Have Bag, Will Travel
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“The official Pilgrimage Season at Knock Shrine begins on Sunday 30th April.The 12 noon & 3pm Sunday Masses in the Basilica can be viewed live on the Watch page and can also be viewed afterwards on the Knock Shrine YouTube Channel”. – Knock Shrine Official Web Page.
Knock (or West Ireland Airport) is built in the middle of almost nowhere, the nearest cities are Galway to the south and Sligo to the north, both over forty miles away. It was built here following a campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine.
The Shrine is probably the most religious place in all of Ireland and as we were close by we thought that perhaps we should pay a visit ourselves.
The most religious country in Europe is Malta where in a survey in 2010 95% of the population said that they were practicing Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only managed 74%. Ireland registered 54%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t very important at all.
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where I imagine the response would surely have been 100%.
The remarkable story of Knock began on the 21st August, 1879 when, at approximately eight o’clock in the evening, fifteen people from the village claimed that they witnessed a Marian Apparition* on an altar at the gable wall of the Parish Church. An Apparition of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist, a choir of angels, the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) and a cross.
The witnesses watched the Apparition in the pouring rain for two hours whilst reciting the Rosary. Although they themselves were saturated not a single drop of rain fell on the gable or vision. Each of the witnesses gave testimonies to a Commission of Enquiry in October 1879 and the findings of the Commission were that the testimonies were both trustworthy and satisfactory. Hmmm!
As a consequence of this the site is now an important Pilgrimage centre with a four thousand seat Basilica, a Museum, a Research centre, the original Parish Church and the Holy Shrine itself. With an estimated million and a half visitors a year this makes it the most visited place in Ireland just ahead of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.
Most of these visitors are genuine Pilgrims, not just nosey parkers like us, who come to celebrate Mass, make Confession, seek spiritual guidance or simply to lay hands on the wall where the Apparition took place. Actually there is only a small portion of the wall these days because so many people were chipping bits off for a souvenir that it had to be taken down and kept somewhere secret for safety.
The whole village is a religious enclave where every shop sells spiritual gifts, grave memorials, plastic bottles to collect Holy Water and Votive Candles. If you want to stay overnight in Knock then you are probably going to book in at The Shrine View Guest House, The Lamb of God B&B or the Divine Mercy Hotel.
The village and the Holy Site reminded me of the Greek Island of Tinos where there is a similar story of a divine miracle and a Basilica and a Pilgrim Trail to go with it.
As we walked around the Basilica not everyone was absolutely delighted by the experience and I overheard two Nuns in conversation – “So how do you like the place Sister, said the first, “Well, I am a bit disappointed” replied the second “ I have to say, I tort there would be more Priests and tings!”
The modern Basilica is quite magnificent and the best thing about is the Apparition Mosaic which depicts the scene as described in the testimony of the witnesses and donated by an individual donor in memory of his family and friends. That is quite some gift let me tell you, it is one of the largest mosaics in Europe consisting of over one and a half million pieces of hand cut marble and glass and crafted in Spilimbergo in Italy by Travisanutto Mosaics who are said to be the best in the World and also have mosaics in Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.
I am really glad that I visited the Knock Shrine, I didn’t get any sort of Divine thrill I have to say, I am not a religious person at all, I only go to Church for weddings, christenings and funerals and remain sceptical about things such as this but if so many people believe in it then I feel obliged to keep an open mind.
* A Marian Apparition is a reported supernatural appearance by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The miracle is often named after the town where it is reported.
There is a simple pub quiz question that comes up regularly and which I always get wrong. The question is ‘what is the nearest country to the United Kingdom’ and the answer of course is Southern Ireland or Eire but I always forget about the border with Northern Ireland and blurt out ‘France, it must be France’.
If the Scottish Nationalists ever get their way then there will be two correct answers to the question which is likely to cause a lot of bar-room arguments!
I suppose I have always been a bit hesitant about travelling in the British Isles because being English I have always been rather conscious that we are not going to win many popularity contests with our nearest neighbours.
