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Customer Review

1 September 2010
This is effectively a delayering of the Knock story. Peeling the onion layers to get to the heart of the matter.

I should declare an interest at the outset. I have a number of connections with Knock. My great-grandfather was an RIC constable in Kiltimagh (a nearby town) at the time of the apparition; my father was born in Ballyhaunis (another nearby town); and my cousin Fr. Frank Fahey was a curate in Knock during the Pope's visit in 1979.

My own visits to the homestead in Ballyhaunis in the 1950s were never complete without a pilgrimage to Knock. In those days it was a relatively unpretentious place: a glassed in altar at the gable end of an old church and a line of huckters selling religious objects. Holy water was freely available and its potency rivaled that of Lourdes. In fact, we were all very proud of Knock as our own version of Lourdes.

The site of the shrine blossomed in the 1970s with the construction of a basilica, a church of reconciliation with as many confessionals as there are weeks in the year, and, eventually, an international airport; not to mention the Pope's visit there in 1979 to commemorate the centenary of the apparition.

So Knock is firmly on the map of Marian shrines today. But it is currently facing two challenges. The first is the hijacking of the site by a latter day seer from Dublin, Joe Coleman, who claims the Virgin Mary has appeared to him and told him to assemble the faithful on the site for various subsequent apparitions. This has proved a severe test of the local bishop who has had to debunk Coleman's visions without undermining the basis of the original apparition. The second challenge is the revisionist re-examination of the original vision. And it is here that Eugene Hynes's book comes into play, giving us what must surely be the definitive and comprehensive analysis of the original event.

Hynes shows how the claimed vision is a product of the troubled times in the area in the late 1870s, but a product totally in keeping with the traditions and understandings of the people. Hynes gives enormous weight to the oral folk tradition which shaped people's understanding of the religious, other-world, context in which they were operating. As well as shaping their perception of events, this tradition also gave the people the means of asserting their communal independence of the forces oppressing them, be these church or state. Hynes has also drawn on Irish language sources; very important for any study of an area then in linguistic transition.

One of the most interesting perspectives that Hynes brings to bear on the Knock story is that of the local perception of Marian apparitions as a rebuke of the excesses of the clergy or of their failure to support the people in their hour of need. He paints a picture of Knock in the throes of a collective nervous breakdown and ripe for an apparition.

Unfortunately the apparition that did come was then mediated for us by the very clergy who were the object of the divine critique. As a result, what has been peddled over the years is a very confused but self-serving version of whatever transpired in Knock on the evening of 21st August 1879.

I found the book a riveting and worthwhile read which has given me an entirely fresh perspective on the Knock I thought I knew. Hynes brings both an academic training and an insider's knowledge and involvement to the analysis of this ambiguous event.

I did, however, find the extensive repetition a bit off-putting. This repetition arose from the author wanting individual chapters, and in some cases individual sections, to be able to be read in isolation. Grand for someone hitting the book in spots, but difficult for someone reading it from cover to cover as I did. The few illustrations included are tiny and do not add to the story. Perhaps some bigger and better quality pictures for a future edition. As it is I'll have to go back to Ballyhaunis to see the stained glass window which seems to have played such a central part in the apparition, assuming it is still there.

That said, this is an indispensable source for understanding what was really going on in Knock in 1879 and it provides great background to the current difficulties faced by this enormous project as it attempts to resolve its own internal contradictions.
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