TED HARRISON looks back at the strange summer of 1985, when statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary all over Ireland started to move – at least according to the thousands-strong crowds who flocked to see these modern miracles. But what was going on? Optical illusions? Mass hysteria? A religious revival for hard times? Or something very strange indeed?
The summer of 1985 was a strange time to be in Ireland, as rumours of miracles and extraordinary events swept the country.
It was the summer when I went to Ireland and saw for myself a solid, inanimate statue of the Virgin Mary appear to sway from side to side.
The moving statue epidemic started in February that year. By September, almost 50 separate claims of moving statues and other strange phenomena had been reported at religious sites across the country. It was the year of Madonna Mania! [see FT45:6–7, 30–34]
It all began on Valentine’s Day, when at Asdee, County Kerry, a seven-year-old girl, Elizabeth Flynn, said she saw religious statues in the parish church move.
Her story was backed up by her older brother and sister and later, when they told their friends what had happened, some 30 children went to the church eager to see things for themselves. Several of them also claimed to see the statues behaving oddly. Word spread rapidly and at Sunday mass the congregation filled the church; an overflow crowd gathered outside.
A month later, a statue in Ballydesmond, Co. Cork, performed a similar feat. Again, children were the witnesses. Although on this occasion their parents dismissed their stories as products of overactive imaginations, curious visitors started to come to the church to see the statue for themselves.
The Roman Catholic Church tried to play down the two events. A Msgr Dermot O’Sullivan issued a statement emphasising that the ‘moving statues’ of Asdee would not be accepted as a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church until all other possible explanations had been thoroughly checked out. In the meantime, he said, the Church would not encourage people to visit Asdee or Ballydesmond on pilgrimage.
Despite this total lack of official encouragement, as spring turned to summer, a trickle of such claims turned into a torrent. In 1986, researcher Lionel Beer published a list of 47 locations in Ireland from which strange phenomena were reported or rumoured. The majority of these phenomena were moving statues, but in September, at Carns, County Sligo, four schoolgirls described seeing a vision in the night sky of St Bernadette of Lourdes kneeling at the feet of the Virgin Mary. It only lasted a few minutes, but when rumours of the vision spread, huge crowds gathered at the site. Over the weekend, a fortnight after the first report, it is estimated 20,000 people visited Carns, causing major traffic congestion.
Narrow lanes the length and breadth of rural Ireland became blocked with vehicles as the summer of 1985 progressed. Most weekends, and many evenings, thousands of Catholics from the towns took to their cars, or organised bus outings, to see if they could witness a miracle for themselves.
Mother-of-three Denise Lynch recalled how the curious and the faithful came in their thousands to Asdee, where it had all started. Twenty-five years after the events, she told the Irish Examiner that so many candles were being burned in the church that someone had to be on duty to clear them away so that more could be lit. “People came from all over the country to see the statues. When you look back on it, it was really amazing.”
The moving statue of Ballinspittle
By far the most famous celebrated of all the claims, and the one witnessed by the greatest number of people, was that at Ballin-spittle, Co. Cork.
Until then, Ballinspittle, which is located in the south east of the Irish Republic, was an unexceptional village. Like many such villages in the country, it had a wayside grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Most were raised by local subscription 30 years earlier to mark the Marian Year, the centenary of the Roman Catholic proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The Ballinspittle statue was typical of the genre and the work of the well-known Irish statue-maker Maurice O’Donnell. It was a little over 5ft (1.5m) tall and set in a small, natural garden on a hillside. In front of the grotto, there was a balustrade where passers-by could kneel and pray. The figure of The Virgin Mary was based on St Bernadette’s Lourdes vision. She was dressed in white, with a hint of blue. She looked devoutly up to heaven and around her head there was a halo of light bulbs, which were often lit at night.
Before the statue became a major object of national and international interest, it was a focus of occasional devotion for local people. The more devout churchgoers passing by might pause to say a ‘Hail Mary’ or place some flowers at the Virgin’s feet.
Then on 22 July 1985, Kathy O’Mahony, one of the grotto caretakers, while out for a walk with her daughters, reported seeing the statue move.
“It was as if she was breathing,” she said. “She was life-like, maybe sighing, her chest was moving.” Her daughters reported seeing the hands move. They were surprised, but not alarmed. “It gave me a sense of peace,” Kathy recalled.
They quickly reported what they had seen to friends and neighbours, who also went to look at the statue. A member of the statue committee is quoted as saying, “I thought I’d better go and see what these nutcases were up to. I joined about 40 people saying the rosary. Then I saw the statue move. I got a terrible fright." 1
Two days later, a Garda sergeant saw the statue vibrate and was even concerned that it might fall over.
