There is an old African Proverb – “It takes a village to raise a child”. The Story of Knock is about this village, it’s a story of families, cousins, neighbours and friends, who came together on a wet August evening to witness something extraordinary. These ordinary people, so much like ourselves, represent all of us and our experiences as we move through life…
Bridget Trench, a lady in the autumn of her years, focused her attention on the Blessed Virgin in the Irish tradition of devotion to Our Lady. She was the only witness to give her testimony in Irish – an elderly woman making sense of a world that was changing around her.
Margaret Byrne came that evening with her three adult children and her little granddaughter. Already a widow at that time, by the following summer, her daughter Margaret had died from TB at the age of only 22 years. Within a few short years, her son Dominick had also succumbed to this disease at the age of 24 and her little granddaughter Catherine Murray who was 8 at the time of the Apparition passed away at 14. Her cause of death was tonsillitis. Her eldest daughter Mary lived in to ripe old age and gave her testimony eloquently and clearly to the Second Commission of Enquiry in 1936.
Two young boys capture the imagination when we think about the evening of August the 21st 1879. Pat Hill and John Curry, two cousins who came, in the excitement of the moment, along with their relatives to see the amazing sight that was happening at the Church gable.
Those who gathered at the church were standing or leaning against the wall that ran parallel to the gable. There they prayed and pondered the vision before them. Little John Curry was only 5 years old and he could not get see what the others were looking at. His older cousin lifted him up in his arms to get a better view. With all the curiosity that comes with youth, these two boys crossed the wall to move closer to the Apparition. The older boy gave a detailed account of what they witnessed but the little man of five was unable to put into words the sight that he beheld.
When we think of a five-year-old today, we think of them as mere babies who have not yet left the security of the small world of home to move out to school and all of life’s experiences. It is to the credit of the First Commission of Enquiry that they gave this little boy the honour and respect of asking him what he had witnessed that night. Master John Curry could only say that he had seen “beautiful things”.
As time passed these two boys left the familiar world of this small village and their families. Both men emigrated, first to England and then on to the United States.
Shortly after John arrived in the States in 1897, he wrote a letter home to his cousin Katie Hill in Claremorris. It gives us a glimpse in to the life of the young man far from home, filling his own folk in on the details of his work and looking for news of home. You can sense his isolation when he says that “it’s awful hard to get work in this country for a boy especially and one that has got no sister or a Brother in this country”. He tells his cousin about the work that he is doing: “The work that I am at is driving 2 horses and a dray to a furniss (sic) with coke. I have to work from 6 till 6 and I have to work 3 Sundays in every month. I get one Sunday off in every month in my turn.”
He closes his letter as follows:
” Hoping all are well. Would you send me the Mayo News any time you get it? Write soon and let me know all about home. Good Bye Katie, hoping to see you again Please God.”
As the years passed by John worked in various locations and in various jobs. By the 1930’s he was in New York working as a hospital attendant in the City Hospital on Welfare Island. The City Hospital was a charitable hospital that had been founded to look after the health care of the city’s poor. By the 1930’s, it had over one thousand beds.
By the time John came into the care of the Little Sisters of the poor in 1932, he had found himself staying in a municipal boarding house on East 25th Street, Manhattan. This was a shelter for those who found themselves temporarily homeless in the city. It was a six storey building that provided food and shelter for over 900 men, women and children. By 1932, John was living in the Sacred Heart home, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
As word reached him about the second commission of enquiry in 1936 through articles he was reading in the American papers, John made contact with the priest in his old home parish of Knock. In his letter, we once again get that sense of missing home. He says “that anyone that’s in Ireland is better off than in the U.S. America, that goes for boys and girls. I wish I never left Ireland”. In concluding, he asks to be remembered to his cousins in Knock.
On July 6th 1937, John made his way from the home for the aged to the offices of the Archdiocese of New York on Madison Ave. Here, this elderly gentleman gave his testimony regarding what he had witnessed in Knock almost 60 years previously. He was asked whether he remembered the 21st of August., to which he replied
“I remember the 21st of August 1879 as well as I do last night.”
The beautiful things that this small boy had seen in company of his family and neighbours here in this village at the gable of our parish church must indeed have been wondrous when he could recall them in such detail so many years later.
When John died in 1943, he was buried in a plot owned by the Little Sisters of the Poor. On May 13 2017, a requiem Mass was said for John Curry in the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, New York. The Mass was attended by over 150 people from Ireland, many from his home parish of Knock. Afterwards, the remains of the youngest witness to the Knock Apparition were reinterred in the adjacent cemetery.
The Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Knock begins with the words “you gave hope to your people in a time of distress, and comforted them in sorrow”. This is certainly true for John Curry and those who called him their own.
Nóirín Byrne, Knock Museum, April 2018
Find out more about John Curry, the youngest witness to the Knock Apparition here.