Kissing thin Mayo air
THE fuss about Knock airport has tended to obscure the reasons for the village's significance and the dramatic changes wrought upon this once isolated spot long before anyone considered slapping 8500 feet of runway on top of Barnacuige.
The name Knock is derived from the Irish word for a hill. The village itself is roughly six miles from each of the nearest three towns — Claremorris, Ballyhaunis and Kiltimagh — situated in south-east Mayo.
In 1879 the land was poor and the inhabitants of the few scattered cottages scratched an existence. There was a small church, a school, the presbytery and a few houses.
The church had been built in 1828 by Fr Patrick O'Grady, replacing the old thatched cottage church. The gable end was to be the scene of the apparition.
Mary McLoughlin was the housekeeper for Archdeacon Kavanagh, parish priest of Knock at the time. On the wet and windy evening of August 21 1879, she was walking past the Church on the way to visit friends — the Beirne family — who lived nearby. She noticed in the distance what appeared to be a group of new white statues, surrounded by white light. She thought it odd that the Archdeacon should not have mentioned them to her and also that they should be left out in the rain.
She continued on to the Beirne's house and having stayed for hall' an hour, she returned, accompanied by Mrs Beirne's daughter. As they approached the church the young girl exclaimed: "Look at the beautiful figures". They quickly realised that they were not statues and that the figures beside the gable were poised two feet above the ground.
Quickly Mary fetched the rest of her family. Upon seeing the apparition one of them, her brother Dominic, went to bring more people from the village to see the sight. In no time there were 15 mystified viewers of the Scene. They later described seeing three figures and altar without linen or candles.
On the altar was said to be a lamb, and behind the lamb, around which angels fluttered, there stood the Cross. Those gathered identified the central figure as the Blessed Virgin. To her right stood St Joseph and on her other side was St John the Evangelist, dressed as a priest with a small mitre on his head.
According to the witnesses, the apparition of Our Lady was clothed in white robes fastened at the neck. Her hands were raised as if in prayer and her eyes were looking upwards. She was said to wear a brilliant crown, in the centre of which was a rose, and, above this, glittering gems.
Upon seeing the apparition, one witness, Bridget Trench, aged 75, is said to have dropped to her knees and said in Irish: "A hundred thousand thanks to God and to the glorious virgin that has given us this manifestation". She went to kiss the apparition's feet, but found herself kissing thin air.
None of the figures were said to have moved individually and all remained silent throughout.
Archdeacon Kavanagh was not among the witnesses, refusing to come when asked to come to see the events outside his church. And so it was that, in all, 15 people, aged between five and 75, came to tell their extraordinary story. Their evidence was soon accepted as trustworthy and satisfactory by a commission of three local priests set up by the Archbishop of Tuam.
There is now a Basilica on the site of the small whitewashed cottage where five of the Knock visionaries lived. The site was blessed and the first sod turned on November 6, 1973.
The foundation stone, in white Carrara marble, was. blessed by Pope Paul VI in Rome in June 1974. Opened two years later it has a capacity of 20,000 and is divided into five chapels.