A Visit to Knock

Our travels have taken us to quite a few Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland: they are all fascinating, and range from St Patrick’s holy mountain  – Croagh Patrick (where snakes were cast out of this country forever) – through the rather daunting Station Island on Lough Derg (where a medieval pilgrim entered, and returned from, Purgatory) to the more ‘unofficial’ shrine at Ballinspittle, here in West Cork, where a statue of the Virgin was seen to move (by hundreds of onlookers) in 1985. Recently we found ourselves in Mayo, so a trip to Ireland’s most impressive shrine – at Knock – was essential.

These illustrations show the evolution of the shrine. At the header is the updated interior of the Parish Church of Knock-Aghamore today, showing the beautiful high altar which was made by P J Scannell of Cork and which was presented as a gift during a pilgrimage in 1880. Behind this east wall is the gable where, on 1st August 1879, fifteen local people witnessed an apparition of Mary, Joseph, St John the Evangelist, and a lamb on an altar which seemed to float, stationary and silent, in front of the wall. It was 8pm and the rain was pouring down, yet the gable wall and the ground in front of it remained dry. The vision – which was also seen by others – seemed to last for about two hours. The upper picture above, which probably dates from around 1880, shows the gable and in front of it a rack of crutches and other paraphernalia apparently left by those cured at the shrine. The very first recorded cure, which happened soon after the vision, was of Delia Gordon, a young girl from nearby Claremorris, who was instantly cured of an acute ear infection and deafness after her mother scraped a little of the plaster off the gable wall and placed it into her ear. You can see in the upper picture where considerable amounts of the plaster appear to have been removed (presumably, following that first cure); by the 1930s (second picture) an iron fence had been erected to protect the wall. In 1963 (third picture), a dedicated chapel had been built in front of the gable, and today (fourth picture) a modern Apparition Chapel is in place to contain the large number of pilgrims who attend mass there on a daily basis. You can also see the elegant sculptures which have been installed on the wall to represent the figures of the apparition.

The vision is superbly depicted in this enormous mosaic which has recently been installed in the Basilica at Knock. P J Lynch, the artist who designed the mosaic, said he . . . tried hard to capture the sense of the wonder that the witnesses must have felt on that wet August evening back in 1879 . . . The mosaic measures 14 metres square and is one of the largest single flat pieces of religious mosaic of its kind in Europe: it is made predominantly from Venetian glass smalti and there are approximately 1.5 million individual pieces of mosaic in the complete work.

This is original stonework from the gable wall to the Parish Church: the lower picture is a panel built in to the modern Apparition Chapel wall. The statements made by the 15 witnesses who saw the vision at the wall in 1879 are fully documented here – an official Commission of Enquiry was held by the Catholic Church in that same year and concluded . . . the words of the witnesses were trustworthy and satisfactory . . . a further investigation in 1936 interviewed the then surviving witnesses, who corroborated what they had seen. Mary Byrne, who was 29 at the time of the apparition and 86 during the second enquiry said . . . I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God . . . She died shortly afterwards. John Curry, the youngest witness, was 5 in 1879. The child said . . . he saw images, beautiful images, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. He could state no more than that he saw the fine images and the light, and heard the people talk of them, and stood upon the wall to see them . . . He confirmed his memories when interviewed in new York for the 1936 enquiry.

Over a million people a year come to Knock, in search of faith, enlightenment, cures perhaps: or just out of curiosity. It is a place with a great sense of purpose – and long may it continue. As a (now retired) church architect I was distinctly struck by the enormous Basilica which was constructed initially in the 1970s and which has been refurbished very recently. It is spectacular in its size and scale and is fittingly  furnished with powerful works of art. In particular I was impressed by the large, harrowing, painted Stations of the Cross: unfortunately – and strangely – I can find no record anywhere of the artist.

If you have a spare couple of hours it’s worth finding and watching this entertaining and fair-minded documentary about Knock, made by RTÉ in 2016:

I make no judgments as to the veracity or otherwise of what was witnessed on that day in 1879. There have been many theories put forward, ranging from magic lanterns to unrest provoked by the Land Acts! But why should we doubt the faith of anyone, whatever their religion? The Christian story is all about miracles, so surely miracles are just as possible in the 19th century as they were in the 1st… The village of Knock carries on its normal life around all the trappings of the shrine: shops selling statues and Holy Water bottles abound, and add to the colour. On the site you can look out the well-curated museum, and treat yourself to good refreshments. It’s all worth visiting, even if your interest is purely anthropological. The Pope himself will be there this August and all the 45,000 (free) tickets have been booked. If the sun keeps on shining – and perhaps it will – it’ll be a grand day for all!

