Today I went to one of Ireland’s holy places of pilgrimage -- the holy shrine of Knock, where it is said that in 1879 our Holy Mother Mary appeared to 15 people on the gable of the local stone-built church in the middle of County Mayo.
As a child of six years, my mother and father decided it was time I also came along. This came as a surprise to me as I was told the year before, "You are too young." But this year, 1954, I could join the rest of the Kelly family and undertake the great adventure to Knock Shrine in Mayo on the 3rd Sunday of August.
The night before, preparation would begin. At 7:00 p.m., as on all other nights in our house, Daddy got to his knees and started the family rosary. No one left the house until after the rosary, but on this Saturday none left at all as we had an early start on Sunday morning. So it was bath time and, yes, we had an indoor bathroom. So everyone took their turn. The youngest first, so that was me. Washed, dried, clean underwear and Mam shouting, "Make sure you clean behind those ears and dry your hair." Once all this was done it was off to bed. It was like waiting for Santa at Christmas with all the excitement and no sleep, for tomorrow I would be going on the great big steam train to Knock. But, as in all these things, I did drift off to sleep.
"Knock-knock, Philip, Jimmy, Oliver ... get up!"
It’s time to go for the train. I sit up in my bed, wipe my eyes and look around, the other two still lying still and half asleep.
"Knock-knock" again. "Will you get up ... we are going to be late." Suddenly they stir.
"What time is it?", Oliver asks.
"It's 3.30," says Daddy. "Get ready."
I look at my clean clothes all laid out by Mammy the night before. My school uniform which I will proudly wear on this great journey – my blazer with the CBS St. Patrick’s Primary School crest, white shirt, school tie and my short trousers. All three of us wore the same outfit, except me. The older brothers had long trousers, and Rita had her Dominican Fortwilliam Grammar School uniform. As usual, both Mam and Dad were turned out in all their finery. We had a cup of tea and the taxi was at the door. It was time to go to the great Northern Railway Station in Great Victoria Street to meet up with all the other pilgrims about to make this great journey to Knock.
When we arrive, there its a hive of activity with hundreds of people queuing up to board their trains which will carry us away. As I walk down past the train, I see all the sick pilgrims coming out of the Knights of Malta ambulances, some on stretchers and wheelchairs. They were aided by nurses and doctors who I later found out were all from the Mater Hospital on the Crumlin Road. They were supported by members of the Knights in their well presented grey uniforms who would accompany them on the journey. But as a six-year-old, my mind was on other things ... like this big steam engine that will pull us all the way to Mayo.
“All aboard, all aboard!”, the Station Master shouts. So, on I get with my Dad holding my hand. We move down the carriage looking for our seats and I notice that all the tables are set with cups and saucers and cutlery. We find our names and our seats and we all move in and settle down for the journey.
Soon the train hooter sounds and we are on our way, puffing out of the station. I have a window seat so I can get a look at the various small stations we pass, from Dunmurray to Lurgan, all the way to Portadown where the train is stopped for customs inspection. You can feel the tension and hostility from the Customs men, but we stayed quiet and let them get on with their job. After we restart, we feel a sense of relief and breakfast is served – a full fry and bread and butter with tea, and we all tuck in – but not before grace and a decade of the rosary. As my Dad said, “You’re on pilgrimage."
Soon, we are across the border and heading for the big viaduct across the Boyne River in Drogheda. What a sight for a child! On to Connolly Station in Dublin where we stop to change engines and drivers. We are in the hands of C.I.E. and a sense of preace comes over the train as people relax and laugh. We are in the Free State. We are not allowed off the train at this time as there is a lot of shunting, but soon as we get to Heuston Station we jump off to stretch our legs. The smokers get off too to get a fix, as my Dad did. There he bought the Irish papers to read up on the sports and the news which he shared with Oliver and Jimmy, and the journey continued. More prayers, more tea and biscuits and more prayers, but soon we arrive in Claremorris Station in County Mayo. The train journey is over.
We all exit the small station and make our way up through the town to the square where we meet the buses that will take us to Knock. They were single-deck Leyland buses with the drivers cab separate from the body of passengers, like the old London buses. My lasting memory of this part of the journey was seeing all the whitewashed cottages as we made our way along this country road. The beauty of that scene has always remained with me.
Soon, we arrive at the church. The bus is marked “St. Patrick’s Belfast, No. 2,” and we make our way to the church. There are hundreds of people walking around the church saying the rosary and other prayers. We soon join in, walking. My father holding my hand in case I wander off and get lost in the huge crowd of people. After we go around the church three times, we go off to buy some holy pictures, statues and medals, as well as holy water, and rosary beads -- all to be blessed at the Mass for the sick later in the day. It was also a chance to get some refreshments of tea and lemonade and sandwiches before the parade.
After we have done all this, we line up behind our banner of the diocese of Down and Conor where we meet other pilgrims from the other dioceses around the country.
The parade starts around the church, and we do the stations of the cross before heading back to our area where we await the Mass of the Sick. The sick arrive with their helpers and are placed at the front of the church wall where they are anointed with holy oils. I hear some of them cry and other pray for the grace to carry their cross, which was explained to me by my mother. This was my first encounter with the real suffering of the sick.
Soon it was all over, and by 5:00 p.m. we were all back on the bus heading for the train and our long journey back to Belfast.