Our Lady of Knock - Pilgrimage Site in Mayo

Of the better known apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the Knock apparition in 1879 in County Mayo reveals the Mother of Jesus a little differently. Mary typically appears to humble people, living the simple life with few riches, and the appearance at Knock follows this pattern though there were 15 people who saw her. And at Knock, Mary appeared with others – St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist.

Mexico City (Guadalupe) in 1531, Paris (Miraculous Medal) in 1830, Lourdes in 1858, Fatima in 1917 and Medjugorje in 1981 were places where Mary appeared solo and gave a message to those who saw her. Sometimes the message was lengthy and continued on for years as in Medjugorje. All the messages encourage us to pray and take steps to move closer to Christ.

In Knock, Mary said nothing. Her silence perplexed those trying to gain meaning from the apparition because without words, there seems to be no message. No message can be interpreted as no purpose or reason for the apparition.


On a rainy Thursday evening, August 21, 1879 the apparition occurred in the small town of Knock, located in the Northwestern part of Ireland in County Mayo. The vision was first seen by Mary McLoughlin who was serving as a housekeeper to the parish priest. Mary saw a light at the end of the church wall which appeared to be three standing figures. When she looked closer, she saw the Virgin Mary with her eyes lifted heavenward, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist who was holding a book in one hand. There was also a lamb on an altar with angels hovering over it.

Mary left the scene frightened but word spread throughout the village about the light and figures behind the church. Eventually fifteen people – men, women and children – gathered at the church wall and saw the same vision. Statements came later from other villagers that they could see a “light” hovering over the church from a distance, through the rain.

Once word of the Knock apparition spread, people from all over Ireland began came to the site to pray and ask for healing. Eventually those numbers climbed into the thousands and in 1976 a new church had to be built. Today visitors and pilgrims to Knock exceed one million each year. Life-size statues of the Virgin, St. Joseph, St. John and the lamb with angels were commissioned and placed near the old church wall to recreate the apparition based on descriptions given by the visionaries.

Today the area of the apparition with the statues is enclosed to offer pilgrims a quiet place to sit before the apparition site in a protected environment. A glass ceiling and walls around the statues connect the new chapel to the old church allowing natural light to pour in. From the outside the old church is still easily seen. There have been several additions and the extension to the rear where the apparition was seen is identified by glass, so pilgrims can view the apparition from the inside or outside.


I visited Knock on my first trip to Ireland in the early nineteen nineties. I knew the story from song “Lady of Knock” recorded by Dana. We visited on the feast of the Assumption – August 15th – and we attended Mass there. My second visit was this past February (2007), and though I was there, mid-week in the lowest season for tourists in Ireland, the place was had a good number of pilgrims. It’s obvious that the site gets thousands of tourists weekly, just looking at the amenities available.

There is a large, high cross now erected in the Knock church complex. It marks a visit to Knock by Pope John Paul II in September of 1979 – 100 years after the apparition.

A sign on the high cross reads:

This is the cross of the altar on which our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on the occasion of his visit to the Knock Shrine.

The cross itself, modeled on the ancient Celtic Cross of Ahenny, remains in grateful remembrance of the greatest event in Irish history since the coming of St. Patrick.

Standing at the foot of this cross, the Holy Father as “a pilgrim” addressed 450,000 other pilgrims and said, “Here I am at the goal of my journey to Ireland – the shrine of Our Lady of Knock.”


I almost didn’t make it to Knock this last visit. I had only a few hours of daylight to get back to Shannon from Castlebar on my last day in Ireland. It was a rainy, gloomy day…. good weather for reflection. I didn’t get a real sense of thinness when I first approached. The site is like Disney World. There’s now a huge church that hold 2000 people, a complex for walking and meditation, spigots that will provide holy water from Knock for taking home, and even a rest area with bathrooms and areas for washing up.

Once I got in the chapel in front of the statues and sat awhile, the thinness washed over me. I have wondered for years why she was silent when she appeared in Knock. What is the meaning of her silence?

Mother Teresa spoke about silence …

“God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass - grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence...we need silence to be able to touch souls.”

Perhaps the Virgin Mary was silent because she listening. The statue reminds us that she’s still there … and may be listening.

