by Sr. Sheila Devane MMM Ireland 22.10.2023
I have visited our national Marian shrine in Knock Co. Mayo, Ireland, quite regularly ever since I was a very small child living in Boyle Co. Roscommon. I thought I had seen every part of this beautiful place and had “met” all those associated with it: Our Lady of Knock, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, and the Lamb of God. More recently I had started to visit the graveyard where many of the witnesses who died in or around Knock are now buried in marked graves.
One person was missing from my visits and knowledge, and I never knew this nor searched for him until last Sunday – the man who was parish priest in Knock at the time of the apparition and for 30 years from 1867-1897. He is remembered as Archdeacon Kavanagh. Can I tell you how I met him and what I now know?
I was coming out of a place where I got a cup of tea shortly after I went there last Sunday and ran into a couple, Kay and Jimmy, who seemed to come from nowhere; our conversation seemed to start from nowhere also and I found myself asking them how I would get to the graveyard as I was now at the back of a building and a bit lost! Kay was interested in the history of Knock and its visionaries like me, but quickly asked me if I knew about the archdeacon. I mumbled something or other about being told that he was out the night of the apparitions on August 21st, 1879, on a sick call and thus didn’t see them. She listened and then said she would bring me to his house, or the remains of his house, in the village if I’d like to go there. She also promised to tell me the real story.
I was eager and hopped into the car and in jig time we were there at what was the outline of a small 3 roomed cottage off the main street in Knock and beside a bust of Archdeacon Kavanagh. Kay recommend I buy the book about him for sale for €4 in the bookshop – I did this too.
Life in Ireland and in Co. Mayo was extermely difficult in the mid to late 19th century; the famine had wreaked havoc, there had been, and continued to be, mass emigration, families were dessimated, rents were exhorbitant, people were being evicted all the time, starvation, huge poverty and destitution were common. The people were distressed and frustrated and there were many uprisings against landlords, and authorities of any kind. Small groups of agitators were forming and they even rose against each other so at that time it was common to learn that such and such a man was “in trouble” and needing to escape the country. This young priest from Co. Galway was deeply religious, had great devotion to our blessed Lady and prayed earnestly to her all the time, asking what he could do to help the people in body and soul and how he could do this.
He decided at the beginning of 1877 to say his daily mass for the people and for him to be able to minister to them properly and as God wanted. He said his 1000th mass for this particular intention on the morning of August 21st 1879. That evening just after dark two men called to his house asking a blessing as they were on their way to Cobh fearing for their lives and leaving the country for the USA; the door was answered unusually by a tall man (person? creature?) who said the parish priest was resting but he would bless them. This was very strange. They left quickly quite amazed and on the way said to each other: … “wasn’t that an angel we met at the archdeacon’s house ?”
When Archdeacon Kavanagh heard of the commotion about the extraordinary visions next day and for days, weeks and months later he showed no surprise nor did he ever want to be interviewd, involved nor central, always holding that the heavenly guests had come to the people of Knock, for them and for their consolation. Archdeacon Kavanagh worked tirelessly and was greatly loved by the people, and when dying in 1897, he was cared for in what was later a hostel run by the Daughters of Charity. The room of his death is still preserved. Where he is buried isn’t clear although there is a plaque to his honour in the apparition chapel. A story of another wonderful Irish Parish Priest – may he rest in eternal peace.