False visions which followed Knock

Several false apparitions were reported at Knock in the early months of 1880, but none of them apparently warranted any official investigation. One “apparition” involved two ladies who on the night of 5 January 1880 saw strange lights around the chapel gable end, as well as what one took to be a small figure of the Blessed Virgin about a foot and half in height.

It was the vigil of the feast of the Epiphany and they had gone there in the expectation of seeing something. The “lights” grew dim and brightened again. Two policemen were also present and they too reported seeing lights on the gable end. They were convinced that the lights could not have been produced artificially, and in any case found no one hiding nearby, despite a thorough Search.

Other witnesses

Another apparently false apparition was witnessed on February 10th by John McCloskey of Claremorris:

“I, John P. McCloskey, a native of Claremorris, remember the night of the 9th February, and the morning of the 10th. Simon Conway, MacGeoghegan and I left Claremorris at 10 o’clock p.m. We arrived at Knock sometime after midnight; our desire was to behold the apparition. After we had arrived, we continued to pray for some time.

“At about three and a half o’clock on the morning of the 10th February, while I was praying before the gable of the Knock chapel, I saw a light, like a white silvery cloud, move in a slanting direction over from where the cross stands, on the apex, and overspread the gable. In this bright cloud I saw distinctly the figure and form of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so clearly and fully that I perceived the fleshy colour of the feet. Her dress resembled that made of white satin, and it contained numerous folds.

“The light had hardly settled on the gable when it began to grow less bright, and to seem to fade or darken in colour, leaving a wreath of its own brightness still around the head of the Blessed Virgin, while the rest of the gable became the colour of white paper stained with pencil strokes. Every now and then a red tongue of flame used to shoot down from the heavens and cross the gable. During the momentary brightness resulting from these flashes, the figure of the Blessed Virgin was each time fully seen.

“In the absence of such flashes she was seen too, but not so distinctly, only in subdued tones of colour. What attracted my attention to the gable at first was small stars of an emerald clear greenish colour, that appeared to go in and out through the gable, and at different parts of it. A star continued at intervals to twinkle right over the region of the Blessed Virgin’s heart, and a little group of four or five stars were seen on the left side of the head.

“At no time did I see the countenance of Our Blessed Lady so clearly and distinctly as to be able to describe accurately the feature or the expression of the face. It was usually shrouded in light, and only at certain moments did I get a glimpse of full features.”

Witness number two

Martin Hession of Tuam, who witnessed the strange sights on February 10th also saw something on February 12th.

“I visited Knock again on the following Thursday, 12th February. It was dark when I reached there, and at about a quarter past 8 o’clock, went out from the chapel and looked at the gable. I was there but about ten minutes when I saw three figures of the shape of, but much larger than, those which I had seen on Monday night. The central figure was considered to be that of the Blessed Virgin. It was very brilliant. The other figures were not quite visible.

After about five minutes they all disappeared. I went to the Archdeacon, met him on the road, and spoke to him about what I had just seen, and what I had seen on Monday night. Whilst speaking to him there appeared a beautiful star which illuminated the whole place. The Archdeacon saw it, and he took off his hat, and asked me and a few others if we saw the light.”

Evidence points to hallucination

Rev. Michael Walsh has this to say about these events:

“Many people believed these appearances to be supernatural and to be a confirmation of the original one the previous year. What are we to think of them? In the first place it must be observed that the subject of the 1879 apparition was in the minds of the people of Knock and pilgrims coming there. Secondly, witnesses stated they came to the church in the hope or expectation of seeing an apparition. Such a mental state can be an immediate cause of hallucination. … As to the appearances themselves, at best they seem a feeble imitation of the original. The fluctuating light, the lack of definite detail, the lack of inventiveness add to the weight of evidence painting to hallucination. Finally the appearance of a figure one and a half foot high is so contrary to the laws of reality as to be ridiculous, and seems to be a sure sign of hallucination.”

Hysterical outbursts at Knock

Further appearances were reported in the month of March. They are described in the following extract from The Irish Times:

“Inside the Church was densely crowded by a congregation surging to and fro. Every available particle of room was occupied. The sanctuary of the altar was in the possession of some ladies. Here was enacted one of the most solemn and extraordinary scenes perhaps ever witnessed. I beheld a people with minds wrought to the highest pitch of religious excitement.

As I watched the people praying at the gable wall where had appeared the visions that have earned for Knock a fame almost equal to that of Lourdes, I heard that a vision had been seen inside the chapel. My informant, an intelligent and respectably-dressed young man, said he had seen it himself. It appeared, he said, on a picture that overshadowed it.

Amid great excitement he was called forward to the altar by Mrs. O’Neill, whose daughter had been cured by a visit to Knock. This lady, since the time of her daughter’s recovery, has taken a great interest in the apparition. Attired in a plain dark costume, and wearing her bonnet, Mrs. O’Neill stood in front of the altar, the whole time exhorting the people to pray, and repeating prayers, which were said after her by those who said they saw visions.

When the young man came forward, she told him to kneel down, and fixing his eyes on the window, repeat after her a prayer which she uttered aloud. He did so, and then turning to the people she asked them to kneel down and pray, and told them not to press too near the eastern wall. The people instantly began to repeat aloud the ‘Ave Maria’ standing, the crush being so great as to almost prevent movement of the arms.

The scene at this moment was one of the most intense excitement and utmost solemnity that could be conceived. Nothing was heard but the voices of people raised in prayer, while on the faces of young and old, men, women, and children were depicted enthusiasm and religious fervour in their highest degree. Every now and then Mrs. O’Neill loudly exhorted the people to pray, and announced what those called to the altar saw.

Another young man then called out that he saw a vision. A passage was at once, but with much difficulty, owing to the crush, opened for him through the people. If the people had heard the previous announcement with emotion, they received this with cries of wonder and admiration. They pressed towards the altar, large crowds who stood at the three doors, having been unable to gain admission, crowding against the surging mass within.

In vain did Mrs. O’Neill tell them that they would pull down the altar unless they kept back, and three men who were acting under her directions tried to keep the people at sufficient distance. While the boy who stated he had seen a vision was kneeling, praying and watching, and the people were praying with fervent anxiety, a girl of about sixteen or eighteen years, who happened to be standing near where I was, cried in a state of wildest excitement, and her eyes intently directed on the window or wall above it, that she also saw a vision.

She was also called to the altar. Now many men and women in the congregation declared they also saw visions. All night these scenes continued, and sometimes the noise was so great that despite loud cries for order, Mrs. O’Neill’s voice was drowned. Day at length broke, and the light of dawn fell upon an assemblage of people whose fervour seemed then as great as it had been when the clear cold moonlight shone through the windows of the Church.”

Rev. Walsh comments: “It is clear that no priest was present on the occasion. The Parish Priest often left the Church open at night on the occasion of large pilgrimages. It does not require much deliberation to explain these occurrences. The passage might easily be taken as a text book example of autosuggestion and hallucination.”

Source:Rev. M. Walsh, The Apparition at Knock, (Leinster Leader, Naas, 1955).