When God comes to Knock

Marketplace Staff Dec 25, 2007

When God comes to Knock

Marketplace Staff Dec 25, 2007


Doug Krizner: There’s a little town in Ireland called Knock, population 600. At the town’s basilica last night, they held a traditional Christmas mass.
But for many Catholics, attending mass at Knock is more than tradition.

You see, back in 1879, 15 Knock townsfolk claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the basilica. Now every year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock to the shrine from all over the world. We sent Rico Gagliano to check out Knock’s miraculous little economy.

PRIEST: Hail Mary Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee . . .

RICO GAGLIANO: Inside the shrine at Knock, a priest leads a small congregation in prayer.

PRIEST: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .

Outside the shrine at Knock, anyone in a mile radius can join in, thanks to loudspeakers blasting Our Fathers from the bell tower. It’s like Muslim calls to prayer in Saudi Arabia — except during Catholic prayers in Knock, the businesses don’t close.

Maybe that’s ’cause Knock’s business is religion. The only local industry is housing pilgrims, serving them or selling ’em stuff.

That’s what Tom Byrne does. He runs a religious souvenir shop, which might explain his method for counting Knock’s pilgrim population.

TOM BYRNE: A million and a half people come into the village every year. When I tell that to people, they say, ‘Impossible! How do you know that one and a half million people come into the village?’ Naturally enough, we don’t count them. But we have a very simple way: that a million pieces of holy communion are given out every summer.

Those pilgrims are drawn to Knock by the Apparition of 1879. But an economic miracle from the 1980s made it possible for them to come.

Robert Graelis, a director at Ireland West Airport, remembers.

ROBERT GRAELIS: Monsignor James Horan was the Parish Priest of Knock Shrine. He had the belief that there should be more pilgrims having easier access to the Shrine, but also he had a firm belief in the economy of the region, that it needed supports. And he felt that one of the main ways he could achieve both of those was by building an international airport in the middle of nowhere.

Literally. Horan’s Ireland West airport opened in 1986, on a bog, in the poorest province in the Emerald Isle. Everyone called it a boondoggle. But it worked. Last year it brought more than 600,000 people — and their money — into Knock.

Tom Byrne thinks God might’ve played a role in all this.

BYRNE: Because it’s written in the Bible somewhere: “If it is by the hand of God, it shall succeed.” That seems to be a true statement as regards Knock.

Still, he says the town isn’t solely focused on heavenly business.

BYRNE: I try to go to mass every Sunday. Not that we’re extraordinarily religious in the village of Knock or anything. Still can maybe drink too much at times, maybe admire some other one’s wife when we shouldn’t have, or you know. . . so we’re normal people. So that’s about it.

In Knock, Ireland, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

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