Was the Knock vision a natural event and not a hoax or a miracle?  Was it down to an illusion?

On the night of the 21st of August 1879 the Virgin Mary flanked by St Joseph and a bishop thought to be St John the Evangelist and an altar with a lamb and cross on it allegedly appeared on the gable wall of the Parish Church of Knock for a few hours. Fifteen people witnessed the vision including a child of five (page 60, The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary).

There are cases where the witnesses were more numerous than at Knock and the Church and everybody else decided must be illusions. In 1896, witnesses at Tilly-sur-Seulles in France claimed the Virgin appeared to all the pupils and staff and other people close by a school run by the Sacred Heart sisters.  They thought a woman in white who was life-size with her feet on a pink cloud floated around the school slowly.  It does not help that the images of an apparition there are clearly faked.


But faked or not they support the view that what was seen was something vague like an illusion that people put an interpretation on.  Nobody said that these images were nothing like what they had seen.

The preferred explanation among scientific investigators is that some kind of illusion took place at Knock.  Human nature finds images and shapes where there are none.  It is how the brain works - it looks for patterns and puts an interpretation on them.  So a Protestant at Knock during the apparition would struggle to see anything if there was a light covering the gable but Catholic believers in visions would find shapes and understand them as Joseph and Mary and John.  The evidence for illusion is how not all reported seeing the same things and how Mary Beirne seemed to be making people think they saw what she saw.  Some spoke as if they saw no altar and the altar not being seen is a major problem for it would have been very prominent.  It is obvious that those who see Mary in their toast or in the sun prove to us that some similar illusion possibly happened at Knock.  The lack of interest the witnesses at Knock had in their vision would point to something natural.  The Catholic argument is that a true miracle shows itself from God by its good fruits.  A false prophet is recognised according to Jesus by being dishonest.  So the fruits should be chiefly reflected in the witnesses especially devout ones such as the Knock ones but all we find is that they were ordinary Catholics.  There is no remarkable fruit that stands out.  The witnesses at Knock made statements during a commission to investigate the apparition to the priests but they did let the priests and publishers misrepresent these testimonies.  The depositions were fraudulent.



"The ability to see pictures in random forms—as in clouds, tea leaves, and inkblots—is known as pareidolia; the images themselves are called simulacra."

Joe Nickell, who wrote the above line, feels that this was the process that led to the Knock illusion.

He thinks there was movement by the apparition but that is uncertain and a brief perception of movement may be mistaken.  The general evidence is for a static vision.

Nickell mentions the magic lantern theory of the visions.  It could be that there was a lantern involved which gave a vague rubbish image and imagination did the rest.  Pareidolia supports the magic lantern theory.  Objections to the theory in the past hovered around the thought that any projection would be too unimpressive.

Nickell sadly did not mention how doctored the witness depositions were and how much manipulation went on.  It does not matter what theory one comes up with for any one of them could be right considering how unhelpful the evidence is.  But a real miracle however would be well enough planned by God so that it would not end up being a circus side-show.  Nickell unfortunately quotes the fake Brigid Trench deposition as valid. Nickell's work is excellent but it is a mistake to accept the witness accounts as valid for these accounts debunk the explanation Nickell proposes.

He says the light on the gable was not uniform which is how the pareidolia was easily triggered.  None of the evidence says if it was or was not.  It is safe to assume that it was not uniform.  A dark mearing between Mary and Joseph was mentioned by a witness.

Joe Nickell got in touch with James McGaha, director of the Grasslands Observatory in Arizona. McGaga did a computer recreation to determine what the conditions were during the time of the vision.  He found that "the evening sun, coming from due west (270˚) was above the horizon for the duration of the miracle".  He determined that there was only a rainy mist not the torrential rain of Knock tradition.  The sun was able to cast light on the window of the school house and it was the right angle to reflect on the gable.  The conditions performed a smoke and mirrors trick similar to what can be done on stage by performers. The effect was enhanced by how the clouds could have been very dark.  Irish sky is well known for black clouds with the sun peering down.  Nickell believes the light would have appeared on the mist at the gable not just on the gable itself.  That could explain if some thought the vision was near the gable but not on it and more importantly it explains why the witnesses stood at the school house and were not close to the gable.  It is as if they had to get into the best position to see something strange.

The picture below shows the position was more than strange - it was outlandish.  You get some idea from how tiny people at the gable are.  The witnesses stood where the wall meets the schoolhouse on the right.


It is too much of a coincidence that the vision ended when the sun ended.

Nickell observes that the light was shone from a window in the school house.  There was indeed a window which had been checked at the time to see if a magic lantern could have been shone from it.  The other explanation is that the school gable wall was enough. Nickell sadly did not note that the school would have been gleaming with whitewash which means the wall was enough.  The school looks whitewashed in the picture.  What if the window at the school gable was reflected on the wall as a rectangle thus explaining the "altar"?