Castle of Dromore - made famous in folk song

I used to sing The Castle of Dromore to little Bridget as I rocked her. She was a child that Dan and I fostered who was just ten months old when we got her. Her birth mother was a 16 year old, addicted and unable to care for the child.

It was so easy to fall in love with Bridget. She was bright and understandably tentative. But soon she began to trust us and was especially receptive to being rocked and sung to. Over and over I sang The Castle of Dromore as I rocked her in our living room. The song has verses that tell of a castle with gardens that a child is encouraged to play in ... to thrive in ... The verses end with ...

Hush a bye loo, lo loo, lo lie;
Hush a bye loo, lo loo.

The song sustains some haunting themes as it describes the October winds lamenting around the castle with its lofty halls. It also speaks of dread spirits over the Black Water with a banshee (profit of death) screaming, and a mother (father) begging the Virgin Mary for pity and protection letting no harm come to "my helpless babe and me." In the end, the verses tell the child to take time to thrive in the gardens of Dromore for now is the time to rest. Later there will be plenty of work to do.

The lyrics are said to be written by Harold Boulton, (lyric writer of Skye Boat Song) who visited the Castle of Dromore in the first years o the twentieth century. He was evidently a friend of Harold Mahony, Olympic silver medalist and Wimbledon Champion and the last Mahony male to own the Castle of Dromore. After his untimely death in a bicycle accident in 1905, the castle passed into the hands of various relations, none of whom cared much for the castle.

The October winds lament around the castle of Dromore
Yet peace lies in her lofty halls, my loving treasure store
Though autumn leaves may droop and die, the bud of spring are you
Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lie. Hushabye loo, low loo

Dread spirits over the of black water, Clan Owen's wild banshee
Bring no ill wind to him nor us, my helpless babe and me
And Holy Mary pitying us to Heaven for grace doth sue
Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lie. Hushabye loo, low loo

Take time to thrive, my ray of hope, in the gardens of Dromore
Take heed, young eaglet, till thy wings are feathered fit to soar
A little rest and then the world is full of work to do
A little rest and then the world is full of work to do

Bridget's mother consented to adoption and our large family looked forward to adding a seventh child to our clan. Bridget continued to grow and develop and I continued to sing to her. The Castle of Dromore was a favorite.

On June 1, 2000, just before we were to secure the adoption, Bridget's mother withdrew her consent and drove unexpectedly to our home and took the child away with the help of the local police department. Evidently, the mother needed to prove that she had the responsibility of a child to take care of in order to skip being sent to jail on a prostitution and drug charge in Florida. Once they took Bridget across state lines, she was lost to us forever.

I couldn't bear to hear the song anymore. But I was still touched by it. The visuals my imagination created as I sang it to Bridget still hung with me and fascinated me.

When preparing for this year's trip to Ireland, I knew I'd be travelling to Kerry near the real Castle of Dromore. Though it isn't known as a "thin place" and not on the agenda for my visit, I was curious and hoped I'd be able to see it. I did a little research and found that it was privately owned and being restored. The castle was designed by Cork architect, Sir Thomas Dean and built in 1839 for Denis Mahony, grandfather of Harold (tennis player). Denis was a minister for the Church of Ireland who operated a soup kitchen at the castle during the potato famine.

I found information on the location of the Castle on the Internet and tucked it away in case I had time for a short visit while I was in the Kerry / West Cork region. It wasn't too far out of my way. I turned off the main road at the castle gatehouse - also designed by Sir Thomas Dean - and followed the roads to the Castle. The signage warned that it was private property so I was reluctant to approach. I decided to offer the owner or resident my business card with my outline of the Thin Places project and ask permission to view the grounds - in hope of including the Castle in the book.

The owner wasn't on site, but the superintendent overseeing the renovations was present and agreed to allow me to look around and take a few pictures once I presented my card and outline. I was grateful. The renovations being done are remarkable and extensive. The castle sits high on a hill overlooking the Kenmare river with a terraced lawn and stone steps leading down to the river. An arched window dominates the south face of the castle.

The gardens of Dromore are behind the castle. The bones of an orchard, terraced gardens and stone buildings still remain within the garden walls. It's easy to see why Boulton would write - take time to thrive, my ray of hope, in the gardens of Dromore. You can imagine theses gardens in their day of walled protection being a safe haven, always ripe with new discoveries for children.

