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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 48

At Carrick I was faced with a dilemma. Much of the journey south to Roscommon had to be by main road. So far main routes had been kind to me. With the exception of the windy haul along the Sligo coast in the slipstream of lorries and prey to flying flints and chippings, N roads had proven quiet and courteous. The shopkeeper in Carrick said the Roscommon road was not a good one for cyclists.

There were routes on lanes and by-ways but these would extend twenty miles to fifty and it was gone three in the afternoon. Twenty miles would make 65 for the day and that was good going. 50 would push it towards 100 and the last time I did that I paid the price.

Of course, there were alternatives and one was to head west again. In thirty miles I’d come across the site of more miracles than the rest of the collective islands can boast between them. I was only thirty country miles from Knock and from there I could continue south towards Galway. I had a long held desire to visit County Mayo and I had a Christy Moore song wiggling, ear worm like, around my head.

Whichever way I went, I wasn’t going to be too far away from miracles, myths and holy sites. If I didn’t go to Knock, I was going to go through Elphin. The very names are temptations to travel. Well, maybe not to everyone but certainly to one who has made his home in a place called Clowne.

Knock stands alongside Fatima and Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage. It’s a place to cast off the crutches, to take up thy bed and walk. A place where one and a half million people come every year to pray at the site where The Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist appeared to pray at an altar of light with a lamb (believed to be Jesus) and a cross upon it and circling members of the angelic host in adoring attendance.

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Opinion is divided as to whether the local congregation, in dire need of some boost to the terrible living standards in Mayo in the 1870s connived the story or if the Mother of Christ took pity on the hungry and the poverty stricken Catholic population and gave them a miracle to give them hope. One thing for certain is that the local priesthood were aware of the financial gains made by Lourdes after a similar vision in 1858.

In the case of Lourdes, the Holy Mother appeared a total of 18 times to Bernadette Soubirous. In Knock there was a single vision, but it lasted for two hours and was witnessed by fifteen people aged between five and seventy five. Two separate and serious enquiries were held. One at the time, one over fifty years later, and both found that the witnesses were honest and reliable in their belief in what they saw.

The saints appeared against the outer gable wall of the little church during a rainstorm. The area where the vision took place remained dry. The honesty of the belief of those who saw the apparition and of those who journey as pilgrims to the shrine is not really in question. Whether you or I believe it is a matter of belief or faith. An atheist would discount it as mythical mumbo-jumbo and my experience of atheists is that few sectors of the population are better equipped to talk about mythical mumbo-jumbo. Maybe some of the non-believers who readily credit themselves on census returns as Jedi or Pagans. I’m a believer but I have my doubts in this case, but don’t discount the idea of such occurrences. I know many honest atheists but always have my doubts at people who’s first premise is to disprove rather than to prove.

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The Christy Moore song talks of the second miracle at Knock: namely, the building of an International Airport to serve the shrine. The scheme was the brainchild of Monsignor James Horan. If opinions differ over the original miracle, facts over the planning, financing and building of the airport are as clouded in fog as the runways so often are. Monsignor Horan began fund raising and raised over £400,000 Irish pounds  (punts). Despite the country being in a deep economic mire, the Irish Government of Charles Haughey pumped in a great deal of cash. There are also stories that Nato and The American Military pumped in many millions of pounds. Reasons why this should be the case have been kept murky and obscure. It would make a convenient base though.

Despite objections, sufficient to sink most other plans, the airport went ahead and this tiny Mayo village now has the fourth busiest airport in the country. If you’re flying from there, the choice is somewhat limited unless your chosen destination is Gatwick, Birmingham or Dubrovnik. Low cost airlines whisk holiday makers off to Spain and the Mediteranean. If you are flying into Knock, the chances are that you’ll still have a considerable journey to make. If you are over 12 years old you will be charged a rather controversial €10 development charge. Controversial because it is believed that development costs were paid off many years ago.

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As Christy Moore sang “There’s never been a miracle like the airport up in Knock.

This is a land of saints. If you tot them up you find that there are a total of 34 Irish saints who lived between the fourth and tenth centuries. That is if you only count those beginning with the letter C.

The most famous is Saint Columba if you only count the Cs. The actual title of most famous saint is Saint Patrick and I was heading towards one of the many towns that he helped to found. Elphin is a few miles south of Carrick-on-Shannon and is now a quiet town in the northern part of County Roscommon. Today there is a solid church with an impressive tower, an estate of new houses, a ruined monastery and two Chinese take aways. It also has a most unusual war memorial.

The crystal clear spring forms a gushing stream that runs through the village. This was the result of Patrick lifting a large stone from the top of a natural well and the water flowing forth. The church founded here is believed to be the first founded by Saint Patrick. A monastic community survived until the reformation and worship continued until a storm destroyed the later church in 1957. The remains can still be seen.

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I pedalled on until I was stopped by a memorial on the side of the road. The statues seemed different from the usual Great War soldiers from all English village memorials. These were not in military uniform. I’m always affected by war memorials and this one was no different. It was to men who had given their lives for the IRA  and the cause of a free and independent republic.

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Which IRA? I have a dozen different reactions to the name. The disgust and horror at the perpetrators of the Omagh bombing and the killing of so many innocent civilians. The young men who saw a hopeless future and joined a cause that they could believe in. The patriots who faught against oppressive rule. The Hunger Strikers, the representatives of an oppressed and victimised minority, the opponents of the cruel black and tans. The men whose exploits are celebrated in song by The Dubliners and in film by Ken Loach. Those we remember in country shires in England, Scotland and Wales killed for causes they probably understood less than these men. I cannot honour them myself but neither can I condemn them nor the people who raised these stones in their memory. History needs to be remembered and recorded accurately and from all sides.

I cycle on strangely moved and more than slightly haunted.