Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Kelly, Timothy
Pub Date: 03/22/2011
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3
Topic: NamedWork: Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Hynes, Eugene
Accession Number: 254405168
Full Text: Knock: The Virgin's Apparition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. By Eugene Hynes (Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 2008. xix plus 368 pp. $39.95).

In August of 1879, the Virgin Mary and two other figures appeared to a handful of Knock residents and sparked a religious devotion at the local church that eventually became a shrine to which many thousands have traveled ever since. Eugene Hynes seeks to explain that apparition and devotion through the lens of those "seers" who witnessed the apparition, and thereby untangle it from the layers of interpretation advanced by clerical authorities, devotion promoters, and academic scholars in the years and decades since the first reports. In ten chapters of densely argued prose, Hynes finds all of them to have missed the apparition's "original" local meaning, and thereby lost its authentic explanation.

Perhaps the interpretative framework most familiar to anyone likely to pick up this volume is that advanced, implicitly at Least, by Emmet Larkin. Larkin suggested three decades ago that Ireland had undergone a devotional revolution in the mid-nineteenth century spurred by clerical elites who introduced extra-liturgical religious practices that had the effect of tying Ireland's laity more closely to Rome. Mid-twentieth century observers saw these practices to be the result of "popular" impulses in the local laity, but Larkin revealed a pattern of centralization directed by a church hierarchy very interested in cultivating more power and authority. Larkin's thesis carried the day, and Knock's devotion would therefore seem to fit readily into the broader pattern that Larkin outlined.

Hynes argues that Knock did not readily fit that thesis, though, and upon this basis challenges Larkin's broader argument. In Hynes' telling, the apparition was not so much a means by which clerical elites imposed a uniform religiosity onto Ireland's Catholic laity. Rather it was a lay challenge to the clerical elite sparked by the clergy's reluctance to support land reforms aimed at relieving rents that were starving Ireland's populace. The Virgin Mary came to Knock not to affirm the clergy's importance and the value of church authority, but to chasten local priests who were slow to embrace the land reform efforts. Later interpreters did not realize this because they relied too much on reports of the apparition screened by local priests and promoted by publishers who depended upon these very priests to interpret the apparition for them. The versions of the apparition that they advanced failed to include crucial clues as to the seers' true understanding of what they saw.

Hynes takes great pains to defend local believers against those academics who might dismiss the apparition as mere superstition or religious naivete, though he too eventually advances an explanation in which religious impulses take a back seat to local economic and political developments. The "religious" phenomenon was really a means through which locals manifested their political challenge in such a veiled way as to afford plausible deniability to powerful landlords not steeped in local culture. At the same time, the message was clear to other Catholics, including the clergy to whom it constituted a direct challenge.

Why did so many misunderstand this message for so long? By his own admission, Hynes himself missed the nuances of local and regional Irish Catholic culture for many years that would have made this new "old" meaning plain. The key to understanding the apparition lay in apprehending the pre-apparition Catholic culture fully. This posed an evidentiary challenge because so few sources exist upon which to build a rich understanding of that culture. In fact, the apparition itself would seem to be the best source about local Catholic culture at the time. But Hynes was able to locate a detailed memoir of Knock Catholic life written shortly after the apparition by a local man who had left Knock thirty years before 1879 to find work in England. Though Daniel Campbell had not returned to Knock in the intervening years and had maintained no contact with friends or family from the area, his account contains much material about Knock life as late as the 1840s. He reveals a rich local devotional culture that merged local fairy lore and more orthodox Catholic practices comfortably. Perhaps because Hynes relies so heavily on this one source to build his critique of other interpretations of the apparition, he spends a great deal of time defending the account. For example, Campbell's three decade absence from Knock in the critical period just before the apparition might give some social historians pause, but Hynes sees it as a means of escaping the taint of bias that sources still embedded in the community might bring to their accounts.

Hynes provides a dense argument about a plethora of issues related to the apparition. He builds a complex and intricate path that eventually leads to a well traveled road for social historians of religion. An underlying and amorphous crisis in social stability led to a religious phenomenon that enabled community members to negotiate the crisis in concrete ways. Hynes' interest in addressing so many historical and academic debates related to local history, folklore studies, religious practices and the apparition itself probably places the book out of reach to undergraduate students, which is unfortunate. The broad assessment is compelling enough to enrich the discussion of lived religion generally and this particular episode in particular. Hyne's interpretation is provocative, well documented, and merits attention.

Timothy Kelly

Saint Vincent College
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.