JIMMY O'CONNELL can see Knock Shrine, Co. Mayo, from his doorway. In fact the new Basilica is built across the fields from where he stands. As he looks on the magnificent building he regrets that it wiped away, overnight, the home of his grandmother, Mary O'Connell (nee Beirne), the first person to see the apparition of Our Lady at Knock on that memorable, rainy night of August 21st, 1879.
"My grandmother's home was in the centre of where the new Basilica now stands," he said. "I am very sad it was knocked down. 1 got up one morning and discovered it was demolished.
"If the new Basilica had been moved to one side, my grandmother's home could have been preserved.' said Mr. O'Connell who was able to salvage some of the stones of the house before the remainder were buried in the foundation of the Basilica.
The Basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland was blessed and dedicated on Sunday, July 18th, 1976, by the late Cardinal William Conway, Primate of All Ireland, and attended by 40,000 pilgrims from Ireland and overseas.
The reason for building the Basilica was that for the first time in over 100 years pilgrims to Knock could attend Mass and devotions in shelter and comfort. It rained the evening Our Lady appeared to Mary Beirne and other fifteen witnesses, and it has rained a great deal since.
Mary Beirne, one of a family of four, was 28 years old at the time of the Apparition.
She and her mother had been on holiday at Lecanvey, near Westport, Co. Mayo, and returned on August 21. That evening they were visited at home by the priest's housekeeper. Mary McLoughlin. Returning to the priest's house Mary McLoughlin was accompanied by Mary Beirne along the narrow path running close by the Church to the main road. It was raining heavily and Mary Beirne remarked there were lights at the gable wall of the Church.
"At first my grandmother thought the lights came from statues but then she noticed the figures were moving," said Mr O'Connell. "After staring for a few moments both women shouted it was the Blessed Virgin and my grandmother ran home to tell her family while Mary McLoughlin called the parish priest.
"The priest, Archdeacon B Cavanagh, refused to come out as he had been round the parish on horseback all day visiting the sick and he was drying himself in front of the fire.
"As a young boy I often heard my grandmother say that the Archdeacon told her many times that he could never explain why he did not come out to the Church that night. But he also told her that Our Lady had appeared to him many times in his home before the Apparition."
As Mary Beirne's mother, brother and two sisters gathered at the gable of the Church they were joined by other neighbours.
"My grandmother immediately recognised the figures with Our Lady as St. Joseph and St John," said Mr O'Connell. "She had seen a statue of St John in the Church in Lecanvey while on holiday and he looked exactly the same."
One woman, Mrs Bridget Trench, welcomed Our Lady in Irish and kissed her feet. Then she tried to put her arms around Our Lady. "There is nothing there," she cried. A seven year old boy, Pat Hill, looked into a book held by St John and could see the print.
The fifteen people gathered at the gable wall of the Church remained for two hours saying the Rosary in pouring rain.
Although they were drenched no rain fell in the area round Our Lady, St Joseph and St John, even though the wind from the south was driving the rain in the direction of the gable.
The witnesses felt the ground under Our Lady and it and the gable wall were perfectly dry.
One of the witnesses, Judith Campbell, went to attend her dying mother and returned to say her mother had collapsed trying to get out of bed to see Our Lady. They all rushed to Campbells to give assistance and when they returned Our Lady had vanished.
"My grandmother could never explain why everyone left, why no one stayed with Our Lady," said Mr O'Connell. "No one saw her coming and no one was there when she left. When they returned the gable wall and the ground underneath were wet with the rain lashing down. Although all the witnesses were wet to the skin they never realised this and never took cold from it," In 1882 Mary Beirne married James O'Connell from the townland of Drum, a few hundred yards from the Shrine.
"My father, James also, was her eldest son and she lived until I was 12 years old," said Mr O'Connell. "She was a very holy woman who attended Mass every day and always said her Rosary. She was also a very active woman who worked hard round the house.
"She was often asked why she did not become a nun. Her reply was she had prayed hard for direction and decided Our Lady wished her to raise a family.
"People came to visit my grandmother every day up to the time of her death on October 19, 1936, and she described the Apparition for them over and over.
"I often heard her say that Our Lady was surrounded by little stars and by a light so bright that it could not be earthly. She was wearing a veil and a brooch glittered at her neck. Her eyes were gazing up to Heaven so my grandmother could not see their colour.
"Just minutes before my grandmother died she was asked yet again if she believed Our Lady appeared that August evening. I was standing by her bed and heard her answer, "As sure as I am going to God tonight I saw the Blessed Virgin,' Then her head dropped sideways and she died."
One strict instruction given by Mr O'Connell's grandmother to her family was, "Never commercialise on the Blessed Virgin."
"For that reason we never opened a stall at Knock," said Mr. O'Connell, "and we are one of the few families who refrained from doing so.
"My only regret is that my grandmother's house was demolished. It is a great loss," said Mr. O'Connell.