The Man With The Magic Lantern
The Pope is going to Knock …
where the Blessed Virgin appeared to a group of local people139 years ago on this date (August 21, 1879).
Sceptics have always suspected that some form of optical device was used to trick the villagers into believing that they had been visited by the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist. One such sceptic was the Rev Dr Francis Lennon, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Maynooth.
He investigated the possible use of a magic lantern, an early form of image projector powered by a gas lantern (limelight) or an electric arc light from the 1860s onwards. Lennon was working on behalf of a Commission of Enquiry appointed by the church to collect eyewitness statements and verify that an apparition had occurred.
The Pope’s endorsement of Knock as a recognised site of Marian apparition is a fairly clear-cut indication of the outcome of that inquiry but, from the very beginning, some people have suspected that (1) the apparition was in fact a photographic slide that was projected unto a wall of the church just as it was getting dark and (2) the event was engineered by the local parish priest.
There is plenty of literature about the so-called “Magic Lantern Theory,” the best texts being an article by Paul Carpenter in the New Hibernia Review (2011) and an academic treatment of the apparition by Eugene Hynes (2009). There is plenty of material online both from a devotional and a hoaxer perspective.
Carpenter is available online and is probably the best place to start. He gives a comprehensive account of arguments for and against the use of a projector. Hynes, according to Carpenter, is one of the few social historians to critically examine the “Magic Lantern Theory” in an effort to determine what the witnesses actually saw.
This blog deals with two key pieces pieces of evidence that were missed by both Carpenter and Hynes.
The first is an account by James Hack Tuke of a visit to Knock six months or so after the apparition. Tuke is in no doubt that a lantern projector was used.
The second is a story I was told by the grandson of Thomas Mason, the man who rented a projector to the parish priest of Knock at the time of the apparition. Mason couldn’t prove that his projector had been used to create an “apparition.”
Neither account definitively supports or contradicts the “Magic Lantern Theory” but they do add nuance to a story that is bound to surface in response to the current Papal visit to Knock.
Tuke Visits The Scene Of The Apparition
Tuke visited Knock in March 1880 in response to reports that ‘an apparition … is stated to have appeared last August, when the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph and a figure dressed as a Bishop (called now St. John) were seen with an altar etc. etc. depicted in the evening upon the east end of the church’ (my emphasis).
Tuke described the visit in great detail in a letter to his daughters at home in England. The Right Hon. Sir Edward Fry, Tuke’s biographer, introduced the letter as ‘a curious bit of narrative’ that would relieve an otherwise unending tale of distress and misery in Ireland.
Tuke had been involved in the distribution of famine relief in Donegal and Connaught during the Great Famine or An Gorta Mór of 1845-9. He was called on again when the agricultural crisis of 1879 tipped the region into famine, the Second Famine or An Gorta Beag as it was called. Tuke arrived in the west of Ireland in February 1880 and spent six weeks organising the delivery of emergency food aid to starving cottiers in Donegal and Connaught.
The apparition in Knock made the news in January 1880. The first account was published in the Tuam News, a newspaper founded by Canon Ulick Bourke of Claremorris. Bourke’s mother was a cousin of the Archbishop MacHale of Tuam but Bourke is remembered in his own right as an important Gaelic scholar, activist, and writer. The Knock “story” was written by John McPhilpin, Bourke’s nephew, and can only be read as the archdiocese’s version of what happened in Knock in August 1879.
Archbishop MacHale of Tuam, who set up the Commission of Enquiry, found that the words of the witnesses were “trustworthy and satisfactory.” The status of the apparition was settled and Knock was quickly framed as the site of a Marian apparition, one of 12 recognised by the Catholic church between 1531 and 1933.
Tales of miraculous cures abounded and hundreds of pilgrims descended on Knock. Tuke described the village ‘as a dirty, small cluster of houses, with a church on a hill.’ A thriving ‘fair’ was in progress in which books, images etc. were being sold to crowds of pilgrims who were doing the rounds.
Tuke thought that the business of the apparition was a strange affair and ‘impossible to account for, unless in the first some trick has been played …’ Tuke suggests that a lantern slide projector was used to ‘depict’ the Blessed Virgin as if she was appearing in a ‘vision.’
