Director: Aoife Kelleher Release Date: Aug 26th Run Time: 90 mins
Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village is the latest documentary from Aoife Kelleher, Director of the award winning One Million Dubliners.
The small village in question is Knock, Co Mayo. One dark evening in August of 1879 this rural Irish town was host to an apparition of none other than the Virgin Mary herself. It is said that she appeared outside the local parish church, along with Saint Joseph, Saint John, a host of angels, and the Lamb of God, for a period of up to two hours. Multiple passers-by would claim to have witnessed the vision. And so, after a series of inquiries into the occurrence, the site was declared a Marian Shrine by the Catholic Church.
Today, the town is host to over one million pilgrims each year, bringing business, religious validation, and a sense of purpose to the local community. The documentary provides a window into the mindset of those whose lives it impacts most.
In this regard, as a human interest story set against an other-worldly backdrop, the film is interesting enough to hold the attention of both the faithful and the non-faithful alike. As it continues however the film begins to feel a little aimless in parts. It touches on a lot of interesting stories, but never really digs deeply into any of them.
We spend perhaps the most amount of time with Fr Richard Gibbons, the enthusiastic local Parish Priest who hopes to bring Knock into the 21st century. The film follow his story as he rallies to fund the rebuilding of the basilica, and campaigns to attract visitors from the US with the support of The Archbishop of New York, and the Mayor of Boston.
On top of this we get a series of vignettes featuring pilgrims; religious figures; the rival owners of religious merchandise shops; local youths; invalids in search of a cure; a woman apparently relieved of multiple sclerosis in the 70’s; the shrine’s handmaids; a visit with the matchmaking staff of the hilariously anachronistic Knock Marriage Bureau; and a particularly cringe-worthy encounter with the overzealous owner of the local Religious Information Center.
Most of these segments are interesting in their own right. What’s a bit disappointing is that the film doesn’t really take a stance, or offer its own opinion on any of the point’s raised. While this may seem like a fair approach in attempting to remain impartial, the end result is that whole endeavour can’t help but feel fairly one-sided. Everyone featured in the interviews is a true believer or a person of faith. That’s not to say the film necessarily intends to validate their beliefs (or perhaps it does – it’s vague enough that you really can’t tell), but it would have been nice to have been offered some differing points of view. One skeptic would do; one scientist, or just about anyone with any form of dissenting opinion for that matter.
There is surely a lot to be said regarding the power of suggestion, mass hysteria, or the simple possibility that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. After all, by 1879 word of the much publicized events in Fatima in 1858 and the attention it brought, had spread across Europe. The prospect of a similar “miracle” must have seemed quite enticing to the residents and clergy of a rural Irish village, particularly at a time when poverty, evictions and famine were rife across the country. Unfortunately these are things the film only vaguely hints at, without ever giving the possibility a true voice.
There are a handful of moments, such as a brilliantly bizarre ‘blessing of the water tanks’, which do seem to be offered up with a bit of a wink and a nudge. In a cold, mechanical room, Father Gibbons climbs a metal gangway and proceeds to lift open the large rusted door of an industrial sized water tank. As he goes about his ritual, donning ceremonial robes and muttering prayers, the camera focuses in on the large empty body of water contained within; the rusted metal surface and rivets below. It sits there, ready to fill the used plastic bottles of the visiting faithful …and be replenished from the town’s water mains the next day.
Aoife Kelleher has described her film as “a documentary about religion rather than a religious documentary”. This is true in a sense. Facts, details, and beliefs are presented to us through its subjects. And thankfully it never feels like the film is imposing those beliefs on the viewer. The problem arises when you realize the film doesn’t feel the need to question those beliefs. It simply aims to present them to us. We are of course free to draw our own conclusions, but for a film whose very title evokes a sense of mystery, it seems like a missed opportunity. In relation to the apparition of 1879, Kelleher states “The story itself is so fantastic that you completely want to get to the bottom of it.” Absolutely. It’s something that would be fascinating to explore. But again it’s not something the film even attempts to tackle.
What the film does do quite effectively is paint a clear and interesting picture of how living in Knock affects the lives of its residents; how the history and mythology of the town is firmly ingrained in their belief system; and how much the shrine means to those who want so desperately to believe.
What you make of all that, is up to you.
‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ opens in Irish cinemas on Fri 26th August