ON THE NIGHT of Thursday, 21 August 1879, a group of local people saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist at the south gable of the church at Knock, Co Mayo.
Here are their stories.
‘…her eyes turned towards heaven, and wearing a lustrous crown’
The night of 21 August 1879 was a dark and rainy one in Knock, Co Mayo – coincidentally, a Thursday.
Between around 7pm and 9.30 pm, people from the town reported seeing something incredible against one of the outside walls of the parish church.
In later testimony, 15 of them told an official Church Commission of Enquiry, that the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist appeared, glowing, on the same spot.
Dominick Byrne, 36, said:
The night was dark and raining, and yet these images, in the dark night, appeared with bright lights as plain as under the noonday sun.
Nearly all the witnesses said that in their apparition, Mary was standing and praying, in a white cloak, with her eyes cast upwards, and with a golden crown.
St Joseph stood to her right, with what one called “iron-grey whiskers.”
On her left was St John the Evangelist, identified because almost everyone mentioned he was holding a book, “as if teaching”, and some said he had a mitre on his head.
At least two of the witnesses claimed to have seen something that surely must have terrified them – figures floating above the ground.
Mary Byrne, who was 29 at the time, reported this:
They stood a little distance out from the gable wall, and, as well as I could judge a foot and a half or two feet from the ground.
Patrick Hill said:
I distinctly beheld the Blessed Virgin Mary, life size, standing about two feet or so above the ground clothed in white robes which were fastened at the neck.
‘Though it was raining, the place in which they appeared was quite dry’
The rain was “pouring down” in Drum and Knock that night, but almost all the official witnesses pointed out this apparent miracle.
At the time it was pitch dark and raining heavily, and yet there was not one drop of rain near the near the images,
said Dominick Byrne Sr.
I threw myself on my knees and exclaimed: ‘A hundred thousand thanks to God’
Some of the 15 witnesses reported being overwhelmed what they saw. Here’s 16-year-old Patrick Byrne from Carrowmore, discussing how he heard of the commotion at the church that night:
Dominick Byrne Jr, a namesake of mine, came to my house, and said that he had seen the biggest sight that ever he witnessed in his life.
Dominick himself described the effect of the apparition on him:
I was filled with wonder at the sight I saw. I was so affected that I shed tears. I continued looking on for fully an hour…
Bridget Trench, then aged in her 70s, recounted what must have been a frightening and unexplainable experience:
When I arrived there I saw distinctly the three figures, I threw myself on my knees and exclaimed: “A hundred thousands thanks to God and to the glorious Virgin that has given us this manifestation.”
I went in immediately to kiss, as I thought, the feet of the Blessed Virgin, but I felt nothing in the embrace but the wall.
I make this statement knowing I am going before my God
In the end, the 1879 Commission set up by Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, Co Galway, found that the words of the witnesses were “trustworthy and satisfactory.”
A second investigation, in 1936, interviewed the surviving witnesses.
John Curry, the 11-year-old boy who had to be lifted up to see “the grand babies” and the “nice things and the lights” on that night, was then living in New York, and a special inquiry was set up to speak to him.
Mary Byrne, 29 at the time of the apparition, but then 86 and named Mary O’Connell, told the 1936 inquiry:
I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God.
She died six weeks later.
The Knock Novena was started in 1977, and has since brought millions of pilgrims to the shrine and cathedral there.