The Village That Never Was

Colourful Courtmacsherry

Colourful Courtmacsherry

In the Days of Yore – when I first started to visit the west of Ireland – I travelled on the good old Swansea – Cork Ferry. It’s such a shame this route has now been scrapped (not once but twice): it was an overnight crossing, leaving the Welsh port at 9pm and arriving in the mouth of the Lee estuary at dawn. I felt there was nothing more beautiful than the slow cruise up through that great natural harbour in the early morning sunlight: passing lighthouses, lookout towers, mothballed ships, the Irish Navy and the coloured terraces of Cobh (pronounce it Cove), before disembarking at the exotically named Ringaskiddy Terminal.The Swansea-Cork ferry, the Celtic Pride1980s

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Swansea – Cork Ferry: above – Celtic Pride, 1980s, below – MV Julia, withdrawn in 2011

Part of the excitement of that journey was the anticipation of the drive down to Ballydehob and beyond. I always went on the R600 route, passing through Carrigaline and Kinsale – stopping, of course, at Ballinspittle to check that the BVM was safely in place at her grotto – before heading out along Courtmacsherry Bay. The journey alongside that ribbon of water – the road hugs it for some 10 kilometres – is recommended as an exemplary introduction to the landscape characteristics of rural Ireland.

This water was known as Timoleague Bay until it became silted up in the 18th century

This water was known as Timoleague Bay until it became silted up in the 18th century

What was formerly Timoleague Bay is now known as Courtmacsherry Bay. Timoleague was the head of the navigation and thrived from wharfs built in front of the medieval Priory there until a catastrophic earthquake occurred in Portugal in 1755 causing a tsunami which hit the coasts of Britain and Ireland and dramatically changed the topology. This bay is one example: the inlet was no longer navigable for sea-going vessels up to Timoleague, and new piers and quays were built further to the east, closer to the mouth of the estuary, on the north facing shoreline. The place we now call Courtmacsherry didn’t exist until after this maritime event (hence the title of this post).

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 changed the shoreline of Britain and Ireland

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 changed the shoreline of Britain and Ireland

So how did the name ‘Courtmacsherry’ come about? It’s an unusual one, and a bit of a mouthful – locals call it simply ‘Courtmac’. According to Sean de Barra of the Courtmacsherry Historical Society the area was settled by the Hodnett family from Shropshire, in England:

…In the course of time they became more Irish than the Irish themselves and took the Irish version Mac Seafraidh…

…Which sounds like Macsherry – the prefix Cuirt would have been ‘Manor House’ or ‘Mansion’.

The Hodnett name is still familiar in the area

The Hodnett name is still familiar in the area

Although I travelled so many times along the road up to Timoleague it is only very recently that I actually diverted to visit Courtmacsherry. I’m very pleased that I finally did: it’s an attractive settlement which displays many aspects of its 300 year history. I had heard of the place – it has a lifeboat which is twinned with the one in Bude, Cornwall (have a look at this post). I worked for very many years in Bude with Jonathan Ball, who was Coxswain with the Bude boat and he led (and still leads) a choir from the Bude crew who have an annual twinning visit with the Courtmacsherry crew.

The Courtmacsherry Lifeboat has recently been in the limelight as the Centenary of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German torpedo has just passed (here is a very detailed account of the tragedy). The RNLI lifeboat Kezia Gwilt was on call during that event (having to row the 11 miles out to the wreck because there was no wind to sail her with) and helped rescue survivors. Sadly, 1,198 of the 1,959 people on board lost their lives on 7 May 1915.

Notice Board

Model of Lusitania on display in Courtmacsherry, 2015

Model of Lusitania on display in Courtmacsherry, 2015

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The village is unusual in that it has virtually only a single street facade, which follows the line of the water. Finola liked the colourful house fronts! Fishing is still a living here, just about. Tourism is important nowadays: we certainly appreciated the hostelries, including the Golden Pheasant Cafe. There really are Golden Pheasants in the cafe garden and – to my delight – Robins and Chaffinches who will eat from your hand. Also, in the aviary, a magnificent Eagle Owl. Apart from all this the food is excellent!

Golden Pheasant

Single sided street...

Single sided street…

As with our own village of Ballydehob, Courtmac was served by a branch of the West Cork Railways. Although planned as a three foot gauge ‘roadside railway’ (just like our Skibbereen to Schull line), the Timoleague and Courtmacsherry Extension Light Railway was actually built to full gauge, and lasted a little longer: our line closed in 1947, this one in 1960. The track bed from Timoleague has been made into a scenic waterside footpath covering several kilometres.