When I made my last round of the property, I noticed the old tennis court. I had read in my Internet research that Harold Mahony's tennis court was in the area of the gardens - but it isn't. The old tennis court (now unused for 100 years) overlooks the Kenmare river. It's ever so subtle - grown over with grass blending into the rolling, terraced lawn. A great sadness came over me as I past it. I felt tears come into my eyes and I couldn't understand why ... I still don't know really, but I know I was close to something... something sad.

The Castle of Dromore is a thin place - though a privately owned one, and I don't recommend others trespass or intrude upon the owner's private quarters. The castle can be seen well from the Kenmare River, and I hope the owner isn't offended by my discussing his property publicly in this blog.

On June 1, 2005 I witnesses the births of my twin granddaughters Mia and Grace. They were born exactly five years (to the day) after Bridget left us. I'm back to singing and rocking - this time twice as much - and yes, I'm singing The Castle of Dromore to these little girls. It doesn't hurt anymore. I'll never forget Bridget or stop loving her, but Mia and Grace have made remembering her easier.

I'm glad Harold Boulton visited Harold Mahony at the Castle of Dromore - and glad he wrote those lyrics. I wonder if he imagined how far his simple verses would reach or how many he would touch - children, mothers, lovers of Irish music? I'm glad that Bridget made the song come alive for me, and glad that images the song burned in my imagination led me to visit the Castle and led me to write about it here. The pictures will be something I can show Mia and Grace when they get a little older and tell them how I've been to the real Castle of Dromore.

Changes in Ireland

My trip to Ireland gave me a shock. I knew the economy was booming and money was flowing, but I had no idea that sprawl had changed so much of the Irish landscape. The small towns are clogged with traffic and new construction. Stores and houses (all pastel colored) have sprung up everywhere. The first time visitor would never notice these signs of growth, especially an American visitor, but for one who has gone back and forth over the last twelve years and driven some 12,000 miles of Irish roads in all 32 counties, the difference economic development has made rings out.

I spent the better part of my life living in the middle of suburban sprawl. My full time job is offering economic development assistance to rural Maryland, so I'm all too familiar with the impact of unplanned growth on communities. I fear for Ireland but trust that she'll gather herself together during this surge in the economy, preserve what is worth holding on to, and nix the exploitation of her unique charism, her wild and untidy countryside, her symbols of heritage and the open hearts of her people.

While the Ireland I knew as recently as three years ago was quaint and attractive to tourists, signs of want and need were visible in communities. Most families only had one automobile. Young people were wanting for employment opportunities and many couldn't go on to college. Amenities like shopping and medical facilities were limited as were access to avenues into the world beyond Ireland. Today, farmers are accessing the Internet for information on animal vaccines, property rights and the weather. Islanders are buying goods online, every town has an Internet cafe, and EVERYONE has a website.

Amenities flourish, the job market is booming and houses, houses, houses, are dotting the Irish countryside in yellow, white, pink and pale blue. The pictures below of Hore Abbey in County Tipperary illustrate this. The first image is one I took five years ago. The second one I took on my February visit. The crane, construction sites and newly built homes are a common scene in almost every Irish town.

