Wayside Miracles

Ballinspittle Grotto

Ballinspittle, Co Cork: the Marian Grotto became a world news sensation

1954 was a great year for the construction of outdoor shrines and grottoes in Ireland. Pope Pius XII had designated it a special Marian Year to mark the centenary of the ‘dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption’. The Marian Year was an international event, but apparently no other country embraced the idea with greater fervour than Ireland. The notion seemed to capture the imagination of a young republic suffering from serious recession, high unemployment and loss of population through emigration. Hundreds of projects were put in hand and today, on almost every road in the country – and in every community – you will see statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually in well tended settings. They add to the colour and character of this green land: like the ancient holy wells, they are venerated and not forgotten.

1954 tablet

Statue maker Maurice O’Donnell recalled that 1954 was a bonanza year for him: “…I was making so many at that time there was no time to dry them out before painting, so lots of statues in the shrines around the country are still unpainted. But that was in the Marian Year. The bottom has dropped out of the statues market since the Vatican Council…” Although many statues of the Virgin were painted later on, you will still see many unpainted (white) examples.

Marian Year shrine added on to the Holy Well at Keallkill, Co Cork

Exactly thirty years ago – on 26 July 1985 – the grotto at Ballinspittle jumped into the news headlines of the world because two local women witnessed the statue there moving while they were praying. The little Cork village suddenly found itself the centre of media attention and – during that summer – thousands of people came in bus loads from all over Ireland, either out of curiosity or anxiety to become part of a phenomenon. Many saw the statue move: a police sergeant (presumably a reliable observer) saw it rise into the air – while cures were claimed by sick people who visited the site.

Ballinspittle 1985

Crowds at Ballinspittle 1985  – Evoke.ie

Strange events were not limited to Ballinspittle. Reports had already appeared elsewhere. Kerry got in first: in February of the same year 30 schoolchildren saw two statues moving in the church at Asdee, while in nearby Ballydesmond something similar happened soon after. Here’s a contemporary extract from RTE News – worth watching for the concise view of rural Ireland in the 1980s.

magill asdee

Over 10,000 people visited the Ballinspittle grotto every night throughout the summer. The Irish Times (6 August 1985) reported: ’…Ballinspittle’s claim to a moving statue was matched in no time at all by reports of similar occurrences in Dunmanway and Courtmacsherry. But too many people, including senior gardai, well-tried sceptics and some who registered what appeared to be genuine shock said they saw the statue move, so Ballinspittle has remained the premier place of pilgrimage…’

white marys

The Catholic Church distanced itself from these happenings. Bishop Michael Murphy of Cork warned that “…common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto in Ballinspittle with prudence and caution…” but he also relished the fact that “…crowds are gathering there in a great spirit of prayer…” A difficult stance, perhaps, as similar occurences from Lourdes and Knock in the 19th century led to the creation of huge religious centres and pilgrimage destinations.

WWL

The visions at Knock, witnessed in 1879

The moving statues was a story big enough to inspire Peter Mulholland of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, to pen a lengthy monograph in 2009, Moving Statues and Concrete Thinking, available in full on line – and a fascinating read. Mulholland makes the point that from the 1950s to the 1980s the western world, including Ireland, was perceived to be under threat from the Cold War, ‘Nuclear Nightmare’ (from weapons and waste), Communism, the ‘permissive society’ – and, more locally, ‘The Troubles’ and increasing unemployment and emigrations; while in 1970 the Bishop of Galway said he thought ‘organized atheism’ was the source of the ‘most serious injury’ being done to the young people of Ireland. All this, says Mullholland, contributed to an underlying feeling of insecurity which created an atmosphere ripe for ‘cults’ (such as observers of moving statues) because of a high level of anxiety in the community. The monograph goes pretty deeply into the realms of psychology, quoting one researcher who “…argued that a certain kind of family structure ‘intensifies Oedipal desires in both sons and daughters, and so promotes Marian devotion’. He held that Marian ‘hallucinations’ are shaped not simply by Oedipal desires but also by other infantile and adult desires…”

Mulholland concludes: “…The moving statues were a modern manifestation of the kind of ‘magical devotionalism’ that sections of the Irish Catholic population have long been prone to resort to during periods of personal or collective distress… They were products of the kind of literalistic, magical-devotionalism that Irish clerics condemned in the 1950s and ‘60s as being ‘anti-intellectual’ and a ‘peasant religion’…”

Knock Shrine

Knock Shrine, early 20th century

Perhaps it’s just coincidence (and I haven’t seen anyone else mention this), but it is worth noting that the Air India Disaster occurred at Ahakista, on the coast of West Cork, less than a month before the first apparitions were seen at Ballinspittle. This terrorist event which killed over 300 innocent souls must have had some effect on the local – if not the national – psyche, and could certainly have enhanced feelings of anxiety and insecurity in a rapidly changing world.