‘I confess’ he wrote’ that as I heard it described the day before by another priest, it gave me the feeling that it was like the effect of a dissolving view, especially as he said there were lights running up and down the wall (just like the last scene in a lantern slide).’ Tuke’s account has to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
Father Cavanagh was the only cleric in Knock on the evening of the 21 August 1879 but he did not witness the event. Mary McLoughlin, his housekeeper, did and testified as much when the Commission of Enquiry convened in October 1879.
She described how she was passing the church and noticed what she thought was a group of statues bathed in a strange light. She continued on her way but returned with a friend and realised that there was something extraordinary about the figures. She sent for other neighbours to witness the scene.
She then went to Father Cavanagh to tell him of ‘the beautiful things that were to be seen at the gable of the chapel’ but ‘He appeared to make nothing of what [she] said, and, consequently, he did not go.’ It was a decision he would struggle with as word of the apparition spread but the main point here is that the event–the apparition–was not witnessed by any priest.
Tuke’s suggestion that another, unidentified priest had witnessed the event is, at best, misleading. It is possible that Tuke was talking to a priest involved in testing the theory that a magic lantern or some sort of optical device had been used to create the apparition. The Commission of Enquiry asked Francis Lennon, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy in Maynooth, to investigate the possibility that a magic lantern was used, presumably by Cavanagh although that is not stated anywhere.
Lennon was a sceptic. He did not believe that supernatural agency was at work in Knock. He conducted experiments with a projector at the site of the apparition and concluded that a lantern could not have been used. The layout of the site, Lennon argued, made a projection unrealistic and he proposed the skillful application of a fluorescent substance to the gable wall as an alternative device.
Despite this, the “Magic Lantern Theory” was quickly adopted by sceptics like Tuke and Michael McCarthy, an anti-clerical nationalist and author. McCarthy and Tuke were alarmed at the take over of of social institutions by a politically aggressive and increasingly powerful Roman Catholic Church.
They were vocal in their opposition to it and it fuelled their subsequent opposition to Home Rule. McCarthy published Priests and People in Ireland in 1902. It was a stinging critique of the relation between priests and people in Ireland in which McCarthy claimed (1) that witness testimonies had been filtered by the clergy and (2) that the witnesses had seen a composite image disseminated by a projection device hidden in the sacristy.
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence in the witness statements to support the use of a lantern projector. The vision lasted for over an hour, during which time it remained static and, unlike other Marian apparitions, the Blessed Virgin did not speak to the witnesses. The figures reminded some witnesses of statues. The light surrounding them sparkled in the rain. It sounds very like a description of an outdoor projection of religious imagery.
Tuke’s statement is, at best, hearsay but there is a bigger problem with it. Tuke was meticulous in terms of the accuracy of his reports of conditions in the west of Ireland. His sources were identified so that their information could be checked. Tuke did not identify the priest he spoke with in Knock and that omission makes his statement far less credible.
The Man Who Provided The Priest With A Magic Lantern
The apparition in Knock coincided with the a massive increase in the availability of photographic slides and improved projectors. There was a corresponding increase in the use of this technology to inform and influence the general public. There was an equally dramatic increase in public demand for photographic slide shows.
The parish priest in Knock might be described as an early adopter of those technologies and the apparition in Knock may have been the accidental result of an experimental slideshow. The really interesting thing about this is that Thomas Mason, the man who provided the priest with a projector, has left an account of that transaction and its consequences. This may be the key to understanding the ‘beautiful likenesses’ described by Mrs. Hugh Flatley one of the eyewitnesses.
Photographic slides transformed the use of lantern projectors in public as a medium for entertainment, education, and political campaigning. The Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia invented a system for printing positive photographic images on glass in 1848 and, by the 1850s, they were manufacturing and selling “Hyalotypes,” their brand of photographic glass slides.
In the 1870s and 1880s the lantern trade expanded enormously. By the 1890s over 30 companies were engaged in the production of lanterns and slides in London alone (Magic Lantern). 60 commercial photographic studios opened in Dublin between 1860 and 1870.
The Mason firm traded in scientific and optical equipment, including lantern slide projectors. The firm was established in 1780 and predated the invention of photography but, according to Edward Chandler, the Mason name has long been associated with the development of photography in Ireland.
It was, according to Chandler, one of the few firms in Dublin that provided a slide making service and ‘a religious or university lecturer could take a miscellaneous collection of photographs, prints, maps and other documents and have them made into a set of slides for projection.’
Thomas Mason, who took over the firm in 1887, told his grandson that he had rented a lantern projector to the Parish Priest of Knock around the time of the apparition but, as he had not been in Knock at the time, he would not speculate as to whether the projector was the source of the apparition.
