Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Saturday, 30 May 2009 12:43 UK

Religious flame burns in Knock

Despite Ireland's economic downturn, Kieran Cooke discovers the village of Knock in County Mayo remains popular with pilgrims who visit the site where Mary, Joseph and St John are said to have appeared 130 years ago.

The shuttle
The shuttle meanders across the vast area of tarmac surrounding the shrine

Like one of those elongated golf carts that bleep their way round airports and busy railway stations, the Knock shuttle vehicle meanders across the vast area of tarmac surrounding the shrine.

No talk of planes or trains to catch here though.

"Are you going to confession?" ask two elderly women, laughing like schoolgirls on an awayday as they struggle against the wind with an umbrella.

Top attraction

"Hop in," says the driver cheerily. "What about the Apparition Chapel?" asks a red-faced man with wobbling arthritic hips and large farmer's hands.

There is a desperate shortage of clergy and churches could close... unthinkable a generation ago

"Get up there with the ladies and we'll make a tour of it," says the man at the wheel.

Forget those destinations in Ireland the tourist brochures talk about: the Blarney Stone, the Giant's Causeway, the Ring of Kerry or the lakes of Killarney.

Along with the liquid charms of a trip to a Dublin brewery, the shrine at Knock tops the list of Ireland's most visited attractions, each year playing host to hundreds of thousands of people.

Couples circle various statues, their subdued murmurings like bees in a spring garden.

There is a queue at the holy water taps. One man is filling bottle after plastic bottle.

There are several people in wheelchairs. Others navigate on sticks, fragile but determined in the driving rain.

'Hovering figures'

One summer evening in 1879 - accounts tell it was also raining at the time - various people in the small village of Knock saw what they said were three figures hovering on the gable end of the small church.

Souvenirs in a shop window
The range of souvenir shops selling everything from plastic illuminated statues of Mary to 'Kiss me, I'm a leprechaun' hats do not encourage spirituality

Those who witnessed the event identified them as Mary - Christ's mother - St Joseph and St John.

In subsequent years, pilgrims came to Knock. Like those who go to Lourdes in southern France or Fatima in northern Portugal, many said they had been cured of illnesses and ailments by praying and taking the local spring water.

It is the elderly that dominate the crowds. A priest in the giant basilica - built 30 years ago and now looking dated, like an airport terminal in the old Soviet Union - talks of the crisis facing the Catholic church in Ireland.

He asks for forgiveness of past sins - the abuse by priests of children in their care over the years.

There is a desperate shortage of clergy in Ireland and churches could close... unthinkable a generation ago.

"People have misconceptions about the work we do," he says.

"The other day at a school I was asked if we all drive company cars. I assured them otherwise."

Scepticism and faith

There are those who are deeply sceptical of what goes on at Knock.

One theory is that what pilgrims refer to as the sacred apparition all those years ago, was in fact the work of a disenchanted local policeman who decided to play a trick by shining a "magic lantern" - an ancient sort of projector - on the church wall.

The souvenir shops selling everything from plastic illuminated statues of Mary to "Kiss me, I'm a leprechaun" hats, do not encourage spirituality.

Yet there is faith here, and not just among the Irish. One church is packed with members of Ireland's now sizeable Brazilian immigrant community, singing and dancing their way through a mass celebrated with great gusto by a Portuguese-speaking Irish priest.

It was when the former Pope, John Paul II, visited in the late 1970s that Knock gained wider recognition among the world's Catholics.

But it was a local priest called Monsignor James Horan - skilled not only in matters spiritual but also in the wily ways of politicians and financiers - who raised millions from various sources to upgrade facilities at Knock.

He even persuaded the powers that be to build an international airport close by - on top of a bog - to serve not only the needs of pilgrims but also the population of the west of Ireland, so long neglected by government in Dublin.

Songs have been written about the monsignor and his own miracle of an airport, opened 20 years ago and named after him.

One of the first flights out was a pilgrimage, led by the priest, to Lourdes in France.

But while there, the monsignor collapsed and died, his body flown back to Knock for burial.

"The best man that ever lived," says the driver of the Knock shrine golf-cart shuttle.

The two women on their way to confession burst into a renewed fit of giggling as the other elderly passenger asks if they have any good sins to tell.

He eases his way slowly from the cart, takes his flat cap off, revealing a head white as a newly-peeled onion, and enters the Apparition Chapel.

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22 Mar 12 |  Country profiles

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