Imagined or real?

May 8, 2009

Dr. Eugene Hynes, an associate professor of Sociology at Kettering University, authored an award-winning book that examines the Virgin Mary's apparition in Knock, Ireland, in 1879 and its connection to the cultural and religious issues of the day.

Thursday, August 21, 1879, Knock, County Mayo, Ireland: Mary McLoughlin and Mary Beirne stood transfixed as rain dribbled down their faces, bewildered at the apparition cast against the gable wall of the local Catholic Church. Within the bright light hovered the figures of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John. Eventually, as the dark closed in and the apparition remained, Mary Beirne summoned her family, who returned to the site with other neighbors, all of whom witnessed the apparition for several hours. The parishioners had no explanation for what they saw that day.

Many scholars have examined this apparition and its significance in the 120 years following its appearance to better understand the changes that took place in Irish Catholicism during the nineteenth century. Some analyses suggest the apparition was simply a “cultural manifestation of a ‘remote, impoverished and illiterate world’,” according to a Nov. 11, 2008 “Irish Times” review by Daire Keogh, who is a lecturer in the History Dept. at St. Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, Ireland. But for Dr. Eugene Hynes, an associate professor of Sociology at Kettering University and author of Knock: The Virgin Mary’s Apparition in Nineteenth Century Ireland (Cork University Press, 2008), a deeper look reveals much more.

Recently, Knock was selected as co-winner of the 10th annual James S. Donnelly, Sr. Award for Books in History and Social Sciences presented by the American Conference for Irish Studies, an international multidisciplinary scholarly organization with approximately 1,500 members in the United States, Ireland, Canada and other countries around the world.

Hynes’ book takes a more intimate approach to this subject than previous scholars, relying on his training as a sociologist and utilizing new source material that other researchers neglected. Specifically, his book examines the County Mayo and the village of Knock for half a century before the appearance of the apparition. In this time period, The County Mayo had endured famine, emigration and in particular a Land War that “shattered traditional alliances and wrong-footed the clergy in the summer of 1879,” Keogh writes in his review.

The local priests supported the landowners in this Land War instead of the tenants, which caused considerable ill-will, culminating in the local priest, Father Cavanagh, denouncing community leaders from the altar. This prompted what Hynes characterized as a “huge ‘indignation meeting’ against him in June 1879.” Soon afterward the apparition appeared.

Unfortunately, Hynes explained, the clergy publicized the appearance of the apparition without full reference to the problems in clerical authority that took place before the event. The only means through which media could learn of the apparition came through Father Cavanagh and his associate, Father Bourke. In Hynes’ Jan. 7, 2009 article “Were ‘visions’ a people’s protest,” published in “The Times” of London, he writes that what was left out of “the press reports—and what reporters were incapable of discovering due to their ignorance of the Irish language—was the traditional idiom of Virgin appearances as commentary on the role of priests.”

Hynes’ research efforts included a close examination of the local culture prior to this event, as well as his deep understanding of the context in which it occurred. Additionally, he consulted a neglected memoir written by a poor lay person who wrote about the Catholic religion during the time frame when the apparition appeared. This rare find, including Hynes’ investigation into the views of insiders, represents a new approach to the study of one of the most compelling religious apparitions in the world.  As a result, his book questions the typical reasons that spurred change in Irish Catholicism during the nineteenth century. Today, more than 1.5 million visitors make the trip to Knock each year and in 1979—the centennial year—Pope John Paul II visited the shrine. 

Winning the James S. Donnelly, Sr. Award is a recognition Hynes—a Galway, Ireland native—is very pleased to receive. “I wrote my first article on this topic in 1978 and have thought about it in terms of a longer work since that time,” he said. Hynes has taught at Kettering since 1985.

To learn more about Knock: The Virgin Mary’s Apparition in Nineteenth Century Ireland, visit,, or contact Dr. Eugene Hynes at

Written by Gary Erwin