rain. Nevertheless, perhaps it was better evidence-wise that he was not there. The people made up their own minds without an "authority figure" on site.

The witness testimony is extremely strong in my eyes with much excellent agreement on the main points, and most of the differences being due to apparent omissions, probably caused by poor and impatient interviewing. Having read the statements, I can see why the Church considers Knock to be substantial incidence. But in my mind I am not sure WHAT SORT of substantial incident it was.

My grid-list of the features of the 14 witness statements is above. If I had anything like this in a UFO case I'd consider it one of my best. Thirteen of the fourteen witnesses, it appears to me, were obviously looking at the same thing. The fourteenth, Patrick Walsh, was not at the site but was observing a golden globe of light high above the chapel [which apparently those folks fixated on the ground-level images did not notice]. The common elements in the apparition were three figures: St. Joseph, The Blessed Virgin, and a "bishop" interpreted by half the people as St. John, standing three-dimensional and brightly colored, very life-like, and surrounded by a bright aura. To the right was an Altar on which was a Lamb, head turned towards the group. Debated among the witnesses [later] was the Cross seen by some and not by others, behind the Lamb. Some people described a sparkling starry light surrounding this area. Only one witness claimed to see hovering Angels whose wings fluttered.

Of tremendous importance to the utter strangeness of the experience are two further related phenomena. The oldest woman was deeply moved at the sight, and went over the separating ditch and right up to the images. They continued to look alive to her, albeit not moving. She threw herself at Mary's feet and attempted to kiss them. Her hands and face went through the image despite its solid look. At least one other witness went close to the images at the same time and saw the older lady attempt this. Secondly, this lady stated that it was not only this which stunned her, but that despite the hard rain, the area around the images was dry--rain did not reach it somehow. At least four other witnesses testified to this enigma. What do we make of THAT?
Knock's story spread pretty quickly [even the inclusion of it in this book was rapid as the book came out in January of 1880]. The apparition never returned, but in January and February "extraordinary stars and globes of flame" appeared on or near the church steeple. One person claimed to see a vision of Mary within one of the lightforms.

In February, another person claimed to see lights of many colors and then three dark arches, within the center of which was an image of Mary. Later claims such as these have never been robust. Still, they helped push forward the growing legend of Knock, and shortly people were making pilgrimages from all over Ireland in hopes of seeing a personal Marian vision.

Of course this is not all that some were hoping for and so Knock also became the destination for many ill and disabled persons looking for cures.

Still today people go to Knock hoping for personal miracles, and one notorious fool regularly claims that he's getting messages from the BVM all the time, and consequently predicting spectacular new appearances, which to the vast majority of persons who then go to see, never happen. All this is much to the distress and disgust of the Church hierarchy, who believe that this person is ruining the faith that people have invested in the original event.

But what actually happened back in 1879?? I have about as close to zero doubt in my head that the images seen were "real" as described as I'm allowed by my intellectual honesty to have. But still: what was this?? From an "objective distance" the phenomenon looks like a piece of displaced space. It is as if a physical set of extremely well-done images were standing somewhere "else" and they and the space surrounding them "slipped" into an interface with our own. What??!! Well, it's not exactly unknown as a hypothesis for several other types of anomalistic mysteries. It might explain the sort-of-there sort-of-not-there aspect of this. It might explain the "rain not wetting the images". It might even explain why no one felt that they received any spiritual message during the event.

But I'm way-Out-Proctor now, so there I'll leave it.


  1. I am a scientist who at one time tried to lump all these types of apparitions as simple mass hallucinations/hysteria. However, after much research, I now see that the few recognized apparitions may indeed be worthy of belief. If we are asked to believe in the existence of ufos, cryptids and other anomalous subjects based on evidence, why then should the topic of religious anomalies be excluded? The Church itself is an apparition's harshest critic, so when an apparition is given the stamp of approval it is only after a long and exhaustive analysis of the facts. I now see that science does not have to exclude religion but can enhance it as it has in my situation.

  2. I obviously second your attitude about science and the spiritual element of creation. This blog is about 50% about "making that case", as any reading of the earlier half of the posts can see. In that sense Catherine Crowe is a sort of godmother of this. Knock however leaves me puzzled. As an apparition, it doesn't "do" anything --- and I mean more in the way of "message" than anything else. It can be argued that the image is enough. But the thought lingers in my mind of some other sort of "mechanism" for this incident, like a displaced space or an overlap with something parallel or something akin to the Irish concept of "The Stray Sod".

  3. Hey, I had a thought that this could be an example of a mirage. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirage

    In Malta the villages will hold a fiesta and parade and display their religious statuary outside. While it was dark and rainy in Cork it would be a warm evening in Malta. A freak weather event could have led to the image of the statues being reflected back to Earth in Ireland. The figures would seem to move as the light changed. It could even explain the 'altar with a lamb' as they build ornate structures in the square and the 'angels' would be the Maltese festival-goers.

    I wonder whether records remain to find out which towns were holding fiestas on that date? It might be possible to find a Church in Malta that has this grouping of figures.