The sun being responsible for the glow on the gable wall is not mere speculation.  There is witness evidence that a reflection fits what they reported. 

Patrick Beirne made the following declaration before a priestly board of investigators of the apparition in 1932.
"I saw three figures on the gable surrounded by wonderful light. They appeared to be something like shadows or reflections cast on a wall on a moon-lit night."

In 1935, Liam Na Cadhain interviewed Mary Beirne then Mary O Connell and she declared, "The light about the figures was not like any light I ever saw but more like the soft silvery light of the moon" (page 50, The Apparition at Knock).

The Archdeacon said according to his housekeeper that the so-called vision was a reflection --- do we have a witness then who could see the gable from his own windows of his house where he was praying that night who knew the real truth?  We do not know for he never admitted looking out but if the vision was as amazing as he later tried to make out he was bound to have seen the supernatural light shining in his back windows.


A traveller boy and others allegedly seen Mary in the sun at Knock in 2017.  They photographed the apparition and presented it as a vision but clearly there is nothing out of the ordinary in the photo.



On February 10 1880, John McCloskey of Claremorris reported an apparition. He stated,

"I, John P. McCloskey, a native of Claremorris, remember the night of the 9th February, and the morning of the 10th. Simon Conway, MacGeoghegan and I left Claremorris at 10 o'clock p.m. We arrived at Knock sometime after midnight; our desire was to behold the apparition. After we had arrived, we continued to pray for some time. At about three and a half o'clock on the morning of the 10th February, while I was praying before the gable of the Knock chapel, I saw a light, like a white silvery cloud, move in a slanting direction over from where the cross stands, on the apex, and overspread the gable. In this bright cloud I saw distinctly the figure and form of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so clearly and fully that I perceived the fleshy colour of the feet. Her dress resembled that made of white satin, and it contained numerous folds. The light had hardly settled on the gable when it began to grow less bright, and to seem to fade or darken in colour, leaving a wreath of its own brightness still around the head of the Blessed Virgin, while the rest of the gable became the colour of white paper stained with pencil strokes. Every now and then a red tongue of flame used to shoot down from the heavens and cross the gable. During the momentary brightness resulting from these flashes, the figure of the Blessed Virgin was each time fully seen. In the absence of such flashes she was seen too, but not so distinctly, only in subdued tones of colour. What attracted my attention to the gable at first was small stars of an emerald clear greenish colour, that appeared to go in and out through the gable, and at different parts of it. A star continued at intervals to twinkle right over the region of the Blessed Virgin's heart, and a little group of four or five stars were seen on the left side of the head. At no time did I see the countenance of Our Blessed Lady so clearly and distinctly as to be able to describe accurately the feature or the expression of the face. It was usually shrouded in light, and only at certain moments did I get a glimpse of full features."

The Church does not believe in this vision. It is dismissed as false. But it is more credible than the original vision. At least when only he saw the apparition, we can look for an explanation other than a magic lantern! The story shows that even if the original visionaries had just seen a light, desire and suggestion and imagination and self-deception would have made them see figures in it that were not there. We do know that Mary Beirne could have shaped the perception of the others.

Martin Hession of Tuam, who witnessed the strange sights on February 10th also saw something on February 12th.

"I visited Knock again on the following Thursday, 12th February. It was dark when I reached there, and at about a quarter past 8 o'clock, went out from the chapel and looked at the gable. I was there but about ten minutes when I saw three figures of the shape of, but much larger than, those which I had seen on Monday night. The central figure was considered to be that of the Blessed Virgin. It was very brilliant. The other figures were not quite visible. After about five minutes they all disappeared. I went to the Archdeacon, met him on the road, and spoke to him about what I had just seen, and what I had seen on Monday night. Whilst speaking to him there appeared a beautiful star which illuminated the whole place. The Archdeacon saw it, and he took off his hat, and asked me and a few others if we saw the light." Rev. M. Walsh, The Apparition at Knock, (Leinster Leader, Naas, 1955).

Rev Walsh had this to say about the claims.   He understood then to be some kind of hallucination.  You will see that he told a few lies about how feeble the visions were.  In fact they are better than most of the original apparition accounts.

"Many people believed these appearances to be supernatural and to be a confirmation of the original one the previous year. What are we to think of them? In the first place it must be observed that the subject of the 1879 apparition was in the minds of the people of Knock and pilgrims coming there. Secondly, witnesses stated they came to the church in the hope or expectation of seeing an apparition. Such a mental state can be an immediate cause of hallucination. ... As to the appearances themselves, at best they seem a feeble imitation of the original. The fluctuating light, the lack of definite detail, the lack of inventiveness add to the weight of evidence painting to hallucination. Finally the appearance of a figure one and a half foot high is so contrary to the laws of reality as to be ridiculous, and seems to be a sure sign of hallucination."

