Chalice in a bog…or fool’s gold?

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1997), Letters, Letters, Volume 5

Sir,—In ‘The Cusack Papers: new evidence on the Knock apparition’ (HI 4.4, Winter 1996), John White claims to have discovered new evidence that promises to ‘challenge our present understanding of Knock’, but he neither clarifies what is ‘new’ about his evidence nor shows how it changes our understanding. A researcher discovering significant original materials on Knock might well feel, like White, that the experience was like finding ‘a chalice in a bog’. Unfortunately, White’s excitement is misplaced. What he found is more like fool’s gold, less valuable than it first appears: primarily most of it is already in print and well known; what is not in print adds little to the story.
In the archives of the Sisters of St Joseph of Peace, White found a box that contained, in his words, ‘the original, unedited depositions of several of the 21 August 1879 witnesses, the original manuscripts of the parish priest’s account of cures, depositions and statements taken from witnesses in 1880, and hundreds of other documents and letters from people seeking or claiming cures through the intercession of Our Lady of Knock’. A closer look shows that White wildly exaggerated the significance of this as new evidence. (The archive’s references for these files are Series lA 240 and lA 245.) File lA 240 contains four relevant items. First are what appear to be the original records of the testimony on 6 October 1879 of three apparition witnesses—Judith Campbell, Margaret Beirne and Dominick Beirne, sen.. These accounts were published in The Nation of 28 February 1880, appeared twice more in books in the spring of 1880, and have been widely republished in devotional literature. As for being ‘unedited’, these accounts were published verbatim. The second item also contains testimony from three seers—Mary Beirne, Dominick Beirne, jun., and Bridget Trench. This material too is well known, being as widely published as the above-mentioned material. The accounts here are not the original records of the 1879 investigation. They are dated 1 July 1880 by which date the testimonies had been printed at least three times. They are generally less complete and shorter than the published versions, and they include little or nothing at odds with them. While the handwriting is generally hurried, the writer doodled on one page. Unlike the first set of accounts, these are not signed by the witnesses. For all these reasons I believe that these pages are most likely a draft of another summary of these seers’ testimony, perhaps intended for publication elsewhere in the summer of 1880, when Fr Cavanagh and others were energetically promoting Knock in the media.
Series lA 240 also contains two envelopes containing lists by Fr Cavanagh of miraculous cures. Again, unfortunately for researchers, there is no new evidence here. The lists were published in The Nation on 6, 13, and 20 March 1880, by which date the list of cures had reached 231. The Nation continued to publish Cavanagh’s diary, so that by 9 October 1880, the list had reached 637. All or parts of the list have often been printed in devotional literature.
The contents of the other file—Series lA 245—are more diverse and less organised than Series lA 240. There are numerous letters to Fr Cavanagh from people seeking cement from the apparition gable and/or reporting cures effected by its use. Similar letters were widely printed in the early years of the Knock devotion. Moreover, there is abundant evidence that a great many of the letters here were printed long ago. Many are marked ‘published’ in Cavanagh’s hand, and others have printers’ markings or other notations indicating publication. When I examined all the letters here I found nothing to change my understanding of Knock, an understanding born of my familiarity with Knock materials, both original evidence in print and scholarly analysis such as Donnelly’s 1993 article. If White did, he owed it to the reader to show what was new and what it added to current views. Of course, since White seems to be unaware of both the available evidence and scholarly interpretations, it would be difficult for him to evaluate the significance of any piece of evidence, old or ‘new’.
Series lA 245 also contains documents related to the official investigation of claims of miraculous cures. Little is known about how this investigation was conducted, and the evidence here is both meagre and indirect, but White does not even indicate that this is perhaps the only ‘new’ evidence. There are short accounts of about eighteen cures, sometimes signed by some member of the investigating commission. At least some of these ‘cases’ were in Fr Cavanagh’s published list and the others are similar. There is no new evidence here on Knock cures. What is new is the indirect evidence about how the commissioners worked, e.g., on one ‘case’ we find the note, ‘we are to write to the priest’. This is hardly evidence to challenge current understandings!
White’s misinterpretation of the evidence doesn’t stop at what he wrongly considered to be new. Elsewhere in the archive are materials about Cusack’s time in Knock. Of course what happened in those two years (November 1881 to November 1883) cannot explain developments in the earlier years. Cusack left Knock for England and then Rome where she got permission to found her new order. Critics accused her of taking the funds donated to build a convent at Knock. White takes these charges at face value despite strong evidence in these archives and elsewhere that they were untrue. Space limits here mean that presentation of this evidence will have to wait for another publication. For now, the lesson for researchers in the l990s is the same as for controversialists in the 1880s: allegations are not facts and assertions are not proofs.


