Lourdes: 160 years of healing
Greg Daly looks at the first ever Irish national pilgrimage to Lourdes
September 1913 may to most Irish people be a date forever linked with the Dublin lock-out and Yeats’s poem about Dublin Corporation’s failure to provide a home for the Hugh Lane paintings, but it was also the month of Ireland’s first national pilgrimage to Lourdes.
It had been Derry’s Bishop Charles McHugh who first proposed the pilgrimage when at a meeting of the hierarchy in Maynooth the previous autumn. Cardinal Logue gave the idea his backing, and Bishop McHugh was asked to chair an organising committee made up of priests from every diocese.
The logistics of the pilgrimage were immense, with pilgrims being expected to travel from all over Ireland, it being hoped that the pilgrims would be in Lourdes for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, September 8, although large scale manoeuvres by the French Army meant plans had to be postponed by a week, with most pilgrims not leaving Ireland until September 8.
Thomas Cook & Co. made all the arrangements as travel agents for the pilgrimage, with 2,187 pilgrims including doctors, nurses and ambulance attendants setting out in all, headed by Armagh’s Cardinal Michael Logue accompanied by five other bishops and about 300 priests. The pilgrims left Ireland by boat from such ports as Larne, Dublin, and Rosslare to England, across England by train to Folkestone on the south coast, to France by boat, and finally by train to Lourdes.
First class tickets for the pilgrimage cost £15, while third class ones cost £9 6s 9d.
The 162 invalids on the pilgrimage had an especially tough journey, starting two days ahead of other pilgrims and entailing seven transfers and accommodation in special hotels in London and Paris.
One of the committee’s decisions was that the pilgrims should present Lourdes with a gift, with a Celtic Cross from Waterford being chosen. Carved from Kilkenny limestone by Waterford’s William Gaffney, the cross was unveiled by Cardinal Logue at the foot of Lourdes’s Calvary Hill on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, with Bishop Francois-Xavier Schoepfer of Tarbes and Lourdes in attendance.
Speaking at the unveiling, Cardinal Logue appealed to Irish people to ignore the “awful movement” which was attempting to distract them by drawing their attention to material thoughts such that they could lose sight of their souls’ salvation.
“This day is a great day for Ireland,” he said. “You have come here to this valley in the Pyrenees in your thousands to make open profession of the Faith within you; to bid defiance to the scoffers…let nothing – no false doctrines, no thought of material gain – let nothing, my brethren, stand between us and our homage to God.”
After the speech, the pilgrims lingered at the cross and burst into song, singing ‘God Save Ireland’, ‘The West’s Awake’, ‘A Nation Once Again’ and ‘O’Donnell abú’.
Still standing in Lourdes, the Cross bears an Irish inscription, with a French and Latin version on the reverse, which can be translated: “Humility, from the Irish people, to Mother Mary, in Lourdes, Irish Pilgrimage, 1913, let us stand by the cross with you.”
In the aftermath of the pilgrimage reports spread of a miraculous cure for a Longford man who had taken part.
Patrick Casey, a blacksmith from Lanesboro, Co. Longford, had suffered from a serious inflammation of his joints and a paralysis of the legs, and so had been unable to travel to Lourdes without help, being carried by medical attendants from boats and trains to his hotels at Paris and at Lourdes.
After going to the baths in Lourdes however, it was reported that he had started to walk, with J.A. Glynn, the chairman of the Irish Insurance Commissioners, saying he had witnessed this.
“I assisted this morning at the baths. He could not walk. He had to be wheeled to the Grotto. Myself and a Frenchman had to lift him out of the chair to the baths. We had to lift him back again, and when I saw him safe in the chair I left him to be wheeled back to the hospital,” he said.
The following day, however, things were very different for Mr Casey.
“When I went up to the train this morning I heard a great commotion,” Mr Glynn continued. “People were shouting that a miracle had been wrought. ‘Where are your crutches?’ I asked. ‘I have asked the Blessed Mother to take them,’ he said. ‘Now I don’t want them any longer.’ And then he walked away easily to his carriage.”
Subsequently there were other reports of how another pilgrim, Grace Maloney from Co. Clare, was cured of a tubercular femur during the national pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage had also raised a large amount of money, such that with the Dublin lock-out biting during and after the pilgrimage, the following month Dr McHugh wrote to Dublin’s Archbishop William Walsh offering him £2,000 from the profits of the pilgrimage to assist the Dublin Childrens’ Distress Fund.
October also saw showings in Dublin’s Rotunda of A Pilgrimage in Picture, a film about the pilgrimage that ran for the best part of an hour, rather than, as cinemagoers might have expected, the five to 10 minutes of a newsreel.
The film is now believed to be lost, but according the The Evening Herald at the time, it included scenes of pilgrims breaking their journey in London and boarding the train to the coast at Victoria Station, Mass in Paris, pilgrims arriving in Lourdes and travelling by tram to the basilica, processions in Lourdes, and views of the grotto and St Bernadette’s home.
In Dublin interest in the film was drummed up by presenting viewers with a puzzle, with The Irish Times writing: “Unique interest attaches to the film in that it shows an unknown lady, who experienced a cure, looking from a railway carriage window, and the management invite the co-operation of the public in identifying her.”
Curiously, The Irish Catholic never reported on the film at all, instead devoting its lead stories of October 4 and 11 to medical confirmations of the cures. Indeed, press coverage of the pilgrimage at the time was focused mainly upon the cures associated with Lourdes.
Another national pilgrimage was planned for 1916 but with Europe embroiled in the Great War that year, plans were shelved. It was not until 1924, in the aftermath of Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War that a second Irish Pilgrimage eventually set out for the Pyrenean shrine, this time presenting the Rosary Basilica with the gold cross and crown that surmount it as gifts on behalf of the people of Ireland.