Moving Statues and Moving Away from the Catholic Church in Ireland

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

In May 2018, the Republic of Ireland voted by a landslide to remove the 8th Amendment from its constitution.[1] The Amendment stated that the right to life of the unborn child was equal to that of the mother, which essentially made abortion illegal unless the mother’s life was at risk.[2] The referendum result was heralded as a sign of Ireland’s rapid secularisation, and the declining influence of the Catholic Church.[3]

In the summer of 1985, just over thirty years before Ireland would overwhelmingly vote to decriminalise abortion, the nation witnessed a wave of Marian apparitions. It became known as ‘The Summer of the Moving Statues’.[4] The principal apparition was in Ballinspittle, a village just outside the popular tourist town of Kinsale in County Cork. If you visit the grotto today, an A4 sheet pinned to a noticeboard at the foot of the well-kept shrine tells a version the story. On 22 July 1985 ‘our blessed Lady made her presence felt at our Grotto in Ballinspittle in a never-to-be-forgotten experience by two local families and in subsequent weeks, up to a million people who claimed to have had various apparitions, unusual experiences, and some cures’. These apparitions began when two families went to the grotto to say a rosary and reported that the statue of Mary moved. They also had visions, such as the face of Christ and Saint Padre Pio transposed on the statue.[5] News of the phenomenon quickly spread and was covered by local and national press. Droves of worshippers descended upon the town, climaxing on the evening of 15 August, where crowds of up to 20,000 gathered at the statue.[6]

The grotto in Ballinspittle, County Cork.

The Summer of the Moving Statues has been interpreted in different ways. Chris Maunder suggests the religious fervour may have been a response to a sense of moral crisis that was pervasive in more conservative rural societies, sparked by the Health (Family Planning) (Amendment) Act 1985, which allowed people to purchase condoms without a prescription.[7] The apparitions have also been identified as a manifestation of rural anxiety, a response to poor harvests and urbanisation. Some whom I have interviewed take a more cynical approach. One woman whose father and mother travelled to Ballinspittle suggested that the local pub and an opportunity to socialise were just as attractive as an apparition. Indeed, the local economy of Ballinspittle benefited from the huge influx of visitors.

The Summer of Moving Statues can be held up alongside the summer of the referendum on the 8th to demonstrate how much Ireland has changed, from Catholic hysteria to secular liberalism. Nevertheless, I think the reality is more complicated. None of the apparitions that took place across the country were officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, who responded urging caution and prudence.[8] The Moving Statues phenomena came from the people, not the Church.

The Catholic Church supported the 8th Amendment. However, this did not stop the Repeal Campaign from co-opting Catholic iconography, particularly that of the Virgin Mary and St. Brigid.[9] Moreover, many who identify as devout Catholics campaigned for repeal, including perhaps, most notably the government minister Josepha Madigan who was the coordinator of her party’s ‘Yes’ campaign during the referendum.[10]

This is not to directly link the moving statues with the campaign to repeal the 8th, but to suggest that they are not simply dichotomous. Ireland has a complicated, developing relationship with the Catholic hierarchy and secularisation. The country is certainly becoming more secular, but Catholicism remains ingrained in the physical landscape in the form of roadside shrines that speckle the countryside.

Images: Photographs by Aoife O’Leary McNeice.












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