When Sergeant John Murray had first heard about the moving statue, he says, his reaction was “rubbish”. But he lived locally, and out of curiosity he went with his wife and children to see what was going on. It was around 9.30pm and they found about 400 people in front of the statue saying the rosary and singing hymns.
Speaking on an RTE documentary broadcast in 2010, Murray said he remains convinced that what he witnessed next was real. He says he saw the statue of the Virgin Mary fly through the air.
“I heard a collective intake of breath and I looked up at the statue and to my mind it was airborne. It was floating on air.
“I was really convinced it was a hoax of some sort. But as a police officer, I was concerned for the crowd’s safety. I walked right in around the grotto and searched around the surrounding bushes and grounds.
“I was convinced I would find a system of wiring to cause this effect and I was absolutely amazed when I didn’t see it.
“Early the next morning on my way into work I stopped at the grotto. I climbed up to the statue and tried to move it but it was stuck in the concrete.”
“Events achieved national coverage in less than five days,” noted Lionel Beer. “A new grotto committee of local people was convened to supervise the crowds. Reports suggest that the majority of nocturnal visitors to the shrine in the early days thought they saw movement. Many left genuinely puzzled as to whether they had seen a miraculous vision, or been subject to an optical aberration." 2
Events became even more confusing and bizarre when many viewers watching an RTE television report about Ballinspittle claimed to see the face of Christ on the screen. However, engineers who reviewed the videotape of the news could find nothing untoward.
From July, through August and September, Ballinspittle attracted thousands of visitors every day – a total of 500,000 people it was later estimated. They gathered in the field opposite, from where they had a good view. A loudspeaker system was rigged up to lead the prayers. Temporary loos were provided and lines of fish and chip vans arrived to take full advantage of an unexpected business opportunity.
Such was the international interest that I was despatched by the BBC to make a Radio 4 documentary.
Interventions or illusions?
On the first evening after arriving in Ireland, I drove out from Cork along the winding lanes towards Ballinspittle. Despite the grey skies and the landscape being shrouded in drizzle, the lanes around the village were teeming with activity and lined with buses and parked cars. The chip vans were doing brisk business. In the sloping field opposite the grotto, there were around 1,000 people. They stood gazing intently at the statue, about 30 yards (27m) away. Many were fingering their rosary beads and murmuring the words of the ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Our Father’ in response to those being broadcast over the loudspeaker.
By the time I arrived, it was almost dark. The bulbs of the statue’s halo were lit and looked like a semi-circle of small stars above the Virgin’s head. From time to time someone in the crowd would exclaim, “She moved!” and describe excitedly to a neighbour what the statue had just appeared to do. Sometimes there would be gasps of surprise. Occasionally, one of the worshippers would offer a prayer for a sick friend or relative out loud.
I found a place in the field to stand and concentrated on looking at the statue and waiting to see what happened. People around me saw movement, but I did not. Then, after a several minutes of continuous staring, I too saw the statue appear to move. She did not raise her arms or try to give me a message, but the figure, which had been completely motionless and inanimate, seemed to sway from side to side.
Had I been looking for a miracle, I might have claimed that I’d seen one. My response, however, was more dispassionate. I reviewed in my own mind what I had seen and looked around me at others who, presumably, were seeing the same thing. I noted firstly that at the precise moment I saw the statue move, no one else claimed to have done so. Indeed, as far as I could see, no two people ever saw movement at exactly the same time as each other. This suggested that the movement was not attributable to the statue, but to the observer.
This was consistent with one explanation offered by psychologist Dr Jurek Kirakowski of The University of Cork and his team.
“What could be happening at Ballinspittle is that when you were there at twilight you hadn’t got visual contact with your immediate surroundings,” he explained to me when I visited him in his office shortly after my evening at Ballinspittle. “As is usual, if you are standing still, you are going to start swaying very slightly on your feet to keep balance. Perhaps your neck will start trembling if you have been staring for too long. And on the back of your eye you will see the image of that little statue and you will see it moving. Because you are not aware that it is you who are moving, you will interpret that movement as being the statue.”
But to explain how individuals might believe they have seen a statue move is not to explain Madonna Mania. The swaying object optical illusion must surely have been seen before at many of Ireland’s shrines. Indeed, the illusion can be seen almost on demand by anyone standing in the dark looking at a lamppost. So why, in 1985, did this optical illusion receive special attention? Why did the nation go moving statue mad?
Some commentators blamed the media. Peter Mulholland of the National University of Ireland at Maynooth argued that only a relatively small number of people ever took the apparitions seriously and that interest in them was largely media-generated.