Railway Line Walk

Timoleague Station around 1910, top left – seaside Courtmacsherry 1950s, top right – the waterside walk along the old railway line, above

Our visit to Courtmacsherry was too short: we will be back soon, to take in the Castle and the Abbey – and to try and find out why it has an area called Siberia! My researches showed that there is another Siberia in Ireland: it’s in County Sligo and is also known there as Slieveroe. In that case the name is said to have come from  An Sliabh Rua, which means ‘Red Mountain’ – but there are no such topographical features in this part of West Cork.

I didn’t quite draw a blank with ‘Siberia’. Here’s an extract from Eating Scenery – West Cork, the People and the Place by Alannah Hopkin, The Collins Press 2008:

…In July and August, like most coastal villages in west Cork, Courtmacsherry can be too busy; it is heavenly in May and June, September and October. But in winter Courtmacsherry is deadly quiet, prone to dull, dark days of low sky and mist, when you are acutely aware of its north-facing character.The only compensation in this season is the presence of thousands of migrant birds, great clouds of golden plover, lapwing, blacktailed godwits, and Arctic shags, fleeing the cold of Scandinavia and Siberia to roost on the mudflats of Courtmacsherry Bay…

Houseen

Mary Mary

Roadside Shrine in Donegal

Roadside Shrine in Donegal

St Columcille

St Columcille

On our drives, it has become a game to be the first to spot a shrine and yell out “Grotto!” They are everywhere. While some are standards of Christian iconography (Calvary groupings, crosses) and others venerate local saints, the vast majority are Marian and based on the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette of Lourdes. In 1954, at the height of Catholic fervour in Ireland, the Vatican declared a Marian Year – a year of special devotion to Mary. Ireland embraced this with great enthusiasm and suddenly the countryside was decorated with statues (like the Pieta on the Sheep’s Head), hills were topped with crosses, and every community sported a Lourdes grotto. Ireland at that time was poverty-stricken so it is particularly striking that when the Irish had nothing – there were few cars, no modern conveniences, little spare money – parishes managed to put together enough to erect devotional shrines.

Holy Well

Holy Well and close up

The best ones, of course, are the  rustic shrines you stumble across on a drive or a walk. Sometimes an ancient holy well will have been ‘Marianised’ by the addition of a small carving or rosary beads, or a summit or mountain gap will have a simple rocky structure to house a statue. Pilgrims or passers-by leave small tokens either as a mark of respect or to support a special intention.

Ballinspittle: The Moving Statue

Ballinspittle: The Moving Statue

There is an elaborate grotto near here in Ballinspittle. In the mid 1980s the country was galvanized by reports that the statue of Mary had been seen to move. Pilgrims flocked to the site, overwhelming the small town of Ballinspittle for a while. The 80’s were very different from the 50’s: many of the older generation believed, and still do, while others had lost that simple devotion that characterised earlier times and the apparition was greeted by many with a scepticism that would have been unknown in the 50’s.

When I was a schoolgirl, we were arrayed in veils for a walk down through the school grounds every day in May to visit the grotto. Hands folded in prayer, we sang

“Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels and Queen of the May.”

The tradition of choosing a young girl to be May Queen to preside over spring festivals is common to many cultures and probably pre-dates Christianity. In Ireland, as we often see, this tradition has become Christianised. The ubiquity of Marian images here is yet another aspect of the rich fabric of Irish culture.

Ruined medieval church, converted to a grotto

A Place in the Heart

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A church window by Harry Clarke: Ireland’s – and perhaps the world’s – foremost glass artist

At the ending of the year we are halfway through our winter adventures in West Cork. Today is a turning point: a transition. Traditionally, crossing over boundaries is rife with custom and superstition. Make sure you let your fire go out tonight, and kindle a new one in the hearth in the morning to ensure good health and good fortune. The Celts noted the importance of boundaries – they divided the year up into four parts: Imbolc, Beltaine, Lammas and Samhain. At each turning point there was a festival, usually involving fire. It’s interesting that our New Year is marked by fire – or fireworks – in many cultures.

ballin

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St Luke – another Harry Clarke window, in the church at Castletownshend

At this moment we are right in the middle of the Celtic dark time: Samhain – pronounced ‘Sow (female pig) – in’. This will end on February 1st, when Imbolc begins. Imbolc is ‘the beginning of the light’ – Candlemas in the church calendar. Certainly, in early February, we see the first green shoots of the Spring appearing.

castledesmond

statuestat

This post is a bit of a reminiscence. A summing up of impressions and emotions through pictures from the last three months. The common theme is colour – whether in landscape or in architecture – because we have found this ‘green’ island to be full of so many colours. Hopefully a few of the photos capture something more, something deeper:  an inherent respect in this land for history, culture and holy places.

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Rock Art - was it once painted?

Rock Art – was it once painted?

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Mussel beds on Roaringwater Bay

HAPPY NEW YEAR from Ard Glas, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay!