'The Virgin Mary is very angry . . .'
There are a few placenames in Ireland that carry a particular resonance in our collective memory; places that have become associated with crowds of people who intermittently come from afar to gather, pray and stare. They include Ballinspittle, Co Cork, where the statue of Mary was reported to be moving in 1985, and the Basilica at Knock Shrine, Co Mayo, writes ROSITA BOLAND
Earlier this month, Knock made the headlines again when some 5,000 people gathered there in the hope of seeing an apparition of Our Lady, following the prediction by Dubliner Joe Coleman, who describes himself as “a visionary of our Blessed Mother and a spiritual healer under the energy of the Holy Spirit”. A video posted on YouTube of the sun breaking through the clouds at Knock on October 11th, with a voiceover by Coleman, has to date attracted almost 10,500 views. Coleman is now predicting that this Saturday, at 3pm, Our Lady will appear in the Knock Basilica, and that there will be even larger crowds in attendance this time, now that word is spreading via the internet.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, has issued a statement that makes clear the church’s view of Coleman’s predictions: “It is not healthy, does not give glory to God and certainly is not good witness to the faith to be looking for extraordinary phenomena. The apparition of 1879 was neither sought nor expected by the humble, honest people who were its astonished witnesses . . . Unfortunately, recent events at the Shrine obscure this essential message. They risk misleading God’s people and undermining faith. For this reason such events are to be regretted rather than encouraged.”
Joe Coleman (55), who is based in Ballyfermot, Dublin, told the Irish Timesyesterday he believes Our Lady appears to him because, “I’m a channel for love, and I’m a channel for God”. He claims he has “never gone public before” on his ability to see apparitions, which dates back to 1986. “I was in hospital having an operation – I broke my ankle – and I died under anaesthetic. I left my body and I went to heaven, where I saw my father who had passed away, and my son, and Our Lady and Jesus and Archangel Michael.”
Until recently, he described himself as a clairvoyant. He now prefers the term “spiritual healer”, and claims to be able to cure people of various illnesses. “People come to me for all sorts of ailments. They could have cancer, arthritis, MS – all sorts of things. Healing comes out of my hands. I pray over people on the phone. I cure them,” he says.
He thinks people are being drawn to Knock, “because Our Lady is telling us to come back to the church. Thousands of people were praying and crying and calling . They just want something to hold onto because the government aren’t giving them anything to hold onto.”
Coleman claims that Mary, in her latest apparition, told him she is very angry: “She will rock the foundations of the church if the people do not listen, from Rome back down to where we are, down to Knock. And the gates of Heaven will be closed.” How will she do this? “She says she’ll do it, I don’t know how she’ll do it, but she’s angry,” he repeats. The latest request from Mary, Coleman claims, is for Coleman to say the rosary with a priest in the Basilica at 3pm on Saturday.
He is scornful of Archbishop Neary’s statement. “I don’t think Archbishop Neary has ever seen the Blessed Mother, because he’s hiding behind his closed doors in his big house where he lives.” The church, Coleman believes, “is not a building. It’s made of the people of Ireland. Does he not believe in the apparition of Bernadette? Padre Pio? Medjugorje?”
Coleman says he has not read any of the viewers’ comments posted alongside the short YouTube video of the clouds at Knock on October 11th, some of which express strong and derogatory opinions of him. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” he simply says.
Our Lady, Coleman states “will appear two more times before Christmas. I know, because she’s already told me she will.”
Eugene Hynes is Associate Professor of Sociology at Kettering University. Michigan, and the author of Knock, The Virgin’s Apparition in Nineteenth-century Ireland, published this year. The book focuses on the role of popular religion in rural Ireland at that period. “The whole context of that time is important to understand what was going on,” he explains by phone from the US. “It was after the Famine, and Mayo was the hardest-hit county, but Knock itself was only mildly affected. People believed this was due to miraculous intervention.”
He is unsurprised to hear that Archbishop Neary is sceptical of the current claims of an apparition at Knock. “This type of conflict between clergy and the devout is typical all over the world. The hierarchy want to promote devotion within tradition and an orthodoxy. Apparitions kind of bypass that,” Hynes remarks drily. “That man in Dublin is implying he knows something, and that’s very threatening to the clergy. He’s implying he’s a mouthpiece to something special.”
Hynes also observes that sociologists and anthropologists record that “visions are relatively common, but most of them don’t get a lot of publicity. Globally, there was a huge increase in apparitions in the 1980s and early 1990s.” Again, he points to societal contexts, such as the recession and the widespread unease that it prompts, with people seeking a kind of comfort in unorthodox places.
“Lots of authorities in Ireland have been discredited – the clergy, politicians, economists. People are hungry for a voice to make sense of things.”
As a sociologist, what interests Hynes most about the claims Coleman is making is the fact that people are paying so much attention to them. “He has to have some credibility or people wouldn’t be paying attention to him. You could have someone stand up in O’Connell Street and say they’d seen the Virgin Mary and people would ignore them. But he is not being ignored. Why is that?”