In 1985, statues around the country began ‘moving’. The maker of new documentary says the phenomenon was a welcome diversion in tough times, reports Áilin Quinlan
It’s nearly 35 years since John Miller’s mother came home from bingo to say everyone was talking about the moving statues.
It was late on an August evening in 1985, but intrigued by the gossip, John and his mother Lily decided to drive the short distance from their home in Monasterevin to their local grotto.
John was 20 at the time, and, he recalls now, utterly sceptical about the idea. However, when his mother told him that holy statues were reported to be “moving” in villages around the country his reply was robust:
“I said to my mother that if it was f**** happening all over the place, it should be happening here. Mammy said we’d go up to the grotto and see.
“We went up in the car and pulled in. We weren’t there for five minutes when at the same time we both saw the statue turning.
“It was turning to the right, towards the railway, but it wasn’t the statue itself that was moving.
“It seemed to be a figure that came down and made it appear as if it was moving; it was as if something was superimposed on the statue.
“It frightened the bejaysus out of me because I didn’t believe in this. I said to my mother, ‘don’t open your mouth about it.’” When they returned home, he says, he “got into bed and I prayed and prayed; the hair stood up on my head.” Inevitably, word got out about the Millers’ experience:
“Crowds started to appear. People were seeing different images — some reported they were seeing the devil, others were seeing images of Our Lady with tears rolling down.
“Everyone was getting a different image.”
However, recalls John now, he continued to see exactly what he’d seen the first night: “I saw the same thing on subsequent occasions — a vision coming over the statue and turning to the left and the right.” Every evening a nearby street light shone on the grotto, he recalls, and eventually people began to suggest that the shadow cast by this light was the cause of the strange images.
But then something unusual happened:
“Suddenly the light went off for 15 minutes and everyone continued to see what they’d been seeing. The light came back on and everyone’s doubts were gone.”
Now 54, he recalls, the sightings around the country that strange summer “brought one hell of a lot of prayer” back to communities around Ireland.
It also kept John close to God, he believes now, although he says, he’s not a regular churchgoer: “I have my faith. I would be religious and I believe.
“You’d always look for an answer from God; there’d be little things that could be bothering you and you’d say your prayers and do good in your community, and you get answers that way.”
The former soldier hopes, he says, that the forthcoming RTÉ documentary on Ireland’s moving statues, Moving Statues — The Summer of 1985 in which he and other eye-witnesses from around the country recall their experiences of the phenomenon, will at least make people think:
“I hope the documentary will bring people back to their faith. The Church was in dire straits then and it’s heading that way again.”
Of the phenomenon itself, he says simply: “It is what it is, people either run with it or they don’t, but it did bring prayer back all over the country and it also brought back the sense that there was a need for prayer.”
In West Cork, John Daly, aged 64, a businessman who runs a fleet of mobile fast-food outlets, remembers how, instead of serving food at the usual summer run of festivals, he repeatedly found himself in the village of Ballinspittle, following reports that the statue in the local grotto had moved:
“The experience stuck with me. It was a very unusual time. I was amazed at the crowds,” he recalls.
“There was nobody going to the festivals; they were all going to Ballinspittle to see the moving statue, and it’s our business to follow the people.
“It brought the faith back to a lot of people and they went back to Mass,” he recalls.
Intrigued by reports of the statue moving, John decided to test it for himself.
“I took a line off a tall pillar. I could see the statue going back behind the line and then going in front of it — it was literally disappearing and coming back into my line of vision.
“I believe what I saw,” he says, adding that at one point it seemed to him that the statue was moving so much it would fall off its rock.
“I saw the statue move twice,” he recalls, adding that he initially thought he was imagining it: “But a lot of people were there, thousands, and when I saw it, everyone saw it in that split second. I remember that someone fainted.”
The phenomenon of the moving statues had begun the previous February in the small village of Asdee in North Kerry. A seven-year-old girl preparing for her First Communion reported that, while praying in the church she’d seen statues of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart moving. Within hours, other children were seeing the same things. The following Sunday an estimated 2,000 people descended on the church.
From there the phenomenon moved quickly and similar reports began to come in from around the country — from Ballydesmond, near the Cork border, from Ballinspittle, where by late July the crowds numbered 10,000 a night and sometimes more; from Monastervin where crowds of people followed up on the Miller family’s sightings, and from Stradbally where Mary Moore called into the church to light candles, and saw a vision of Our Lord ‘morphing’ into the statue of the Virgin Mary. That September in Sligo, thousands of people gathered in a field after four local schoolgirls saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In fact, it’s believed, statues were seen to move at some 30 locations around the country.
The summer of 1985 was an unusually difficult one for Ireland — 329 people were killed in the Air India disaster in July when an airplane was blown up by a bomb crashing into the Atlantic Ocean while in Irish airspace. Meanwhile Ireland was in the midst of a crushing economic recession. High unemployment figures and mass emigration left families and communities struggling, while traditional church teachings were being challenged as the divorce and abortion referendums were contested.
But above everything that happened that summer when he was a teenager, the producer of the documentary, David Whelan says he always remembered the moving statues. “It was a story I remembered; I was always fascinated by it,” he recalls.
“I was about 15 at the time and I didn’t believe it, but I was always fascinated as to why people would believe.” The idea niggled at him; eventually he came to the conclusion that it would be good to go back and talk to the people who had reported experiencing sightings, while they were still alive.
“It’s a subject that a certain generation remembers, the summer of the moving statues.” He tracked eye-witnesses down through the RTÉ archives; people who had been willing to talk about what they saw that long-ago summer.
And yes, he says, to this day, everyone he spoke to firmly believe they saw something that summer, whether it was a holy statue moving or some kind of vision: “Patricia Bowen in Ballinspittle claims people still see the statue moving to this day.” It was a fascinating phenomenon which took place over what was a turbulent summer, he recalls.
“It happened all over Ireland; it lasted for a few weeks,” he says, adding however that he believes the moving statues became more than a strictly religious issue — the phenomenon also became a social outlet for rural communities all over the country.
“From talking to people in Monasterevin or Stradbally and Ballinspittle, what happened was you had a small town or village and it was in the news.”
There was nothing else happening, so going to see the moving statue on a summer evening, became a sociable thing to do: “I don’t think everyone there had a religious purpose; it was also a diversion and something to do on a summer’s evening — it was as much as social occasion as anything else.
“It’s a very interesting story that happened in Ireland which nobody can really explain — people flocked to grottos.
“It was a phenomenon and I’m not familiar with any phenomenon like it that has happened in Ireland.
“It all really started in the little village of Asdee in North Kerry, where a seven-year-old girl preparing for her First Communion saw something.
“If that little girl hadn’t run out of the church saying that she saw a statue move, you’d wonder whether it would have happened in the other places at all, and whether 100,000 people (probably more) would have ended up coming to Ballinspittle.
“In Sligo, for example, where the four girls saw the image of Mary on their way home, within a few days there were 20,000 people looking into the sky to see if they could see the Virgin Mary… we’ll never know why it all happened.”
‘Moving Statues — The Summer of 1985’ will be broadcast on Monday April 15 RTÉ One at 21:35