Dr Michael Neary doesn’t mince words when it comes to the recent apparitions at Knock. ‘It is not healthy,’ the Archbishop of Tuam declared to the Irish Independent. ‘It does not give glory to God. It certainly is not good witness to the faith to be looking for extraordinary phenomena.’ Certainly, the claims of Joe Coleman are not gaining favour with the catholic church. The Dublin-based spiritual healer is a self-proclaimed ‘channel for God’ and professes to have been on speaking terms with the mother of God for quite some time now - since 1986 to be precise. Yet it is only recently that he decided to go public. Mary, he says, has a message. ‘Our Lady is telling us to come back to the church,’ he explained to The Irish Times. ‘She will rock the foundations of the church if the people do not listen, from Rome back down to where we are, down to Knock.’
‘Our Lady, Queen of Ireland’
Such portentous apparitions are nothing new for this isolated village in one of Ireland’s most depopulated and impoverished regions. In 1879 the town made global headlines when dozens of people independently witnessed a divine apparition of the ‘Holy Family’ (the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and Jesus Christ) outside the local parish church. The ‘Knock Shrine’ rapidly became a world pilgrimage site, with the new railway system bringing devotees from far and wide to worship at the grotto. Furthermore, the sightings soon took on a heady political dimension; the people of the region, embroiled in a radical ‘Land War’ against their British landlords, sent a hostile message to the then sovereign Queen Victoria by giving the Knock apparition the title of ‘Our Lady, Queen of Ireland’.
During Ireland’s recent economic boom, Knock, along with the rest of Ireland’s religious institutions, suffered a dramatic and unprecedented decline as the catholic church in Ireland became synonymous with deceit, repression, and abuse - leaving anxious priests to preach to empty pews up and down the country. Now that the economy has descended into dire straits, the apparitions at Knock coincide with a significant return to Ireland’s forsaken faith. This time, however, and to the evident distress of church authorities, the clergy are being left out of the picture. ‘The hierarchy want to promote devotion within tradition and an orthodoxy. Apparitions kind of bypass that,’ remarks Professor Eugene Hynes, author of Knock, The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth-century Ireland (Cork University Press, 2008). ‘That man in Dublin is implying he knows something, and that’s very threatening to the clergy. He’s implying he’s a mouthpiece to something special.’
‘This time, everyone has a camera phone’
Paranormal apparitions of the Blessed Virgin are certainly not confined to Ireland. Similar appearances abound all over Europe at sites like Fatima in Portugal, Medjugorje in Bosnia & Herzegovina and most perhaps most famously at Lourdes in southern France. However, this is perhaps the first time that such appearances have played into contemporary ‘celebrity’ culture. The spiritualist Joe Coleman comes out of the woodwork at a time when self-proclaimed mediums such as the Brits Derek Acorah, Sally Morgan and the American John Edwards have never enjoyed so much popularity. What’s more, divine apparitions in the 21st century come with one major novelty - this time everyone in the audience has a camera phone. Youtube videos of the Knock visions are gaining widespread notoriety (and ruffling the feathers of not a few American evangelists, who denounce the apparition as demonic). ‘We all saw the sun spinning round,’ explains one woman in a video. ‘All the clouds parted. I’ve seen it before in Medjugorje.’ According to Coleman’s predictions, the tiny village of Knock could be inundated with up to 50, 000 pilgrims by 5 December, the date of the next predicted apparition. For now, sceptics and believers alike must be content to wait and see what the Queen of Ireland has planned.