Ahakista

1985 Air Disaster Memorial, Ahakista

Looking back from the 21st century to these events I feel a sense of – well, disappointment – that what comes across now in reports on the phenomenon is mainly disparagement. This is a country which, quite rightly, hangs on to its history and mythologies: as with the wandering bards of older times stories are kept alive at the fireside, in the pubs – wherever people gather. Stories of The Other Crowd, of old battles, of heroes – and of neighbours – are listened to eagerly, and will be repeated just as eagerly. I don’t hear people dismissing them or expressing cynicism about them, as they seem ready to do about moving statues. Such scepticism is understandable in modern Ireland but I will continue to listen with an open mind to all the stories of miraculous happenings that are cherished and passed on, and which underscore the ancient faith of the countryside.

First day of issue

It would be wrong not to finish the story of Ballinspittle. On 31st October (Samhain) 1985, when a group was gathered in prayer at the grotto a car pulled up and three men got out carrying hammers and axes. In front of the dismayed onlookers they smashed the statue of the Virgin and shouted abuse at the worshippers for “…adoring false Gods…” The men, who claimed to belong to an extremist fundamental Christian sect based in California, were later arrested and charged with ‘causing malicious damage in a place of divine worship’. Amazingly, at the trial the Judge stated that he had to be “…particularly zealous in guarding the rights of the three defendants…” and dismissed the case on the grounds that the Ballinspittle grotto is not, in fact, a place of divine worship. In March 1986 the perpetrators appeared on the popular Late Late Show, hosted by Gay Byrne on RTE Television. They cited the fourth and fifth commandments of the Old Testament as giving them divine sanction to smash all religious statues in Ireland, regardless of the rights and views of other people. Reporter Eoghan Corry stated in an article in the Sunday Press, “…there isn’t a safe statue in the country.” Fortunately, following further acts of vandalism they were duly convicted.

Links worth following for more on the Moving Statues:

Finola’s blog post Mary Mary

Radio Documentary from RTE in 1992

RTE TV documentary on Ballinspittle

marian shrine

Troll Tuning

Baltimore - with Dún na Séad before restoration - painted by Val Byrne

Baltimore – with Dún na Séad before restoration – painted by Val Byrne

It’s May, and time for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, still in progress as I write this, and keeping us up well into the nights with world class concerts: music from so many cultures that involves the ubiquitous violin. My post today has been sparked off by the opening event held in the restored Dún na Séad – the name means fort of the jewels, which may be a reference to the building’s role in the collection of taxes levied on foreign vessels entering the harbour. The Anglo-Norman castle was built in the early 13th century, was besieged and sacked many times, became a garrison for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and fell into ruin until it was rescued and underwent a superb full restoration only completed in 2005. Friday’s candlelit opening concert featured a fiddle master from the Shetlands, Aly Bain, and his long term musical collaborator Ale Möller, a multi instrumentalist from Sweden. 

One piece in their programme immediately caught my attention: Hjaltadans – literally translated as ‘lame’ or ‘limping’ dance. It’s also the name of a Bronze Age stone circle near Houbie in the Shetlands. It’s said that the two central stones of that circle are a fiddler and his wife who were entertaining a group of Trowies (trolls) and were interrupted in their music making by the rising sun which turned them all to stone. Trolls are undoubtedly related to The Other Crowd in Ireland, and also inhabit the shadows in Scandinavia.

Here is an extract from the latest album from Bain, Möller and Molsky – Troll Tuning: King Karl’s March

 

The Shetland troll dance was followed by a Swedish ‘Troll Tuning Set’. Aly and Ale explained that Troll Tuning is a particular way of setting up a fiddle where the strings are tuned AEAC♯, rather than the more usual GDAE. This tuning is sometimes used in Scandinavia, Shetland and in American old-time music (this probably because there were so many settlers from Sweden in North America). The tuning produces very distinctive, haunting music: ‘…Once you’ve heard a trowie tune you can never forget it…’ Even more interesting is the legend that playing such tunes connects the musicians with magical powers.

