Directed by Aoife Kelleher
THE PLOT: In 1879, fifteen villagers from Knock, Co Mayo, claimed to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John near the village church. Now, over 135 years later, Knock is still a place Catholic pilgrims to visit, but in the wake of the scandals that have rocked the Church, and falling numbers of the faithful Knock is struggling to keep afloat. Filmmaker Aoife Kelleher takes a look at this small rural town and its most famous tourist attraction.

THE VERDICT: ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ takes its name from a UK headline at the time of the apparitions in 1879, but the film could easily refer to this being what feels like the last bastion of staunch Catholicism in Ireland. Interviews with Knock priest Father Richard Gibbons, business owners, pilgrims and Knock handmaids make up the heart of the film, but without a strong throughline, this film, which could have been an examination of rural Ireland trying to survive the devastating recent financial crash, but ends up feeling like an ad for Knock.
The interviewees are balanced in their views. The parish priest seems to be honest in the way he talks about his vocation; Knock was never a place he wanted to be stationed, but he understands not to push religion on people, but to be open to those who are open to it. Descendants of those who witnessed the apparitions – Brendan Byrne, Pio Flatley and Jarlath Walsh – are more varied in their religious views, with some of them being staunch in their faith, and others – like Pio Flatley – recognising that the Church needs to change with the times. Other people who speak in the film include business owner Declan Waters who spouts some old fashioned and rather interesting views on abortion and prayer, Knock Handmaid Mildred Beirne, who believes that Handmaids are as capable as priests, and Rev. Joseph Cooney who runs the rather quaint matchmaking service Knock Marriage Bureau. The people included in the film offer a range of opinions, but there is a quaint and outdated feel to this twee story.
It seems that director Aoife Kelleher is less clear in what she is trying to achieve with ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ than she was with her previous film ‘One Million Dubliners’. This is obvious throughout the documentary, which feels less an examination of rural Ireland than an advertisement for Knock and its religious shrine. There are some twee curiosities in the film, but this, in the wake of scandals throughout the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond, feels rather old fashioned and backward looking.
In all, ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ is well meaning, but without a strong examination of the apparitions themselves, or the nature of faith and belief on the island of Ireland as a whole, the film turns into an advertisement for Ireland’s national Marian Shrine. Try as the film might, it cannot shake this feeling off, and this is its downfall.

Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    In the latest of a series of documentary films from RTE that also appear on the big screen, Strange Occurrences In A Small Irish Village relates the people and spiritual circumstances surrounding the village of Knock in Co Mayo.

    On 21st August 1879, fifteen people in Knock claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary that lasted two hours. Their testimony was recorded, with their descandants being the the torch bearers of this miraculous event for future generations. Since then, Knock has become a pilgrimage for over 1 million people a year visiting the Marian Shrine. Father Richard Gibbons is the local parish priest and Rector of the Shrine. He is the voice of the village, relating how he hopes to draw the Irish diaspora in New York to Knock to pay their respects. Also in the village are various shopkeepers, nuns, tour guides, visitors and the Knock Marriage Bureau, who offer their own unique take on modern matchmaking…

    Aoife Kelleher’s follow-up to the wonderful One Million Dubliners is very much in the same vein as that film. Strange Occurrences In A Small Irish Village has that same focus on the mystery of the past and the voices of the dead speaking through their descendants. Except this time, the religious aspect is much stronger. It would be, given the place we find ourselves in. For Knock is unique unto itself, defying falling church attendances in the wake of ‘The Scandals’ to focus on its place in history. Perhaps learning that things can’t stay the same forever, Father Gibbons reflects that the town has to keep modernising, while holding dearly onto its deeply spiritual past.

    The charismatic and humourous Father Gibbons is the highlight of this film. This reviewer could listen to him speak for hours – so natural is his way of storytelling and his ability to encapsulate his parish in just a few sentences. Whether you believe in the actual circumstances of the Apparition is not too important to this film. After all, none of the witnesses thought to take a photograph – so there’s only witness testimony to go on. This film focuses more on the people that are there now and how this story has affected them and their families over the years.

    It’s a whimsical whistle-stop tour through the town and its many faces. Some come across as deeply committed and charming, while others provoke some controversial comments, like the shopkeeper who wears a necklace with tiny babies in the beads as a way of warding off the Repeal The 8th debate. Err… OK. Thankfully, there aren’t too many uncomfortable moments. The Knock Marriage Bureau sequence is hilarious – and so Irish too. Strange Occurrences In A Small Irish Village lacks the emotional heft of One Million Dubliners, but it’s consistently warm, funny and charming. Not essential viewing, but if you enjoyed One Million Dubliners then you’re sure to enjoy this one too. ***