Given the remote location and the relative newness of the technology involved, it was, according to Mason, impossible to prove. Mason may have been referring to Prof Lennon’s experiments with a lantern projector and his conclusion that a projector could not have been used to create the effect described by the witnesses.
Despite that finding, Tuke’s curious little narrative shows that the idea that a lantern projector was the source of the apparition had become well established within a couple of months of the story breaking in January 1880. It has remained a stubborn if unresolved part of the story of Knock.
David Berman, writing in the aggressively anti-clerical Freethinker magazine, raised the issue in advance of Pope John Paul’s visit to Knock in 1979. Berman alleged that the apparition had been engineered by Fr. Cavanagh to deflect from his disagreement with local Fenians over their role in the campaign against landlords and their agents.
In 1994, Melvin Harris claimed to have revealed the secret behind the apparition of the Virgin Mary on a church wall in … Ireland’. Harris was working on TV series in which Arthur C Clarke investigated modern-day apparitions of the Virgin Mary in three distinct locations, one of which was the site of moving statues in Ballinspittle in 1985. Harris recreated Lennon’s experiments with a lantern projector on a set that replicated the site of the apparition in Knock. Despite some complications Harris managed to recreate the “apparition.”
That settles that then! Or does it?
Lennon, Tuke, McCarthy and all the other sceptics were, it seems, right all along: the claim that apparition was a fraud perpetrated by the parish priest is supported by the evidence available. So why is Pope Francis visiting Knock and endorsing it as a site of Marian apparition and pilgrimage?
The first reports of the apparition in Knock sparked a popular religious movement that the church sought to exploit in its bid for power in Ireland. Archbishop McHale and Canon Bourke sought to align the pilgrimage with clerical support for a popular uprising against the landlord class and consolidate its leadership – social and political– of rural Ireland at a local level.
Tuke and McCarthy recognised this and dismissed the apparition as a fraud out of opposition to the increasing power of the Roman Catholic Church in areas like health, education, and public administration in general. The religious/political ambition of the church was manifest in attempts to develop a national Marian shrine on the site of the apparition, replicating the shrine in Lourdes.
John White argues that this caused a public split between John McEvilly, the Archbishop of Tuam from 1881 to 1902, and the devotional writer Sister Mary Francis Clare Cusack or the Nun of Kenmare as she was known. The resulting scandal set the project back by half a century. The pilgrimage was revived in the 1930s and Knock developed into a major site of pilgrimage for true believers; the ordinary folk who put faith before scepticism no matter how much evidence is produced to support the “Magic Lantern Theory.”
And this is the thing: Knock is not about blind faith so much as a popular religious movement. Pope Francis, like Canon Bourke and McHale, before him, is using Knock to visibly align the institutional church with grassroots Catholicism.
The identification of St Joseph as one of the figures in the apparition is interesting in this context. St Joseph was proclaimed a patron of the Universal Church in 1870 and has served as a model of the ordinary, pious believer; a suitable role model for the pilgrims who have done the rounds in Knock for 139 years.
It looks like the Pope is playing with smoke and mirrors – just as Prof Lennon of Maynooth suspected the creator of the original apparition of doing.
Works Cited :
David Berman, 1979, Papal Visit Resurrects Ireland’s Knock Legend, The Freethinker, 99, (October, 1979).
Paul Carpenter, 2011, Mimesis, Memory, and the Magic Lantern: What Did the Knock Witnesses See? New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, 15(2), 102-120. JSTOR
Edward Chandler, 2001, Photography in Ireland: The Nineteenth Century. Dublin: Edmund Burke.
Fintan Cullen, 2002, Marketing National Sentiment: Lantern Slides of Evictions in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland. History Workshop Journal, no. 54 (2002): 162-79. JSTOR
Eugene Hynes, 2009, The Virgin in Nineteenth century Ireland. Cork University Press.
Edward Fry, 1899, James Hack Tuke: A Memoir compiled by The Right Hon. Sir Edward Fry. London and New York: MacMillan.
Michael McCarthy, 1902, Priests and People in Ireland. London & Dublin: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent / Hodges & Figgis. (archive.org)
John McPhilpin, 1880, Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Chapel of Knock, near Claremorris, Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, January 14.
John White, 1996, The Cusack Papers; new evidence on the Knock apparition, History Ireland, Issue 4 (Winter 1996), Volume 4. (online)