He goes on, "Further appearances were reported in the month of March. They are described in the following extract from The Irish Times:  Inside the Church was densely crowded by a congregation surging to and fro. Every available particle of room was occupied. The sanctuary of the altar was in the possession of some ladies. Here was enacted one of the most solemn and extraordinary scenes perhaps ever witnessed. I beheld a people with minds wrought to the highest pitch of religious excitement.  As I watched the people praying at the gable wall where had appeared the visions that have earned for Knock a fame almost equal to that of Lourdes, I heard that a vision had been seen inside the chapel. My informant, an intelligent and respectably-dressed young man, said he had seen it himself. It appeared, he said, on a picture that overshadowed it.  Amid great excitement he was called forward to the altar by Mrs. O'Neill, whose daughter had been cured by a visit to Knock. This  lady, since the time of her daughter's recovery, has taken a great interest in the apparition. Attired in a plain dark costume, and wearing her bonnet, Mrs. O'Neill stood in front of the altar, the whole time exhorting the people to pray, and repeating prayers, which were said after her by those who said they saw visions.  When the young man came forward, she told him to kneel down, and
fixing his eyes on the window, repeat after her a prayer which she uttered aloud. He did so, and then turning to the people she asked them to kneel down and pray, and told them not to press too near the eastern wall. The people instantly began to repeat aloud the 'Ave Maria' standing, the crush being so great as to almost prevent movement of the arms. The scene at this moment was one of the most intense excitement and utmost solemnity that could be conceived. Nothing was heard but the voices of people raised in prayer, while on the faces of young and old, men, women, and children were depicted enthusiasm and religious fervour in their highest degree. Every now and then Mrs. O'Neill loudly exhorted the people to pray, and announced what those called to the altar saw.  Another young man then called out that he saw a vision. A passage was at once, but with much difficulty, owing to the crush, opened for him through the people. If the people had heard the previous announcement with emotion, they received this with cries of wonder and admiration. They pressed towards the altar, large crowds who stood at the three doors, having been unable to gain admission, crowding against the surging mass within.  In vain did Mrs. O'Neill tell them that they would pull down the altar unless they kept back, and three men who were acting under her directions tried to keep the people at sufficient distance. While the boy who stated he had seen a vision was kneeling, praying and watching, and the people were praying with fervent anxiety, a girl of about sixteen or eighteen years, who happened to be standing near where I was, cried in a state of wildest excitement, and her eyes intently directed on the window or wall above it, that she also saw a vision.  She was also called to the altar. Now many men and women in the congregation declared they also saw visions. All night these scenes continued, and sometimes the noise was so great that despite loud
cries for order, Mrs. O'Neill's voice was drowned. Day at length broke, and the light of dawn fell upon an assemblage of people whose
fervour seemed then as great as it had been when the clear cold moonlight shone through the windows of the Church."

According to Walsh: "It is clear that no priest was present on the occasion. The Parish Priest often left the Church open at night on the occasion of large pilgrimages. It does not require much deliberation to explain these occurrences. The passage might easily be taken as a text book example of autosuggestion and hallucination."  See Rev. M. Walsh, The Apparition at Knock, (Leinster Leader, Naas, 1955).

My comment is that Mrs O Neill knew a thing or two about inducing visions when she told the young man to fix his gaze on a holy picture.   Where did she get that from? Was that what the original visionaries did?

There is actually no real evidence that these experiences were hallucinations. The people wanted to see visions yes but that does not prove they hallucinated. And the apparitions though described as a feeble imitation of the original 1879 visions are far from feeble. It is argued that if people want to see a vision at a vision spot, they will tend to see what the original visionaries report. But this is not necessarily correct. The apparitions were different enough from the original to be regarded as more than just imitation and imagination.

We must remember that there other indications that these stories are true. Hearsay is not necessarily always wrong. After all, the witnesses depositions are hearsay too because they were worked over by the priests. And they had a long enough time to process their memories of the apparition meaning that the story improved over time. Memories deceive.

Brian Hall recounts how a vision witness at Medjugorje speaks of seeing Mary in a way that would remind you of Knock.  This time we have an idea of what their "amazing" vision looked like - a vague shape.  It does not take much of an illusion to have an apparition.


Imagination and an optical illusion can account for the evidence of something being seen on the wall at Knock chapel.  There is evidence that they can account for it so it is not an attempt by sceptics to dismiss the truth.