The Political Ecology of a Religious “Miracle”
In the wake of the great Irish famine of the 1840s, the continuing expansion of pasturage threatened the livelihoods of peasant cultivators. In the poorest province of Connacht, total crop acreage declined from 744,263 in 1869 to 694,708 a decade later, while land in meadow and clover soared by thirty percent. One of the worst hit parts of Connacht was County Mayo, where the increase in pasture, effected largely through evictions, was especially rapid.
The impact was exacerbated by a general agricultural crisis, largely due to horrendous weather across Europe that made agriculture extremely vulnerable to new developments in the international market. The situation was especially grim in Ireland. As potato yields plummeted and evictions rose, anger and frustration, accumulating since the late 1860′s, gave rise to new forms of rural protest. Connacht took the lead with 56 percent of all the so-called “agrarian offences” registered in 1879 and the first month of 1880. Thirty-six percent occurred in Mayo, one of the counties hardest hit by evictions, though it only contained 29 percent of the province’s population. The home of the land agent, Captain Charles Boycott, Mayo was the birthplace of one of the most potent challenges ever raised against English rule in Ireland: the Land League, with its call for land reform.
Suddenly, in mid-August, the vision of the Virgin and Saints John and Joseph appeared on the gable wall of the local church in the village of Knock in a remote part of county Mayo.
Margaret Crawford has shown that, since the early part of the century, American maize meal had begun to play an increasing role in the diet of rural Ireland in times of hunger. Unlike the potato, a diet heavily dependent on maize had often led to the deficiency disease, pellagra, in southern parts of Europe, such as the Asturias region of Spain and northern Italy. Among its first symptoms were an erythematous dermatitis (often precipitated by spring sunshine), gastro-intestinal disturbances, and some central and peripheral nervous system changes, characterized by mental confusion and hysteria (so that, in its early stage, pellagra’s victims historically have often been categorized as witches or as mentally insane).
The disease was rarely noted in northern Europe, which was not normally a maize-cultivating or -consuming region. Yet, in counties such as Mayo, by the late summer of 1879, after several years of poor harvests, when potato reserves were very low and maize was often a major part of the local diet, conditions were, as Crawford has observed, “particularly conducive to pellagra.”
One notable feature of pellagra, as Scrimshaw has noted, is that “The non-specific psychic and emotional changes of early pellagra may, with increasing severity, progress to disorientation, delirium, and hallucination.” By 1879, this would have made many inhabitants of the poorest communities in western Ireland particularly vulnerable to added stress or unusual stimulation, which would have exacerbated such tendencies. Thus, the Knock vision coincided with the religious celebrations of late summer, particularly the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which took place just as August had brought dramatic indications of another catastrophic year. On August 20th, The Sligo Independent in western Ireland wrote: “This week has been a disastrous one for the farmers of this country…it was more like winter than autumn…in fields which, up to Monday last, were green and promising, there is now a spread of blackness and rottenness which has extended to the tubers to an alarming extent.”
On the 21st, the apparition was first reported “in a blinding drizzle of rain.”
One witness, a youth from a nearby community, when describing the figure of the Virgin on the sacristy wall, spoke of how “Every now and then a red tongue of flame used to shoot down from the heavens and cross the gable.” One psychological manifestation of pellagra is “florid confusion with perhaps hallucinations of fire.”
But, more important is why the Knock vision was rapidly elevated to such national prominence that today this small village is one of the world’s major Marian shrines. Within weeks, The Tuam News proclaimed Knock “a second Lourdes.” A Commission of Inquiry, rapidly convened by Archbishop John MacHale, quickly endorsed the vision and, by March, 1880, Knock had received its first organized pilgrimage.
The speed of events reflected the accelerating land protests in the West, particularly in Mayo, where the Land League, led by Michael Davitt, was born and soon won the support of the prominent Irish nationalist and British MP, Charles Parnell. In contrast, the Catholic Church in Ireland traditionally stood for law and order and property. So, as events of 1878-79 challenged the land-owning class, including the Church, ecclesiastical figures generally denounced demonstrations, which only further fuelled popular militancy.
Thus, at Knock, on the first of June, 1879, “a monster meeting [had been] held to protest against the language used from the altar by venerable archdeacon Cavanagh P.P. [the parish priest of Knock] the previous Sunday against farmers organising meetings to ventilate their grievances and in particular against John O’Kane of Claremorris (one of the leaders of the Irishtown affair), whom he accused of preparing the country for revolution.” A week after the Knock meeting, a major gathering was held at Westport, at which Parnell spoke. The day before, Archbishop MacHale denounced the pending assembly in the Freeman’s Journal and characterized the land movement as one inclined “to impiety and disorder in church and society.”
On August 16th, Davitt officially proclaimed the formation of the Land League of Mayo. Five days later, the vision at Knock was first witnessed by Father Cavanagh’s housekeeper and the sister of the church sacristan. Within weeks, the vision was established as a rival for popular attention, with The Tuam Times writing that “the multitudes who flock to the chapel, or Catholic Church at Knock, from the surrounding districts are quite as numerous as those that formed the monster meetings which for the past nine months have been held in the counties of Mayo, Galway and Sligo.”
The land movement did not simply die away. The British government prosecuted and interned many of the National Land League’s leaders and activists. But, the appearance and timing of the Knock vision undoubtedly helped to subvert what some regarded as a major threat to the political stability of rural Ireland.
Eric B. Ross taught for 16 years at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, where he ran the MA in Development Studies. He is currently Professorial Lecturer at The George Washington University. His best-known book is The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development.
The British government prosecuted and interned many of the National Land League’s leaders and activists. But, the appearance and timing of the Knock vision undoubtedly helped to subvert what some regarded as a major threat to the political stability of rural Ireland.