From Ballinspittle in Cork to Culleens in Sligo, 1985 was the year of the moving statues. As was recorded in the RTÉ documentary of last week, the phenomenon was reported in over 30 locations across the country in that summer of miracles.
But perhaps not as well remembered was the story, 30 years earlier, of an apparition on the north coast road of Mayo that attracted thousands of the curious and the devout to a remote location in the hope of sharing the reported sighting of the Virgin Mary.
It was 1950, late autumn, when the first reports of an apparition began to circulate. It had started with the disclosure by a ten-year-old schoolgirl from Muings, Barnatra, that she had been privileged with an apparition of Our Lady on the site of the ancient church of Derrynameel, five miles from Belmullet on the coast road.
The first manifestation was said to have occurred on an afternoon in late August as the little girl was returning home from the shops, through the mountains. The child said that Blessed Mother appeared to her, spoke a few words, and blessed her with the sign of the cross. Three days later, the vision reportedly again appeared as the child was driving the cows through the fields.
By this stage, word had spread far and wide, and hundreds of people were making their way daily to the site to be part of the miracle. In spite of the lack of public transport – or indeed of private car ownership at the time – they came by foot, on bicycles, by ass and cart, in the back of hastily swept lorries, by hackney cars, all eager to be present when the Madonna would reappear. The pilgrims took away stones and clay and clumps of earth, they filled bottles with water from the surrounding marshland, as relics of their visit.
Come September, expectations reached fever pitch when it was learned that Our Lady was to appear to the little girl and her younger cousin on September 2, this time with a special message. The vast crowd fell silent as the girl fell to her knees in prayer and then imparted the message she said she received from above. The Virgin, she said, had asked them to build a little house on the sacred spot, with a small access path; to lay flowers there every week, and to place a white lighted lamp inside the house to shine day and night.
By now, the local media had taken up the story, with varying levels of intensity. The Ballina Herald had sent its reporter to interview the girl, The reporter found her to be a ‘remarkably intelligent ten year old, honest and forthright, in her answers, and unwavering in her account of what she had experienced’. The Western People, on the other hand, was more circumspect, announcing that it would refrain from commentary until a Church pronouncement had been made on the matter, and urging the public to treat the story ‘with reserve’. Meanwhile, the return of Canon Feeney, PP Belmullet, from Rome, was awaited, for official church comment.
Whether it was Fr Feeney’s return or not, the story of the Erris apparition seemed to swiftly fade into oblivion. Or maybe the Mayo public had more pressing issues to concentrate on. Within two weeks, a Mayo team went on to win the All-Ireland final in Croke Park, and Sam Maguire was welcomed back to the county to huge, headline-making, celebration. And the same week saw keenly fought local election to county and urban councils.
Interest in the Derrynameel apparition petered out. Some of the more devout continued to visit and pray for a short time. A small shrine was erected on the spot, but the little house requested by Our Lady never became a reality.