After the Ballinspittle story broke in the summer of 1985, the moving statue phenomenon spread like a contagion until it seemed like every town and village had its own miraculous Lourdes grotto. My home town, Ennis, was no exception. One morning in late Autumn, the town was ablaze with rumours that the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Pro Cathedral had been seen to move the previous evening. A group of children had been praying* at the grotto, which was installed within a small, cramped chapel at the back of the cathedral’s nave, when Our Lady smiled (or nodded or blinked or shuffled — I can’t recall exactly what She was supposed to have done).
I was in fifth class at the time — ten years old. The moving statue in the Cathedral was all we could talk about from when word spread around the school that a boy a couple of classes ahead of us was among the chosen few who had witnessed the wondrous event the evening before. I knew this lad well, but for all the wrong reasons. He lived on our road and was something of the district bully. I’d spent a recent summer studiously avoiding him on account of “payback” that was “coming to me” over some imagined infraction of mine. (In spite of his supposed toughness, this fella was highly sensitive to supposed slights!) Notwithstanding his reputation and the incongruity of the idea of this boy’s ever voluntarily setting foot in a church unless it was to drink the alter wine or rob candles, the notion that he may have seen a statue of the Virgin Mary move didn’t appear strange to us. Such were the times. And shur didn’t God love a sinner?
Those of us townies (more than half the kids in the school were bussed in from the country) in the class made a plan: as soon as the bell rang at a quarter past three we’d hare up town and get front row places at the vigil we assumed would be taking place at the grotto. When we got to the Cathedral, however, our hopes were dashed. The little chapel was crammed. A stream of closely-packed bodies was flowing out its door. No matter how much we wriggled and pressed, we couldn’t even get within a few yards of the entrance to the place. But we knew from the eerie silence that cloaked the chapel that something special was happening beyond our line of sight. There was none of the usual skitting or whispering that even the most solemn of masses hears. Besides a few oul’ wans rattling their Rosary beads, there was neither sound nor motion emanating from those keeping vigil.
My friends and I waited patiently and perhaps after half an hour sufficient people had left the chapel to allow us a chance to worm our way inside. We blessed ourselves and with our hands joined and maintaining in the cramped circumstances as reverent a comportment as possible, we stared with intent, studious reverence at the plain statue of the Virgin built into a stony nook a few feet above us. The only light in the chapel came from the dwindling daylight and a rack of candles in front of the grotto. Their flickering made it easy to imagine you saw the statue move. More than a few times, as I gazed unblinkingly at the alabaster I thought I had detected movement. Did Her head tilt? Did She raise Her shoulder slightly. Did She tilt back and forth?
But even my ten-year-old mind recognised the phenomenon of wishful thinking and had been schooled in scepticism by the plethora of Today Tonight and Radharc specials on Ballinspittle. The further into the vigil I got, the more disappointed I became. The statue wasn’t moving. Nobody around me was seeing it move. After perhaps half an hour of craning my neck and straining my eyes, my belly began to rumble and I felt the absence of the bickies and milk I usually had after coming straight home from school. A squadron of newly-arrived oul’ wans pushed their way to the front of the crowd and when this crack squad of latter day shawlies started belting out the Rosary, I knew it was time to leave.
The next day at school the story went around that, after we had left the grotto, an over-exuberant pupil from our cross-town rival — the Boys’ National School or “the Nash” — had, in his attempts to secure a better view of the Virgin, clambered onto St. Bernadette and somehow managed to break her hands off. We greeted this news with a mixture of glee and regret; we were delighted to see the name of the Nash being dragged through the mud but gutted at learning that church authorities had, in light of the incident, decided to close the grotto until further notice. And that, essentially, was the end of the moving statue craze in Ennis. Little more than a one-day wonder.
A few of us visited some of the other grottoes dotted around the town — the People’s Park, the Friary, Marian Avenue, St. Michael’s Villas, Hermitage — and had a good oul’ gawk, as they say. But nothing. Despite its population and density of grottoes, Ennis was to be out-rivalled by dozens of smaller, one-grotto towns and villages. I wonder though, if that boy from the Nash hadn’t broken off St. Bernadette’s hands, how long would the crowds have kept packing the little chapel at the back of the Cathedral and what would people have seen? Would Ennis have come to match Ballinspittle in its notoriety or would the novelty have worn off as quickly as in hundreds of places around the country at that time?
*In those days it was quite common for us children to stand vigil at grottoes “just in case” something happened. There were no PlayStations or Wiis and most of us had only two TV channels, so staring at lumps of alabaster was about all we had!