Over the decades, hundreds of people came into Byrne's shop in Knock, Co Mayo, to ask John Joe Byrne for the umpteenth time about the story of the Knock apparition, and the role played by his father, Dominic.
Dominic Byrne was one of the 15 visionaries who on one wet August evening in 1879 reported seeing an apparition of Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist on the gable wall of the village church.
Until last year the account left by Dominic and the others brought more than a million people over many years to Knock, though the flow was sharply affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. This week, the pilgrims began arriving again.
Standing in his shop, crammed with religious memorabilia, Bernie Byrne, the grandson of Dominic, welcomes them back. "I am delighted they are coming back," says the 77-year-old. "It's been a long time."
In all last year, especially during the summer easing of restrictions, 500,000 visits were made to Knock. This year so far just 70,000 have been made, mostly by locals; but the pace has quickened this week.
The Mass card office, the museum and the bookshop are still not open, while the basilica, which seats 3,500 people, will for now open only at weekends, with the congregation limited to 200 at every Mass.
Like elsewhere, Bernie Byrne’s shop will not open fully until next week, so he deals with customers by appointment only, or a click-and-collect service for rosary beads, candles, holy pictures and other religious souvenirs.
Mass but not en masse
Knock parish priest Fr Richard Gibbons is delighted, too, that Confessions – the "engine room" of the shrine, as he puts it – and Masses are available once more, although just 50 can attend each of the three held daily.
A queue has formed hour before the noon Mass. A handful, some of whom have travelled long distances, are in the end disappointed, but head of security Paul Bennison reassures each one that two more Masses were scheduled later.
“I never thought we would be here stopping people from entering chapels,” he says.
Delighted to see the ones who have come, Fr Gibbons says: “I missed the human interaction and meeting people. It is a joy to be able to greet people and welcome people back – and to not talk to an empty space.”
However, the priests in Knock have not been without an audience. Since January, the total online audience for Masses broadcast from Knock runs to 1.8 million, though Fr Gibbons remarks: “A church online is not a church at all.”
The reopening is good news, too, for Knock Shrine’s staff, which rises normally to 150 during the summer season, says Fr Gibbons. The village has been “a different place” without the usual crowds. “It was very eerie to see the place so empty,” he says.
Among those who made sure they were early for Knock's first attended Mass since December are Delia and Martin Salazar, natives of the Philippines, and their friend Melinda Alipipo who left Dublin at 7am on Tuesday morning.
Delia Salazar and her friend, Melinda are retired nurses who worked for many years at Our Lady’s hospice in Harold’s Cross. They are regulars in Knock. “Knock brings blessings,” says Delia, who believes Knock cured her of a back injury that had left her unable to walk.
The family are returning to the Philippines at the end of the month. “We came to say goodbye to Knock,” says Delia, an Irish citizen.
“But we will come back,” says her husband.
Disappointed not to have made the noon Mass, local retired garda Bert Dennedy from Church Street is pleased to see people back. "It wasn't like Knock at all for the past few months. It was so sad to see the way it was."
At lunchtime on Tuesday, Denis O’Grady sits alone in the row of outdoor seats facing the apparition chapel. “I find comfort just sitting here watching the world go by,” he says. “You don’t even need to pray.”