  4. All ideas are welcome in the discussion of possible solutions to apparently mysterious events. In this case a mirage seems on the surface to be an option, but upon further thought is untenable. Remember that the people came right up to the images which appeared three-dimensional and the elder lady stuck her hands and head right through it --- NOT mirage behavior. Also, because mirages occur in real time, and not a delay mechanism, whatever was the source of the mirage imagery would have to be in bright lighting at the same time. Note that Malta was in deeper darkness vs. Ireland --- you'd need to find something in the Atlantic Ocean or at least on the most westerly piece of Ireland to try to make such a concept fly. But this is just not a scientific possibility for this particular imagery anyway, so we need to look elsewhere for a solution.

  5. "I am a Scientist...I am a debunker"...I apply Science to the things I cannot explain by attaching an abstract variable...or a quantum physics catch all...then I claim dominion over the rest of you"...sort of like the Pope and Pharisees ..or some other idol worshipers...who too limited their brains by only using one sector of them...

  6. While I generally am in line with your comments, please remember that this blog is my home and that I am a Catholic, even if a quite liberal one who does not hop when the administrative leader sneezes. Referring to my Church and myself as "idol worshippers" is not appreciated, and I'd expect guests in one's home to behave better.

  7. I have also been fascinated by the apparition at Knock, more so than other more famous and spectacular apparitions like Fatima, which I believe is genuine. Knock is the only one in which there was no message, which puts it in a category by itself. When there is no readily discernible message, you must look at the context. In this case, the village of Knock was in the geographic center of a county that was hit by a mild (by Irish standards) famine that same year. This was after year after year of other famines starting around 1870. The Irish people were suffering, and then comes Father Cavanagh, offering 100 masses for the souls in purgatory during this latest famine. Offering prayers for the dead is a selfless act of Christian charity, especially when you consider that they could have offered 100 masses for a good crop that year, or something else that would have benefitted the people directly. Instead they chose to help those who can no longer help themselves. I believe God rewarded the good people of Knock and their priest with this apparition which may not have had any meaning other than "I have heard your prayers, good and faithful servants!" Thank you, Professor, for this thoughtful blog.

  8. You could be correct. It is one not unreasonable possibility.

  9. The priest was known to have a 'magic lantern' a common slide was of the 'holy family' and it is highly likely that the apparition was in reality someone using the lantern . My father who came from Mayo told me all this was known at the time but sensibility meant they didn't want to offend the locals many of whom were just simple country folk.

    1. Given the actual facts as reported and the length of time and the numbers of people viewing this from many angles and distances, to say that this was a simple "Magic Lantern" projection is, frankly, laughable. To suggest this "explanation" is more indicative of someone desperately trying NOT to believe something than a rational attempt at a solution. The fundamental errors in this idea are massive. Magic Lanterns are not holographic projectors but project onto surfaces of some sort. The witnesses went right up to this thing hanging in the air at a distance from the chapel wall and placed their hands within its light. Some witnesses viewed this from the side and some from the front. The light was significantly powerful and bright. Within the apparitions some light-forms or sparkles moved according to a few witnesses. The thing lasted for hours. All sorts of people saw the thing, and describing them as ignorant peasants to wave off their testimonies is off-base regardless. I am not opposed to reasonable attempts to solve mysteries, but I am not going to casually sit by and nod while speculations which do not address the facts, the full facts, of matters are broached as if "well that's that, nothing to see here."

  10. I note that the figures were not self-identified; people only assumed they were Mary, Joseph, and ... someone else. How were they dressed? Did they appear the way these saints are usually depicted? The painting depicts a crown, a mitre, and a book. Were they actually mentioned by the witnesses? As you suggested, it sounds like three extremely well-made images from somewhere else. However, in my experience, it is unusual to see Mary and Joseph depicted with a third adult.
    I should also mention that the classic apparitions at Zeitoun in Egypt involved several nights of strange lights on the church, lights which occasionally produced a vaguely humanoid figure. Because the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, people assumed the figure was her, but there was not real evidence to that effect.
    In the other Marian apparitions we also have the strange phenomenon - not easily reconcilable with either a psychological or supernatural explanation - in which the apparition does not identify herself until much later, and then usually just allusively. Thus, St Bernadette always referred to her vision as "the Lady", and only towards the end did the Lady say "I am the Immaculate Conception" which, as the church authorities were quick to point out, is bad theology.

  11. The dress of the figures is very like the illustration --- the main difference would be that the atmosphere was mostly dark sky and rain.

    The main thing for me about "Marian" apparitions is not whether they ARE Mary somehow, nor if some single "witness reports internally received messaging. The key interest for me is "How good is the evidence that there was an anomalistic manifestation at all?" or in the case of Lourdes, how good is the evidence that anyone who went there had a miraculous cure? ... and, as an aside, I have no idea what to make out of the Zeitoun claims. I've looked for a long time for truly independent credible support for those pictures and haven't found it.



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