THE QUEEN’S VISIT
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
By the mid-1800s, the Irish had become dependent on a crop that could produce the most yield per acre – the potato – since British landlord’s held most of the arable land. Then late on August 20, 1845, Dr. David Moore reported that a potato fungus was discovered at the Dublin Botanical Gardens. The following day, August 21, is a date remembered in Irish history as the first day of An Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger – a tragedy that saw millions lost to emigration, disease, and starvation. Within a month, reports came from all over Ireland that the potato crop had turned black in the ground. It was the only crop affected, since everything else grew in abundance, but the other crops belonged to the landlord.
The landlords protected their crops from the Irish until they were exported for profit. Parliament, quoting the economic doctrine of Laissez Faire left the country to the effect of natural forces. Many starved awaiting a better harvest in ‘46, but it didn’t come. The potato crop in ‘46 was almost totally destroyed. People were forced to eat what little seed potato they had to survive, many fell victim to the diseases which attend starvation and, when the sick and starving Irish couldn’t pay their rent, they were evicted. The blight partially returned in 1847, but that year saw the largest death toll in a 5-year period since those who ate their seed potatoes had nothing to plant, those who were evicted had nowhere to plant, and the victims of disease were unable to plant. The blight returned in 1848 and 1849 and neither landlord nor Parliament provided adequate assistance. Millions died on the roads beside prosperous farms. Some aid was provided but it was too little and soup kitchens were set up, but in some, the cost of receiving food was conversion to the Church of England. It was a price too high for many, and they turned their backs on the food, rather than turn their backs on God.
Parliament was denounced for not helping and they reacted by declaring the crisis over in 1849 when the blight on the potato began to fade, but the blight on the Irish continued. Most historians estimate that the effects of the calamity were not over for another 30 years as food shortage and disease continued. Emigrants sent money back to those they had to leave behind and it helped them climb back to a stable life, but it would be years before many emigrants could establish themselves in their new lands. In the end most victims of the Great Hunger were gone before its effects were. One of the most insensitive events of the Great Hunger was Parliament’s premature declaration of the end of the blight. In order to show that all was well, a massive publicity campaign was mounted, the highlight of which was a visit by Queen Victoria at harvest time in 1849. As the Irish starved and died in the workhouses and on the roads, hundreds of thousands of Pounds were spent to beautify the areas she would visit. Crowds of curious and angry onlookers were kept in check by British soldiers as reports were sent to the world that wherever she went, the Queen was cheered by her adoring subjects and headlines proclaimed that “THE FAMINE IS OVER AS THE QUEEN VISITS IRELAND.”
Ironically that headline, though propaganda in its time, would eventually come true for a most remarkable incident occurred on the exact anniversary of the first day of the hunger, exactly 30 years after the blight had begun to fade! The date was August 21, 1879, and the place was the Church of St. John the Baptist in the Irish village of Knock in Co. Mayo. On that evening, a small group witnessed an astonishing vision as three figures, surrounded by a mysterious glowing light, suddenly appeared, beside an altar on which rested a cross and a lamb surrounded by adoring angels. The witnesses knew that they were in the presence of St. Joseph, St. John and Mary, the mother of God. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Word spread and others arrived and saw it too. No such heavenly visitation had ever before been reported in Ireland, and the people fell to their knees and prayed, oblivious of a soaking rain. The figures remained silent for nearly two hours and vanished. In 1939, after years of investigation, the apparition was granted canonical sanction. Of the hundreds of visions reported, it is one of the few to have received such recognition and it ranks with Lourdes and Fatima as a holy site of pilgrimage, yet during her appearance the Virgin remained silent.
Many have questioned why Mary said nothing and only stood praying; praying for what, for whom? Any student of Irish history should know the answer for the clues are in the date of the apparition. Consider that the Great Hunger wasn’t really over for 30 years after 1849; Mary appeared in 1879 – exactly 30 years later! And She appeared on August 21, the exact anniversary of the first day of the Great Hunger! Is it possible that, since the Irish had suffered so much for their faith that the Lord, in appreciation, sent His beloved mother and that She, as any mourner would, stood in silent prayer for the generation which had just passed away? Think of it, the timing is incredible. Not only is August 21 significant, but the year 1879 was truly the end of the Great Hunger for the Irish began taking their land back from the landlords. In Daly’s Hotel, Castlebar on August 16th 1879 the Mayo Land League was founded by Michael Davitt. When MP Charles Stewart Parnell joined it became the National Land League and by the end of 1879, the Land War began. It was only then that it could be truly said that the Great Hunger was over and the Irish began to take back their land.
Yet, while the dates have an uncanny significance, there is another irony. Since August 1879 marked both the historic end of the Great Hunger and the year in which Our Lady visited Knock, a 30-year old headline had at finally come true: THE FAMINE WAS OVER AND THE QUEEN HAD VISITED IRELAND – but it wasn’t Victoria; it was the only Queen that the Irish had ever recognized! Millions have visited Knock since 1879 and numerous miracles have been reported at the shrine. The Catholic people of Ireland, who struggled so hard to keep their faith alive, had received a visit from heaven and the Virgin had received a new title – Our Lady of Knock.