Dept. of Sociology
GMI Engineering and Management Institute

Author’s reply

The primary area where my thesis promises to break new ground concerns the relationship between nationalists, Land Leaguers and Knock, using many documents from the Cusack papers that never saw publication. Professor Hynes believes that we should concern ourselves with allegations of visions and cures and proofs that they did or did not occur. While I might find the social composition of the developing cult more interesting than the depositions and reports of cures, there is ample evidence in the original manuscripts to alter our present understanding of how Knock was investigated and propagated.
The fact that the original set of witnesses’ depositions, dated 8 October 1879 differs in no substantial way from their published form of several months later can hardly be considered worthless. They show that from the outset, the commission of inquiry charged with the investigation of Knock saw as its task not the rigid and thorough investigation that we might expect but rather sought to develop a consistent narrative of what transpired on 21 August. We know that beginning in January 1880, when the story broke in the press, Archdeacon Cavanagh did all in his power to propagate and encourage the developing cult and pilgrimage. These depositions illustrate how this process went back to the very beginning of the investigation, and that the commission saw as its primary focus and function the validation of the developing cult rather than the investigation of the visionaries. The manuscript depositions clearly show that nineteenth-century Knock was never investigated like Lourdes or Lasallette; from the outset those charged with investigating the apparition were concerned with telling the story of an apparition that they already believed in. The investigation was conducted in such a way as to encourage devotion to Our Lady of Knock.
The second set, dated 1 July 1880, was probably not collected for publication, but was most likely intended to be used by Archdeacon Cavanagh for the renewed investigation that took place that month. In these testimonies there is, as Professor Hynes points out, little that we would consider ‘new’. However, what they do show is how the commission, even under renewed pressure, saw its task as one of validation rather than investigation. By mid June 1880, co-adjutor Archbishop MacEvilly was extremely anxious about the ways in which Knock was spiralling out of his control, and after attending a bishops’ conference at Maynooth during the third week of June he enlisted Dr Francis Lennon, the Maynooth scientist, who carried out experiments on possible hoaxes or natural explanations in mid July. These depositions are probably the testimonies that Lennon refused to accept as evidence.
Many letters that were published show editorial marks, but many also are edited so as to encourage devotion to Knock. References to other Irish locations where visions were being reported were crossed out, as were statements that suggested possible relapses or only partial cures. For example, a Fanny Murphy wrote to Cavanagh in February 1881, describing how she spent two years on crutches, but left them at Knock. She then describes how she feels much better since coming home; Cavanagh crossed out the part about feeling better, leaving the reader with the impression that Fanny came to Knock a hopeless invalid and threw her crutches away and was perfectly cured. R. McCarthy of Peckham Rye, London, was given cement from Knock by his parish priest. He describes how the cement cured his haemorrhages, but the part of the letter describing how he has had ‘a slight return of the illness’ is crossed out by Cavanagh prior to publication. While reports in The Nation and elsewhere might lead us to conclude that Archdeacon Cavanagh was an overly credulous man who would do anything to further the cause of Knock, these letters and his handling of them prior to publication show just how far he was willing to go to channel devotion to his church.
With regard to the rumours and innuendo about Cusack’s departure from Knock, what I take at face value is the unpublished correspondence from lay persons and clerics to Cusack critical of her for leaving Knock. Many of these letters came from people who had supported her both at Kenmare and at Knock, and who were likely to be affected by rumours that she stole funds from Knock. While the archives show how the funds and the railway shares were legally invested in her name, and that funds sent to Knock for the building of the convent were her funds, in the minds of many lay Catholics in Ireland, Britain and America, their money was sent to Knock and not to Sister Mary Francis Clare. Cusack was on solid legal ground in stating her claim to the money, but the public perception of Knock suffered despite the ‘just nature’ of her claim.
I did describe that finding these materials gave me some small sense of what it might feel like to find a chalice in a bog or a Carravaggio on Great Denmark Street. Unfortunately, it seems that my sharing these documents with Professor Hynes has not helped him. Perhaps his visit to the Cusack archive shared something with the generations of Belvedere Jesuits who lived with and passed by the Carravaggio each day but who were unable to identify what they were looking at.
Editors’ note:

In our guidelines to contributors we ask for a list of not more than four items for further reading. Where there is a choice we recommend books rather than articles in periodicals in order to facilitate the bulk of our readership who may not have access to university or specialist libraries. The application of this rule of thumb in this case, however, led to the omission from the article’s ‘further reading’ of Professor James S. Donnelly’s ‘The Marian Shrine of Knock: the first decade’ in Éire-Ireland, 1993, the most comprehensive, scholarly and up to date treatment of the subject. If interested readers  have difficulty in obtaining a copy through the usual channels they should contact History Ireland,       tel: (01) 4535730.


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