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The day turned out to be wet and misty, so instead of our planned hillwalk we ended up walking the Glenshelane Forest Trail near Cappoquin, Co. Waterford. “Glenshelane” translates into “Valley of the Fairies” and with its meandering streams and moss covered trees there is something magical about the place (or at least the parts that have not been the subject of recent tree-felling).

By accident, we ended up at a place called Melleray Grotto. It’s a strange place. Nestled beside a bridge across the Monavugga river, the grotto has a large shelter and car-park in addition to the usual statues of Mary and St. Theresa. According to the signs and leaflets there, three children saw multiple apparitions of the Virgin Mary there in 1985, the same year as the moving statues phenomenon in Ireland.

The children reported seeing Noah, Jesus and the Devil among other biblical characters. According to them, Mary spoke to them on a number of occasions. The free leaflet provides us with a transcript of what she said: pronouncements like “I Want Prayer” and “The World Must Improve” – not exactly the most inspirational of stuff. She even went on to predict a great cataclysm in 1995. Unless I am much mistaken, this did not happen in 1995, or am I wrong? (Ah, but of course, there was that matter of a divorce referendum…).

I was left with the distinct impression that the whole thing was a hoax or a prank that went somewhat out of control, or perhaps the exploitation of people who might have been in need of professional medical help. Over the period of the “visions”, thousands of people descended on the place, just as they were doing in similar places around the country.

On the seats nearby was a Catholic newspaper that seemed gave the distinct impression of a religion on the ropes; as if they had rounded up the wagon train and all you could see, looking from the outside, were guns pointing at you. Everyone becomes their target – atheists, secularists, liberal Christians, Muslims, anyone who does not sign up to their strict interpretation of Christianity. This is fine, I guess, for preserving intact the worldview of the faithful, but useless as a vehicle for attracting new recruits. The paper is full of anger, bitterness and despair for the future.

It’s a ramshackle place where one’s common understanding of the world takes a somersault, to be replaced by arcane stories and apparent miracles. A place where normal critical thinking takes a vacation. Not so different, I would think, to Hindu shrines half a continent away, with their votive candles, petitions and magical holy water. The pleas and prayers are sodden with desperation and agony. Rather than making people more comfortable about their troubles, I wonder if it only makes things worse by assigning an agent, a conscious cause, to their suffering. If their problems – serious illness or  a bereavement  say – were caused by a conscious agent, then you will never stop asking why and no answers will ever come. That’s not comfort in my book.

The Grottos is an odd, fascinating and somewhat sad place: a distinct throwback to the Middle Ages and an insight into the power and irrationality of human belief.

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