Amazing - isn't it?
The roads were full of cars and seemed challenged to handle the traffic. The roads in rural Ireland seem the same to me - primarily two land roads that wind and twist with little or no shoulder. The directional signs have improved but the slender ribbons of asphalt often don't accommodate the vast numbers of vehicles that pound them day and evening.
While listening to the Irish radio stations during my 1800 miles of driving this past February I learned that the Irish know of this gridlock problem on their roadways. While they are quickly improving the rail system and expanding service in airports, the highways and bi-ways are suffering. One radio talk show host stated that there are in excess of 100,000 Irish citizens on a waiting list to obtain an Irish drivers license.
However, the Garda does seem to have a greater presence and I understand the a "point" system has begun for traffic offenders so the Irish are making strides in catching up to their growth.
By and large Ireland is still a magnificent country to visit. Surprisingly, I saw a large number of historic building ruins that are in the process of renovation or preservation. It is apparent that the Irish are investing heavily into properly preserving their heritage. This has been evident for years in the Irish signage. All place signs have both English and Irish written... but then there's Dingle which has only Irish. Signs to Dingle say Daingean Chúis or simply Daingean.
I had an unpleasant experience in Dingle this trip. I was sitting in a cafe, eating a fish sandwich in the town of Dingle. I looked up from my lunch and a local teenager walked in wearing a T-shirt with two side-by-side photos - one of Osama bin Laden and the other George Bush. The caption above the photos was written in bold red TWIN TERRORS.
I felt a little sad seeing that. Young people always hold so much promise. I love talking to teenagers, feeling their zest and enthusiasm - even when it is sometimes misguides or not fully informed. I wondered if that young man had any clue regarding the scope of the US / Iraq conflict. How could he?
As a visiting American I was privately stung, but silent. I left the cafe quickly. I noticed the same contempt for America and our President when I visited a friend in Mayo. All I could say was that their media didn't give the full picture. I considered this political discussion not worth having - and I'm always up for a good debate.
Though Ireland has changed, her sons and daughters have not. The characters are still the same and the thin places - though sometimes hidden from view - are still there and still powerful.
I'm thinking about putting together a Thin Places tour perhaps including the sites in the west. The whole country is too much to do at once. April will be a good time.
More Anon.

Off to Ireland - Caldragh Cemetery

I've been working on a book Thin Places - a Pilgrimage through Celtic Holy Ground for more than seven years now. I've made the decision to finish the book this year focusing only on Ireland and will make one final trip to finish the research. I leave next Wednesday.

One of the sites I'll be visiting is Caldragh Cemetery on Boa Island in County Fermanagh (Northern Ireland). It is there that the two-faced Janus figure has been watching the rising and setting of the sun for more than 2000 years. 

My journey with this Janus figure is complex. I once told an Irish priest that he was two-faced. I think he was amused by my insult because he gave me a miniature version of the Janus figure that he'd purchased in Ireland shortly after I made the comment. It had two fronts - that is each side of the figure had a face.

I was intrigued by the figure and did a little research on it. The actual Janus figure is between 2000 and 3000 years old and stands about 4 feet high in Caldragh Cemetery, an anciet burial ground on Boa Island in Northern Ireland. The figure stands so that one side faces East and the other West. Some say the figure represents an all seeing - all knowing God that sees everything from the rising to the setting of the sun. 

My Visit to Caldragh Cemetery - 2007
The first time I went to Caldragh Cemetery I arrived alone at approximately 6:30 am hoping to photograph the figure during sunrise. This was more than ten years ago, when the cemetery was not well marked and one had to climb a fence and walk across private property to find the entrance. I was a little uneasy about trespassing, but found the path and continued towards the cemetery. I heard this odd sound - like a thumping - something beating. Just before the gate to the cemetery is a massive thorn tree which spills over the path, threatening the visitor who doesn't enter carefully.

Coming into the cemetery at dawn was was surreal. The mist was rising off the lumpy, ancient, unmarked graves. Old stones that appeared to have once been grave markers were scattered across the yard. In the center of the cemetery, the Janus figure dominated. In front of the figure was a woman, seated, thumping an Irish bohdran (drum). I felt I was intruding on her spiritual exercise. 

After awhile I simply walked into the cemetery and proceeded to shoot some photos during her ritual, hoping not to distract her too much. She eventually stopped and we talked for awhile. She was from France but lived in Chicago. Through her thick accent she told me that a friend of hers had given her a necklace (which she displayed from around her neck). It was silver with a small charm which was the Janus figure. She said after receiving the necklace, she became more curious about the Janus figure, found out where the actual figure was located and traveled here from Chicago for a real life encounter.

Hmmm... similar reason to why I was there.
Years later I returned to Caldragh with my husband. By then the cemetery was clearly marked with a public road and pathway making it easier for visitor access. Next week I'll be going for a third time... a third encounter with the Janus figure.

Thin Places

If you are expecting to view the writing of a scholar or spiritual authority here, read no further. I am no acedemic though I have gathered much from them. I have no expertise on archeology or anthropology, and have a limited understanding of Celtic history.

Here you will find the writings of a common person - reflections on a spiritual journey that I reluctantly took when I walked through these places and felt their pull. Here you will find writings about seeking, looking, waiting, changing and moving.

A thin place is one where the veil that seperates our world from the next in noticable thin. These places are what I write about.