He was not alone in holding this view. “As soon as one incident is reported, another is recorded elsewhere, triggering off a reaction that tends to escalate,” one self-confessed church sceptic, the Prior of the Dominican Order in Limerick, was reported as saying.
The official Church line was to neither approve nor disapprove. In its usual way, it kept its distance and waited to see how events panned out. The normal pattern is that the Church allows some time to pass and if, after several decades, interest has not faded, it offers its retrospective blessing.
When I spoke to him that September, the Bishop of Cork and Ross, Michael Murphy, had not visited Ballinspittle. Without in any way endorsing the miraculous claims, he acknowledged the interest in moving statues had been good for church attendance.
Supernatural intervention, he said, was possible, but extremely rare. He did, however, note with approval that the gatherings at the ‘miraculous’ grottos were generally very devout and prayerful.
He suggested that the upsurge in accounts of moving statues should be viewed from a social rather than a religious perspective.
“First of all, we’ve had a very depressing summer. We are living in very difficult times in Ireland. We have very high unemployment. Within the church there is a cert-ain questioning of accepted values, matters of faith; and then there is the threat of nuclear destruction, felt by young people very much, I think.”
The bishop accepted there that recent events might have a message for the Church. “They are very devotional gatherings,” he noted. “Perhaps as a Church we have not paid enough attention to the emotional side of religion. Certainly there has been no attempt to promote a genuine lay spirituality and popular devotion. There has of late been a great emphasis on the intellectual side of things.”
Although the bishop made no direct mention of this,
the phenomena of 1985 coincided with several social scandals widely reported in
the Irish press concerning babies born to unmarried mothers. The harsh
disapproval of the Church towards illegitimacy and sexual relations outside
marriage had led, it was claimed, to the tragic deaths of babies. At that time,
too, the Church was involved in a parliamentary battle to halt the
liberalisation of the law on contraception. Some Catholics saw the ‘supernatural’
intervention of Mary in Irish life as a re-enforcement of the Church’s
traditional teaching on moral values. It was the local postmaster, Daniel Costello, who shrewdly observed to me that people show
an interest in the supernatural “when times are hard. In times of prosperity it’s
a case of God is in his Heaven and all is right with the world, but then in
times of recession, as now, when their whole way of life is upside down, it is
time to look to a more supernatural approach to their dilemma. I have heard
that after the war in Italy, 300 statues moved and whether that was the Virgin
in Heaven trying to console her people, or what, I don’t know.”
Lionel Beer described as “cynical” the suggestion that the phenomena in Ireland that summer “were not unconnected with the poor tourist season. Although the hotel and catering trade in the south of Cork subsequently benefited, this was an unworthy inference. If the phenomena had been purely limited to wobbling statues, the ‘bright lights seen against a dark background’ explanation might have been adequate. However, claims have included facial changes, anatomical movements, illusions of blood, messages and luminous projections where no statue or grotto existed.” 3
Events in Ireland paralleled those happening at the same time in other parts of the world, Beer noted, in particular the visions reported from Medjugorje. There, in what was then Yugoslavia, six people had reportedly witnessed appearances of the Virgin Mary on a regular basis since 1981. They claimed to have heard her give messages calling the world to prayer and repentance. “Students of ‘fortean’ phenomena and those with an interest in the deeper meaning of life may well conclude that in amongst the ‘noise’, something very strange is going on,” Beer wrote.
I certainly met people at the Balinspittle site who claimed they had seen more than simple movement when looking at the statue. One man I spoke to described how the face of Mary would sometimes change to that of Christ, and others reported seeing the Virgin’s cloak billowing out.
From other sites emerged claims of statues blinking or moving their arms. Statues, according to some unconfirmed rumours, had been seen to walk and talk.
On the same trip to Ireland in 1985, I also went to Mount Melleray in County Waterford where there was another, much reported, animated statue. This one I found in a woodland grotto near the Cistercian Abbey. Whatever had happened origin-ally, by the time I got there the stories of miraculous deeds were being extensively embellished. Children reported hearing the Virgin speak to them and, I was told, were encouraged to relay her messages to the crowds.
Marian expert Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, from the University of Kansas, who made a study of the events that summer at Mount Melleray, reported the messages in detail. In particular, the Virgin was asking for prayer and suggesting that Ireland, as a nation, had a special role to play in alerting the world to the need to repent. If comfort and solace were being offered in difficult times, she suggested, “it would seem that this should be understood in terms of the emergence of a religious world view which draws on and modifies the tradition of public Marian apparitions in order to establish Ireland as a place of apocalyptic and religious significance.”