The Devil's Music: Hardanger Fiddle

The Devil’s Music: Hardanger Fiddle

All this reminded me of traditional stories involving musicians and characters from the Otherworlds: they are pretty universal over many cultures. I also thought about a particular type of fiddle from Norway (regularly seen and heard at the Fiddle Fair) which has ‘magical’ associations: the Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele in Norwegian. This traditional instrument is usually magnificently carved and inlaid, and has understrings which are not actually bowed, but are tuned to vibrate when other notes are sounded. The tone and ambience of the instrument is unique and compelling: it is easy to imagine the Trowies or Sióg (pronouced Sheeogue: Irish Fairies) requiring such striking sounds for their festivities. But some have thought the Hardingfele has diabolic connections, and in fact many good players were reputed to have been taught to play by the Devil himself. During the 1800s many fiddles were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought ‘…that it would be best for the soul that the fiddle be burned…’ as it was viewed as ‘… a sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fighting…’

In Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls to stop the Sheehogue from stealing them away

In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away

At this time of the year it’s not just the instruments and the music we have to be wary of: throughout the month of May the Sióg are active. Yeats tells how an old man saw them fight once: ‘…they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl, that is the Fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, God bless them…’

The wind is certainly whirling and tearing at the trees outside as I write this: May has seen the return of strong gales – the trees are bending again and Roaringwater Bay is alive with white breakers. Looking out to the islands I bring to mind a tune from the Blaskets, over on the coast of Kerry. Port na pBucai (Music of the Fairies) is a haunted song if ever there was one. It’s said that the islanders were out fishing in their currachs when a storm broke out. It turned into a gale and they feared for their lives as the canvas hulled craft became swamped. Then, the wind suddenly died and they became aware of music playing somewhere around them – an unearthly music. The island fiddler was amongst the crew; when they got safely back to land he found he could remember the tune they had heard. It has passed into the traditional repertoire and has been played ever since.

My own rendition of Port na bPucai on the concertina –

 

To close, a verse by Seamus Heaney which was inspired by this story of the Fairy music:

The Given Note

On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.

Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather

Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.

Blaskets

Meet the Seanachaí

Eddie Lenihan - travelling storyteller

Eddie Lenihan – travelling storyteller

Seanachaí – a word with many ways of spelling it in the Irish: seanchaidhe (plural seanchaidhthe); seanchaí, or shanachie in its anglicised form. In Scottish Gaelic the word is seanchaidh or shennachie, while in Manx Gaelic the word is shennaghee.

poster

A Seanachaí is a bearer of old lore – the role that the Bards once fulfilled, either attached to the retinue of clan chieftains or individually travelling through the Provinces where it was obligatory to offer them hospitality in return for an evening of elucidation or entertainment. I have previously mentioned the travails of ‘Red’ Aengus O’Daly whose reputation of publicly criticising his hosts on his travels led to a sticky end.

levis

The Seanachaí came to us in Ballydehob – heralded by a missable poster in the window of Levis’ Bar, which held the event. Levis’ is one of the smallest pubs in the town but over fifty people crowded in to listen to Eddie Lenihan – probably Ireland’s best known living storyteller. The pub interior itself is a wonderful backdrop for such an occasion: a selection of groceries and household goods rubs shoulders on the shelves with old postcards and paintings. Behind Eddie in the photo you can see a full length portrait of Ballydehob’s most famous son, Danno O’Mahony, 6ft 3ins tall and weighing over 18 stone: he was regarded as the strongest man in the world. The family haled from Dereenlomane and Danno was born in 1912. By 1934, at the age of 22, he was already the Irish Wrestling Champion and started a professional wrestling career in America. He won 55 out of 55 fights and became Supreme World Wrestling Champion in 1935. He successfully defended his title 125 times. His homecoming to Ballydehob after winning the world title was captured on Pathe News, here.

listeners

Returning to our own champion storyteller, Eddie Lenihan provided a fascinating, amusing and sometimes frightening evening’s entertainment to an enraptured audience of young and old listeners. He has gathered stories of The Other Crowd, Irish folk and country ways from people who still remember them being told in their own youths seventy or eighty years ago, and he is passing them on. Sometimes he speaks of stories which can’t be told: intriguing. He was born in Kerry, lives now in Clare and was passing through Cork: truly keeping alive the tradition of bearing the old lore: the Seanachaí.