A lot of Scottish people seem to hate us and the Scottish First Minister, the Anglophobe, Nicola Sturgeon, desperately wants a vote in favour of independence. Until quite recently the Welsh used to burn down our holiday homes and the last time I went there I got a speeding ticket which I am convinced was issued only on the basis that I had an English registered car. So I was a little concerned about visiting a country who apparently regard the English responsible for all their recent disasters from the Irish Famine to the failure to qualify for the Football World Cup!
On a more positive note, although it is a thousand miles away or so, Gibraltar seems to like to retain its British connections even if this is motivated by indecent self-interest!
The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller islands. The term British Isles however is controversial in Ireland where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British which in terms of Irish history continues to be considered colonialist. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and it prefers the term Britain and Ireland as an alternative description. Even the British Lions Rugby team is now rebranded as the British and Irish Lions.
The England Cricket Team has an Irish Captain who refuses to sing the National Anthem which to me means he is simply not eligible! Previously there has been a Scottish captain, Mike Denness and a Welsh Captain, Tony Lewis who didn’t have the same problem. I would say to Eoin Morgan sing or you don’t play and get the appearance money!
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. Most impressive is that Ireland is placed eighth in the Human Development Index which means that it is the top ten of the most highly developed countries in the World and before the recent economic crisis it used to be in the top five. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.
The economic crisis has had a negative effect on Ireland’s position in the European Happiness Index however and it is rated at only fourteenth out of thirty which is a very long way behind the United Kingdom but I was interested to see that in a recent poll in the Irish Times that Galway was voted the happiest place to be in Ireland and I was glad about that because that was where we were planning to go first.
Ireland has only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites which, let’s be honest, is a rather poor performance and I would suggest that someone in Dublin needs to start travelling around and making some applications – Australia has got nineteen for goodness sake! The country also needs to do something about its Blue Flag Beaches because it now only has seventy when a few years ago it had one hundred and forty-two!
But some statistics continue to be impressive and Ireland remains the most successful nation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which with seven wins is higher than all other competitors so who really cares about the economic crisis anyway?
We arrived in Ireland (an hour late thanks to unannouced Ryanair flight rescheduling) at Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now known and as we descended the aircraft steps the wind tugged at the buttons of our shirts and the rain stung our cheeks as though we were walking through a swarm of bees.
It turns out that this is a most unlikely airport. The site, on a hill in boggy terrain that is often shrouded in dense fog, was thought by airport planning experts to be hopelessly unrealistic but was built following a long and controversial campaign by Monsignor James Horan who had a sort of evangelical business plan to bring pilgrims to the nearby religious site of the Knock Shrine (more about that later) and who convinced both the Irish Government and the European Union to fund the project.
Perhaps due to Devine Intervention it is now the fourth busiest airport in Ireland after Dublin, Shannon and Cork and we were happy about that because on our quest to visit all of Ireland this provided us with a gateway to the North West.
When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon.
Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like Arithmetic and English I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion. In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.
Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because he preferred his drink. People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike. More charitable folk said that it was communion wine. He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was definitely no Sunday school.
For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome. I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he also came to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well.
I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church. He had one leg shorter than the other and wore a corrective shoe. One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.
I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it. The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in.
In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful. Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy. I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.
I must have inherited this from my mother…
I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it. It never came. I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.
One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar. His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor.
At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club. The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too. The girl in the middle was called Elizabeth and was my first girlfriend!
I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock, which I thought made me look like a Cardinal and had the important job of carrying the processional cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.
None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling (there is no such thing as a sign unless you want there to be) and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.
In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request. I assume this could be like writing to
Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?
Once again I didn’t get a response from the Big Man!
When I woke I was encouraged to see strong sunlight leaking underneath and around the sides of the curtains and I turned over and slept a while longer confident in the certainty of a good day. When we finally got up however there was some cloud and by the time we had finished breakfast and set out for the day it was overcast and threatening to rain. We should have got up earlier!
On the advice of the nice lady at the car hire office we planned to drive thirty kilometres or so inland to the city of Guimarães which is ranked second in the country’s most livable cities survey published annually by the Portuguese newspaper Expresso. As might be expected Lisbon is rated first and Porto is third.