Ireland was not unique in being ‘favoured’ with visitations from the mother of God, it was implied, but her visitations did suggest that the nation had a special status in the religious affairs of the world
What was happening, Zimdars-Swartz suggested, was that modern Ireland was experiencing events which had once been much more common. “During the Middle Ages,” she wrote, “devotees of a particular saint often reported that the saint had appeared to them. Most popular of all the saints was the Virgin Mary and reports of her appearances to the faithful abounded. Common too were reports that statues of the Virgin moved or came alive and interacted with human beings.
“While the Reformation brought the demise of these phenomena in those areas most subject to its influence, they have continued within Roman Catholicism. Reports of apparitions and of statues which move have not ceased with the advent of the so-called modern age." 4
In fact, between 1928 and 1973, more than 200 reported appearances came to the attention of the Roman Catholic authorities.
Ireland’s most famous apparition was some years earlier at Knock, County Mayo, in 1879. Today, the village is the centre of a major pilgrimage business, as popular as ever following Pope John Paul II’s visit there on the centenary of the vision. Such is its fame and widespread appeal that there is even an airport to bring in the pilgrims.
But if the villagers of Ballinspittle had hopes that their grotto would become as famous, they were to be disappointed.
By the autumn, following the summer of devotion, the crowds had dwindled to just a handful of the faithful. On 31 October, they were praying in front of the statue when three men arrived. After insulting the worshippers by calling them “stupid fools for worshipping a plaster statue” they attacked the Virgin with a hammer and an axe. After desecrating the site and causing extensive damage, they drove off. They were later identified as coming from Dublin. “Nuns see Virgin Statue smashed,” said one tabloid headline.
The statue was taken away and repaired by its original maker. Since then, although it is back in its place in the grotto and some new rumours of movement have circulated, the Ballinspittle BVM has never again attracted the massive crowds of 1985.
In fact, since that extraordinary summer, Ireland’s religious statues have generally remained static, although from time to time stories of Marian apparitions do surface.
In 2007 Joe Coleman from Ballyfermot, near Dublin, was at Kerrytown, near Dungloe, County Donegal (FT257:20), visiting a shrine which had been the focus of pilgrimage since the Virgin Mary was seen there in 1939. Joe later wrote a description of what happened.
“At 3 o’clock [in the] afternoon, we were at the Rock in Kerrytown, praying the Rosary. There were about 50 people there, men, women and children… During the first 10 minutes, I noticed the face of Mary change to her Son Jesus, it then changed to Padre Pio, then back to Jesus, and then back to Mary. I had seen Mary before some months earlier in the summer… She was crying tears of great sadness for the children of Ireland. She asked me to tell all the people that had come to the rock, that everybody would receive a cure on this day at the rock. I got very emotional. And the tears started to flow down my face. It was a feeling of great love, great joy, unconditional love came from Mary as she shone her beautiful light out among the crowd, she was crying she said she was very sad that our young people are not saying the rosary.”
There is no reason to question that what Joe Coleman described he genuinely believed to be real. But did he, as might others who have claimed similar visions over the years, add some Irish poetic license to the account? Maybe, but what he claimed to have happened was within a well-established tradition of Irish Catholic experience.
The time I spent in Ireland that summer was, as I wrote back then, “bizarre”. In almost any other part of the British Isles the events I was reporting on would have been dismissed as so strange or unbelievable as to be of little general concern. Anyone, anywhere else, seeing a moving or talking statue would have been labelled fanciful at best, mad at worst.
But there in Ireland, dozens of friendly, rational and intelligent people talked of the improbable events they had witnessed or heard about in a totally matter-of-fact manner.
The moving statues might be explained rationally in terms of optical illusions viewed, in the context of a devoutly, but troubled, Catholic country, by a people whose culture has a strong tradition of poetry and storytelling. Nevertheless, the question remains, why, in 1985, did accounts of such events appear in such profusion? Why was there an Irish summer of Madonna Mania? Was it attributable to the general downbeat mood of the nation at the time? Did it have something to do with 1985 being the year that the rigid hold of the church on Irish society was starting to weaken? Or was there, in the words of Lionel Beer, indeed “something very strange going on”?
Lionel Beer’s The Moving Statue of Ballinspittle & Related Phenomena is available for £2.25 (£2.50 colour) from www.spacelink.fsworld.co.uk
1 Lionel Beer: ‘The Moving Statue of Ballinspittle and Related Phenomena’, Spacelink, 1986, p15.
2 ibid p13.
3 ibid p37.
4 Sandra L Zimdars-Swartz: Archives des sciences socials des religions Vol 67/1, 1989.
TED HARRISON is a former BBC religious affairs correspondent and author of many books, including Diana: making of a Saint (2007). He also produced the documentary And Did Those Feet?