In What is Now a Carpark, Summer of 1880

On the 14th of June, 138 years ago, there were reporters from five different newspapers in Newmarket-on-fergus, notebooks in hand. Thousands of curious visitors, from all over Ireland, came pouring into the village and there was a pent-up atmosphere of anticipation. Men elbowed forward to get a better vantage point.  Ladies dabbed at their foreheads and several fainted. Children squeezed through gaps in the throng to make their way to the front. From every direction came the low murmur of all five decades and fifteen Mysteries of the Holy Rosary prayer.

Hail Mary, full of Grace,

the Lord is with thee,

Blessed art thou amongst women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,                                                                                                                                                   pray for us sinners                                                                                                                           now and at the hour of our death                                                                                                                                                                           Amen.

The cause of all the excitement was the Blessed Virgin Mary. From June through August, right here in Newmarket, she appeared to many people inside the Catholic church. Sometimes she held the infant Jesus, sometimes not. Joseph was also spotted. As were dazzling lights in the rafters and tiny stars which moved about. Those who had observed the visions included all sorts; farmers, doctors, schoolgirls in pigtails, well-to-do ladies from Ennis, some ragged boys playing marbles, a constable who had assumed it was hogwash, a protestant, and lots of people reciting prayers. Trains pulled into Ballycar station full of pilgrims from Limerick and the hostelries of Newmarket struggled to meet the sudden upsurge in demand. Local priests, Fathers Vaughan and Walshe, put on extra masses, retreats and evening devotions, but even still had to lock the churchyard gates periodically for the sake of crowd control.

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All of which I learned upon recently taking another flick through ‘The Story of Newmarket on fergus’ by Reuben Butler and Maire Ni Ghruagain. (No home should be without one) This episode in our history was new to me and indeed that particular church no longer exists. It was demolished in 1971 and replaced by the current one. The original site is now a carpark. This made me wonder how can it possibly be that something as unusual as these visions can be forgotten here, unlike in another village, Knock, Co. Mayo? What made their apparition of the Virgin Mary into something everyone has heard of, into something which pretty much defines the existence of that town? Perhaps it was significant that the visions in Knock occurred one year earlier in1879. Was Newmarket seen as a copycat? Was it a case of first gets all the recognition, the rest nowhere?

I turned to Google. What I learned is that there have, in fact, been a vast number of these ‘Marian’ apparitions in Ireland and throughout the Catholic world. The straightforward appearance by Our Lady is but one manifestation, in a range of phenomena. Sometimes there may be a spoken message, a secret, or a prophecy. If there is a statue of Her, it may move, or even dance. It may weep. It may even cry tears of blood.

There are however, just ten apparitions which have been fully authenticated and approved by the Vatican. These include the ones in Lourdes and Fatima as well as Knock. All are extremely popular places of pilgrimage with Lourdes, for instance having a Basilica capable of seating 25,000. Then there is another layer of fifty Apparition sites which have national church approval but have not been fully rubberstamped at the highest level. These include Garabandal and Medjugorge. Beneath that again are thousands of locally known sites. And below that? A countless number of places like Newmarket-on-fergus where there were happenings, now almost entirely forgotten.

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People have borne witness to the strange and mystical throughout the centuries, but apparitions by Our Lady mostly happened from 1830 to 1930. That was the time people were most likely to perceive such visions. That was the time they were most likely to be believed. Before that era, a more typical supernatural encounter was with a ghost, or a fairy, or a banshee. Daily life back then was ruled then by a hundred different piseogs, customs which had to be observed to ward off the evil lurking out there in the dark. The failure of crops could be caused by a curse or even by someone burying Eggs in the drills. There were ancient mounds in fields that had better not be disturbed.

Directly after 1930, came the heyday of flying saucers, UFOs, crash landings, alien encounter, experiments and abduction. Close encounters of all three kinds. There was such a build-up of evidence that our own embassy in Washington actually briefed the Irish government on the danger. The number of sightings continued to rise, reaching a peak in the 1970s. They came from another planet and on the occasions when they delivered a message, it was phrased differently but was in essence much the same as Our Lady’s. That we must stop the bad things we have been doing.

Nowadays, everyone carries a high quality camera (in their phone) with them wherever they go. But no footage has emerged of Aliens, Fairies, or Our Lady. Or at least none which will convince any but those who Want-to-Believe. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine we are superior, free of all delusions. It is only in retrospect that the obsessions of the past seem strange. We cannot know what beliefs we have now, widely accepted, that in the future will be impossible to fathom. There is still much in Life, Death and the Universe which has not been fully explained. We know not what time and tide will reveal to us and though the Truth may be Out There… it may just as well turn out to be Right Here.

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