We joined a deserted motorway and with the weather less than promising I drove at an appropriate Sunday morning pace because there wasn’t any need to rush. I encouraged everyone to have ‘blue-sky thoughts’ and it must have worked because by the time we arrived and parked the car (free on Sundays) there was a brighter sky and little hints of sunshine.
As the first capital of Portugal, Guimarães is known as the place where the country was born – ‘The Cradle City’. In 1095 Count Henry of Burgundy, who had married princess Teresa of León, established in Guimarães the second County of Portugal and on July 25th 1109 Afonso Henriques, son of Count Henry of Burgundy, was born here and it was where Duke Afonso Henriques proclaimed Portuguese independence from the Kingdom of León, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, declaring himself to be Afonso I, King of Portugal.
Today Guimarães is a busy and important University city with an industrial base of textiles and metallurgy. It was quite relaxed this morning with groups of men chatting on street corners and waiting for the wives to leave the churches scattered in little clusters along the streets. The city is clean and smart and since Portugal and Slovenia and were selected to host a city as the European Capital of Culture in 2012 Guimarães was chosen by Portugal to represent the country. Slovenia chose the city of Maribor.
We walked through tidy streets and open green spaces without high expectation of Guimarães but we found a street map that indicated a castle, a palace and a UNESCO World Heritage site in the old centre and so we walked to the top of the city and into the grounds of the twelfth century castle where there were some musicians playing tradional songs inside the delightful leafy gardens. In 1881 the castle was declared the most important historical monument in this part of Portugal and in the 1900s a lot of work has gone into its restoration. We went inside and were struck by the fact that they hadn’t spent a lot of the renovation budget on basic health and safety.
The Castle is a disaster waiting to happen, with uneven surfaces, irregular steps and almost completely without handrails or safety barriers to prevent visitors accidentally slipping off of the high battlements and becoming a permanent addition to the rocky foundations. In the middle of the castle was a keep where there was a stiff climb to the very top which was slightly perilous and hard work but the reward for tackling it were some excellent views of the countryside and the city including the football stadium where Rio Ave had narrowly beaten their neighbours only two days before.
After the castle we visited the Palace and without explanation there was free admission today but where an officious attendant still insisted on issuing tickets and someone else insisted on checking them. Inside the Palace of the Condes de Castro Guimarães there was a small museum containing family portraits and other paintings, as well as furniture, china, silver and gold objects and local prehistoric finds. At just half an hour to walk round it was the perfect size for a museum and without crowds of other visitors to slow us down we wandered from room to room practically by ourselves.
The sun couldn’t quite manage to make a full appearance but there were bits of blue sky here and there and the weather was pleasant and warm enough to sit outside in the garden terrace of a trendy little restaurant selling fair trade products and local handicrafts and we had a drink in a charming shady garden surrounded by herbaceous plants, herbs and fruit trees and with the relaxing sound of a water fountain close to our table.
From the castle we followed the cobbled Rua de Santa Maria, that didn’t look as though it had changed a great deal since the Middle Ages, down into the heart of the old town, where there are superbly restored historic buildings including a former sixteenth century Baroque convent of Santa Maria, now serving as the City council offices.
At the end of the street were two delightful squares with outdoor cafés and balconied houses, Praça de Santiago and Largo da Oliveira. At Largo da Oliveira is the old Town Hall and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira, with a Gothic shrine erected in 1340 standing in front of it. There are many legends about its origins, but a popular story says it marks the spot where Wamba, elected king of the Visigoths, refused his title and drove a pole into the ground swearing that he would not reign until it blossomed, and it then sprouted immediately. We walked right the way through the streets of the old town and then reluctantly left Guimarães and returned to the car.
I love my blogging pals in the USA but every 4th July there is a emotional patriotic outpouring about American Independence that is like a lava flow of double sticky Maple Syrup. What is there to be that proud about? Three hundred years or so later the USA has Donald Trump as President!
In England we have to National Day, no Independence Day, in fact we tend to celebrate a day when we were invaded and lost our Independence.
1066 is probably the most memorable date in English history.
