Academics named it the ‘Ballinspittle Phenomenon’, the late bishop of Cork urged “prudence and caution” but, 30 years later, many locals who witnessed the ‘moving statue’ still have strong devotion to the woman at the centre of it all — Our Lady.
Up to 100,000 people had descended on the Co Cork village in late July and August in 1985, to witness the ‘miracle’ of the roadside statue.
By that autumn, the phenomena had not been confined to Ballinspittle, a market village a short distance from Kinsale.
By the end of a wet summer, Marian apparitions had been reported in many other locations extending from Sligo to Kerry and eastwards to Kilkenny and Waterford.
In effect, 1985 was to become known as the Year of the Moving Statues.
In Ballinspittle, however, locals believe it was a year when many people rediscovered their faith and their veneration to Our Lady continues. Although thousands of people had gathered out of curiosity or to gaze in wonder, most had come to pray.
The garda sergeant in the village at the time was John Murray. In the print and broadcast media, his story has been re-told.
Now retired, he had admitted at the time, like many others, to being sceptical.
His wife had alerted him to villagers talking about the ‘moving statue’ and, within days, what had been dozens of people walking along the road to the local shrine had turned into hundreds.
The Daly and O’Mahony families, living nearby, had reported seeing the statue ‘floating’.
Mr Murray, a few nights later, was at the site when he witnessed the phenomenon.
“The following morning I went up there and checked out that statue. I felt like someone was playing tricks on me and I was amazed to find no wires or trickery there at all.
“I was so convinced this was a hoax I had searched behind the statue and also tried to move it,” he said.
“It wouldn’t budge.”
People had very different experiences, Mr Murray acknowledged.
“But in July 1985, I saw something physically impossible at that grotto. I saw the concrete statue of Our Lady floating in mid-air.
“Not rocking to and fro, but floating.” A mother of nine, Cathy O’Mahony said she too, at the time, had suffered ridicule because of her visions.
But she says she was confident of what she saw.
“You meet many sceptics and they don’t believe it, but as far as I am concerned it is there for everyone to see.” And on August 15 that year, the Feast of the Assumption, a reported 20,000 people arrived into the small village.
However, the then Bishop of Cork and Ross, Michael Murphy was somewhat unmoved and declared it an illusion.
He issued a statement informing people that “direct supernatural intervention is a very rare happening in life”.
He said: “So, common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto at Ballinspittle with prudence and caution.
“Before a definite pronouncement could be made by the Church, all natural explanations would have to be examined and exhausted over a lengthy period of time.”
Throughout that year, 31 incidents had been recorded.
Staff at the Department of Applied Psychology in University College Cork came to the conclusion Ballinspittle had been an optical illusion.
“People sway when standing still for a period of time and what they are looking at appears to move.”
The UCC staff named it the ‘Ballinspittle Phenomenon’. They claimed it was an issue of light, as “the statue appeared to move only when it is dark”.
The spontaneous movement of statues was reported shortly afterward in Mount Melleray, Co Waterford, and at a further 30 other locations around the country.
But they were not all Marian apparitions and some involved other divine figures, or saints, who appeared in stains on church walls.
Five years ago, broadcaster Terry Wogan included Ballinspittle in what had been a new travel series for the BBC.
At the time, he spoke to Patricia Bowen, one of the local committee who cared for the grotto.
She recalled she had seen the face of Jesus appear over that of Our Lady’s on several occasions.
“People say that the light causes the statue to appear moving, but the light couldn’t make the face change to that of Our Lord,” she said.
Former garda sergeant Mr Murray, who also had been interviewed on the programme, had said: “Terry feels the same as myself that faith is very important in a lot of situations, especially when somebody is sick.
“He didn’t ridicule what we had to say. He treated it very respectfully.”
People still visit the shrine to this day.
Some to see if the statue will move for them, but most come here just to pray.
Mr Murray sums it up: “In 1985, there was a mingling of two worlds, our world and the mystical world, and something amazing, it got people praying.”