On 21 August 1879, Miss Mary McLoughlin, 45, housekeeper to Archdeacon
Cavanagh, went to the nearby cottage of Mrs Mary Byrne at about
7 p.m.. On her way she passed by the south gable of Knock parish
church. "On passing by the chapel, and at a little distance
from it, I saw a wonderful number of strange figures at the gable;
one like the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one like St. Joseph; I saw
an altar." Miss McLoughlin thought that possibly the Archdeacon
had been supplied with the figures from Dublin or elsewhere, and
passed on to the home of the widow Margaret Byrne and her children,
where she said nothing initially.
After half an hour, Mary McLoughlin returned to the church
with Miss Mary Byrne, 29, to lock up the church, they beheld
the vision. Mary Byrne went to fetch her brother Dominick Byrne,
20. He worked as assistant to Archdeacon Cavanagh. Shortly after
she sent a little girl, her niece, Catherine Murray, 8, who
was staying with them, running back to fetch her mother, Mrs
Margaret Byrne, and her sister Miss Margaret Byrne, 21.
The Byrnes alerted some of their neighbours to the apparition.
Dominick Byrne ran to the home of his cousin, Dominick Byrne
who came, as did Patrick Hill, 13; and a servant boy, John Durkan,
24; and a little boy called John Curry, six years old. Dominick
Byrne also called to the house of Patrick Byrne, 16 who came
and saw the apparition. Mary Byrne called to the home of Judith
Campbell, 22, who also witnessed the apparition, as did Bridget
Trench, 74 or 75 years old, who gave a vivid account of the
Two other people also witnessed the apparition, although they
did not realise its significance until later. Mrs Hugh Flatley,
44, who happened to pass by the church at 8 p.m. and thought
the parish priest "had been ornamenting the church, and
got some beautiful likenesses removed outside." Patrick
Walsh was playing marbles on his land around 9 p.m. some half
a mile from the church: "I saw a very bright light on the
southern gable end of the chapel; it seemed to me to be a large
globe of golden beer; I never saw, I thought, so brilliant a
light before; it appeared high up in the air above around the
chapel gable and it was circular in appearance; it was quite
stationary, and it seemed to retain the same brilliancy all
Details of the apparition
On the evening of 21 August 1879, people whose ages ranged from
five years to seventy-five and included men, women, teenagers,children,
witnessed what they claimed was an apparition of Our Lady, St
Joseph, and St John the Evangelist at the south gable end of
the local small parish church, the Church of St John the Baptist.
Behind them and a little to the left of St John was a plain
altar. On the altar was a cross and a lamb (a traditional image
of Jesus, as reflected in the religious phrase The Lamb of God)
with adoring angels.
The Blessed Virgin Mary was described as being
very beautiful, standing a few feet above the ground. She wore
a white cloak, hanging in full folds and fastened at the neck.
The crown appeared brilliant, and of a golden brightness, of
a deeper hue, than the striking whiteness of the robe she wore;
the upper parts of the crown appeared to be a series of sparkles,
or glittering crosses. She was described as "deep in prayer",
with her eyes raised to heaven, her hands raised to the shoulders
or a little higher, the palms inclined slightly to ths shoulders.
Bridget Trench "went in immediately to kiss, as I thought,
the feet of the Blessed Virgin; but I felt nothing in the embrace
but the wall, and I wondered why I could not feel with my hands
the figures which I had so plainly and so distinctly seen".
St Joseph, also wearing white robes, stood
on the Virgin's right hand. His head was bent forward from the
shoulders towards the Blessed Virgin in respect.
St John the Evangelist stood to the left of
the Blessed Virgin. He was dressed in a long robe and wore a
mitre. He was partly turned away from the other figures. He
appeared to be preaching and he held open a large book in his
To the left of St John was an altar with a lamb on it with
a cross standing on the altar behind the lamb.
Those who witnessed the apparition stood in the pouring rain
for up to two hours reciting the Rosary, a traditional Catholic
prayer. When the apparition began there was good light, but
although it then became very dark, witnesses could still see
the figures very clearly - they appeared to be the colour of
a bright whitish light. The apparition did not flicker or move
in any way. The witnesses reported that the ground around the
figures remained completely dry during the apparition although
the wind was blowing from the south. Afterwards, however the
ground at the gable became wet and the gable dark.
Church Commissions of
An ecclesiastical Commission of inquiry was established by the
Archbishop of Tuam, Most Rev. Dr. John MacHale. The Commissions
final verdict was that the testimony of all the witnesses taken
as a whole is trustworthy and satisfactory. At a second Commission
of inquiry in 1936, the surviving witnesses confirmed the evidence
they gave to the first Commission.
The parish priest at the time of the apparition was The Very
Reverend Doctor Bartholomew A. Cavanagh, who was also Archdeacon
of the diocese.It has often been said it was no coincidence
that the Virgin Mary chose to appear in Knock while Cavanagh
was the parish priest. Widely considered a very holy priest
in spite of his siding with landlords against the growing Land
League movement, he was appointed parish priest of Knock-Aghamore
in 1867, and was about 58 at the time of the apparition. He
died in 1897 and is buried in the Old Church.
The pilgrimage site
The growth of railways and the appearance of local and national
newspapers fueled interest in what had up to then been a small
Mayo village. Reports of "strange occurrences in a small
Irish village" were featured almost immediately in the
international media, notably The Times (of London). Newspapers
from as far away as Chicago sent reporters to cover the Knock
phenomenon, while Queen Victoria asked her government in Dublin
Castle to send her a report about the event. In later years
Catholic nationalists used the apparition to symbolically challenge
Queen Victoria and her descendants' position in Ireland using
for Our Lady of Knock the title Queen of Ireland.
Though it remained for almost 100 years a major Irish pilgrimage
site, Knock established itself as a world religious site in
large measure during the last quarter of the twentieth century,
largely due to the work of its longterm parish priest James
Horan.Horan presided over a major rebuilding of the site, with
the provision of a new large Knock Basilica (the first in Ireland)
alongside the old church, which could no longer cope with visitor
numbers. In 1979, the centenary of the apparition, Pope John
Paul II, himself a devotee of Mary, visited Knock Shrine and
stated that it was the goal of his Irish visit. On this occasion
he presented a Golden Rose, a seldom-bestowed token of papal
honour and recognition.
Controversially, Horan secured from Irish Taoiseach Charles
Haughey millions of pounds of state aid to build a major airport
near Knock. The project was condemned by critics in the media.
At the time the Irish economy was in depression with massive
emigration. Contrary to the critics' expectation however, Horan
International Airport (now known as Ireland West Airport Knock)
became a commercial success, drawing not just pilgrims as well
as passengers, but also becoming the air-gateway for the entire