On October 14th (now officially Hastings Day) that year Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and most of his army with him were cut down at the Battle of Hastings, and William, Duke of Normandy earned his nickname “William the Conqueror”. William, who was using Hastings as his base, then claimed the crown and changed the way England was governed forever.
Unlike the Scots who sing national anthems (unofficial) about fighting the English and the Welsh can’t get over the military campaigns and begrudge the castles of Edward I (even though they generate lots of tourist revenue) it is a curious fact that the English actually celebrate and embrace the 1066 Battle of Hastings. I suppose this says a lot about the nature of the English because instead of sulking behind a defensive nationalist barrier and bristling with rage and resentment we have actually hijacked the event and reorganised our subsequent history around it.
After the successful invasion William the Normans set about imposing their military domination and completely reforming the previous Anglo Saxon administrative and political regime and they were so successful that modern English history really starts from that date. The subjugation and the transformation was so completely successful because the English (except Hereward the Wake of course) recognised the benefits of this, allowed it to happen and simply got on with their lives. They didn’t sit in caves watching spiders or retreat to Anglesey to brood and get angry about it.
Today the French irreverently refer to the English as Anglo-Saxons (in the same way that we refer to them as Frogs) but their description is entirely incorrect because for a thousand years we have been Norman-English whereas the French do eat frogs!
In 1966, I was twelve years old and England went into a frenzy as the 900th anniversary was celebrated and it was such a success that Hastings Borough Council decided to mark the date every year as Hastings Day.
On the build up to the event there were commemorative stamps and gold coins, tea towels, pencil sets and mugs and everyone got in on the act: “Battle of Hastings 1066—Bottle of Guinness 1966” frothed a thousand billboards. ‘Whoosh! It’s another big breakaway conquest,’ proclaimed the makers of Bri-Nylon clothing in advertisements showing mounted Bri-Nyloned models setting out against the Saxons and another alternative version of the battle showed the Norman warriors armed with Desoutter Power Tools. Heinz offered a chance to enter an archery contest in which the first 1,066 winners would be rewarded with Kenwood Chef food mixers. Every English town that could claim the remotest connection with either Harold or William beckoned tourists with such attractions as Conquest puppet shows, town-crier contests and battle re-enactments by grown men who still liked dressing up and playing soldiers.
Naturally, in the forefront of all this was Hastings, which, as its local newspaper proudly pointed out, ‘is better known internationally than almost any other town.’ To give the anniversary its deserved importance and promote tourism, the Hastings Town Council spent a small fortune building a triple-domed exhibition hall called the Triodome. The principal exhibit was intended to be the great Bayeux Tapestry but the tapestry is the property of the town of Bayeux in Normandy, which, fearing damage to the precious artefact, refused to lend it for the occasion, and so, rather than sulk, like the Greeks and the Elgin Marbles, Hastings produced its own.
The Hastings Embroidery was made by the Royal School of Needlework in 1965. It took twenty-two embroiderers ten months to finish and it was intended to be a modern day equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry. It consists of twenty-seven panels, each nine by three foot, and shows eighty-one great events in British history during the nine-hundred years from 1066 to 1966.
The Embroidery is worked in appliqué by hand, with the addition of couched threads and cords in the same way as the Bayeux Tapestry. It incorporates tweed from Scotland, fabrics from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and feathers from London Zoo. When completed it went on public display in Hastings, firstly in the Town Hall and then at the White Rock Pavilion. The Embroidery is currently in storage, and, despite local campaigns to have it brought out of the bottom drawer, apart from two panels on permanent display in the Town Hall, it is not on public display. The reason given is that to preserve the cloth and appliqué that special storage displays would have to made and the cost would be prohibitive. I can’t help thinking there may be another reason – perhaps it isn’t that good?
I began this article by trying to rise above patriotic smugness but I cannot finish without reminding the French that, in a delicious twist of fate, less than three months before the 900 year celebrations of a French victory over the Anglo Saxons, England beat France in the World Cup group stages by two goals to nil. France finished bottom in the group, England finished top and went on to win the Jules Rimet trophy!
“ … (Hull is) a city that is in the world, yet sufficiently on the edge of it to have a different resonance” – Philip Larkin