Knock Shrine in literature

News of the visions at Knock first came to the attention of the wider world through the medium of journalists anxious to report on what many thought might be an Irish Lourdes. This had an unfortunate outcome in many ways.

Veteran journalist Andrew Dunlop, an Ulsterman, in his memoirs Fifty Years of Irish Journalism (Dublin, 1911), gives an account of what was the first press investigation, undertaken for a radical paper in London.

“My next contribution as a special correspondent of the Daily News was an inquiry into the alleged miracles at Knock, County Mayo, in March 1880. The gathering of information on that occasion was conducted in the same rapid manner as the inquiry into the distress [of the local famine] in the previous September, but there was less travelling to be done. 

“I spent two days at Knock seeking information, my principal informants being Archdeacon Kavanagh, the parish priest and several people, including the archdeacon’s servant girl, who stated they had seen the apparition. The ‘miracles’ did not long survive the publication of my four letters, each a little over a column in length, and for which I received the handsome remuneration of 20 guineas.”


Dunlop was being too optimistic about the effect of his writings. He returned to Knock in June 1882. His welcome from Archdeacon Kavanagh was less than cordial. 

He found few pilgrims at the church. The wall of the chapel had been replastered for earlier pilgrims had picked off the plaster to take way as it was “credited with being a curing agency”. 

As a stout sceptic Dunlop had no belief in any of that kind of thing.

He added that Miss Bourke, whose cure had been given great publicity by the MP Thomas Sexton in The Weekly News, was mentioned again to him. Back in 1880 Archdeacon Kavanagh had related to Dunlop the story of the cure of Miss Bourke. 

He wound up with the observation “But the poor thing is dead since”. The interval between her “cure” and her death, Dunlop added, was only two or three weeks.

Such journalistic cynicism – familiar enough today in many other circumstances – was shared by the hierarchy, of course. There was little encouragement of the Knock Shrine in those early days.

But there soon emerged a most powerful advocate. This was none other than Mary Cusack, the celebrated ‘Nun of Kenmare’, who settled in the area members of the order she had founded. 

She first visited Knock in November 1881, and encouraged Archdeacon Kavanagh in his beleaguered state.  She wrote a pamphlet herself on the apparitions and the miracles.

With this booklet, The Apparition at Knock; with the depositions of the witnesses examined by the Ecclesiastical Commission appointed by the Archbishop of Tuam and the conversion of a young Protestant lady by a vision of the Blessed Virgin (London: Burns, Oates & Co.; Dublin: M. H. Gill 1880), which ran to a mere 118 pages, the true literary history of Knock begins. 

She also published Three visits to Knock with the medical certificates of cures and authentic accounts of different apparitions in 1882. Her work was later reprinted with the revival of the pilgrimage in an important way in the 1930s.

This was due again to literary endeavour. It was prompted by William D. Coyne, through his book published in Galway, simply called Knock Shrine. This is perhaps the most important and most influential book published on Knock.

It was now, in the very different circumstances of newly independent Ireland, that the numbers of visitors began to rise. There was more participation by the clergy, more assistance given to pilgrims who came, more theological efforts made to understand the apparitions, and to sustain the evidence for the miracles. 

This was supported on a continuous literary basis though the Knock Shrine Annual (which still appears).

The events in modern times and the development of the shrine are covered in other pages. But readers should be aware of the latest publications, which go a long way to demonstrate that the active cynicism of early journalists such as Andrew Dunlop has been undermined.

The best of these is And Still They Come… by Colm Kilcoyne (Columba Press, £9.99), which gives an up to date account of the shrine and the pilgrim experience, an experience very different from the clouded days of 1880s

Some mention should be made of the book by Eugene Hynes, Knock: The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth Century Ireland (Cork University Press, €29.00), which (in the tradition of Durkheim) is more a social and political study of the circumstances of Mayo and Ireland in 1880 than an account of what is essentially a religious experience.

But the Knock story for the pilgrims, who come in increasing numbers, is not only the story of the apparitions, but of the ensuing miracles over the years since the time of Archdeacon Kavanagh.

Insight into the nature of these miracles is provided through Philip Coogan’s My Journey to Knock Shrine (Kindle edition, £5.28) a very personal and so very moving account by a man who sustained appalling injuries in an accident, but found a cure to his sufferings through his visit to the shrine.

In such stories as his, going back over the decades to 1880, lies for many the real access to the mysterious nature of Knock.