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). Witness statements were published in a highly altered and edited form that differed hugely from the real ones the witnesses made. That witnesses didn't do the slightest thing about the lies speaks strongly against them as honest people.

What do we know about what they saw?

The images did not move.  But the first witnesses who said they saw motion could have made a mistake or just seen a slight repositioning of the vision. None of them say the entities moved as in living creature.

The image was ghostly and vague.

The colours were wrong - eg Mary has a yellowish face.

There was a place where to place the magic lantern.

There is no evidence that the image was seen in daylight.

Nobody seen the images coming or going.

Nobody was asked if there was anything odd like a prop anywhere.

What we have seen shows it may have been some kind of projector.  Magic lanterns were popular at the time.

The magic lantern explanation became a major theory.

Objections to the theory in the past hovered around the thought that any projection would be too unimpressive.  But it could have been good and even if it were not then Joe Nickell helps us, "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." 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.  For all you know, it could have been meant to be an appearance of ghosts with a coffin mistaken for an altar.  It could have been a joke that went wrong.

It suited the Archdeacon too well and his behaviour on the night of the vision was odd. He made too much of alleged cures which shows he was willing to fool himself to fool others.

The Church cites smart people who said there was no evidence of hoaxing. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is typical of the Catholic Church to use people who have academic prestige but who are not qualified or experienced to refute people's doubts about the reality of miracles. It is really a magician who should be deployed. Even scientists can be fooled by good trickery. Magicians in the 19th century were known to be able to project ghostly images unto glass sheets. This stage trick fooled the audience into thinking they were seeing ghosts.

Magic lantern/phantasmagoria facts

Magic lanterns were early projectors.

Loutherbourg in the 1700's was able to make images of Satan and his demons in Hell for an audience (page 152).

There is an account of the appearance of the Red Woman of Berlin in 1825. Paul de Philipsthal, Philidor, set up this illusion using a magic lantern. A witness wrote that "the effect was electrical" and mentioned the hysterical screams of women in the audience. The males began to panic and made for the door. The light had to be turned on to pacify the audience. Page 150. This shows how good the images could be.

In 1832, David Brewster, wrote about the double mirror trick. This trick is called Dr Pepper's Ghost. Two panes of glass are used to make a spectre made by a magic lantern hover in mid-air on a stage (page 153).

Magic lanterns originally used candles.

Robertson, born 1863 in Belgium, began to use the Argand Oil Lamp which was bright enough to make pictures for a crowded hall (page 148). He was able to make images of ghosts that could roll their eyes and make images of fire flicker (page 148).

He projected the images onto thin gauze with a coat of wax. This made the images he made seem even more ghostly (page 148).

Robertson mostly focused on religious and superstitious entities such as witches, gods, goddesses, demons, Catholic saints and even the prophet Muhammad (page 149). The images were so good that they induced panic in the audience (page 149-150).

Spiritual mediums who claimed to be able to make the spirits of the dead materialise used very crude images of people to fool their clients. It is so strange that they could have been fooled and they let themselves be fooled because they wanted so much to believe that what they saw was their dead loved ones (page 246).

The magic lanterns created considerable opportunity for religious or occult fraud.

References from Marina Warner's book, Phantasmagoria, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006

It is possible that the images at Knock were caused by a trick using glass sheets. A variation of the arc lamp might have been used to create the light. Similar tricks were being performed in many big cities at the time, for example, Dublin, Edinburgh and London. The arc lamp light would seem to spark a bit. The witnesses at Knock did talk about sparkles.

The Archdeacon was 58 at the time of the alleged vision and was fit enough to personally set up the hoax.

The evidence against a magic lantern at Knock

Mary Beirne, later Mary McConnell, the witness was shown magic lantern images and said they were not as good as what she saw at the gable. Thus she satisfied many that the images did not come from a magic lantern projector. But she said that years after the event and Patrick Beirne is on record as saying the images were dull like moonlight. If you check youtube for magic lantern shows you will see that contrary to what pro-Knock books say and what the crafty witness Mary Beirne said, images as good, if not better, than the reported apparition can be produced.

When all we have against the magic lantern is that hearsay we can be sure that there had been something going on!!


A magic lantern on a rough gable wall would make transparent images.

Nobody was apparently asked if the images were transparent or not or if they were no record was kept. This may suggest that references to transparency might have been left out or avoided thanks to leading questions as the priests didn't want people to think a magic lantern was used to make the vision.

The light around the vision flickered!

The light flickered - it was no miracle!

From a booklet refuting the vision


An unknown witness to the apparition put his fingers on the image of the Virgin at the gable - two dark spots appeared as if his fingers were obstructing a light source...
Dominick Beirne Snr saw such an unclear vision that apart from Mary he didn't really know who the figures were supposed to be

The McConnell Letter

Before we read about this letter there is a curious fact to consider:

“Canon Bourke directed the curious not to the villagers who witnessed the 21 August visions but to subconstables Fraher and Collins of the RIC, who saw lights on the gable on 5 January 1880, and to the national school teacher Miss Anderson, who saw an eighteen-inch high Virgin that same evening.  Canon Bourke characterised one of the policemen as a ‘witness worth hearing’, thus reinforcing the power, prestige, and authority of these figures of cultural change.”

It seems we have an explanation for the interest in the policemen and why the latter were so involved.

In 1936, Michael McConnell, Knock villager residing in Belfast, went to talk to a priest, Father Clenaghan. The priest took what he had to say very seriously. The priest wrote down his direct speech as part of a letter that he sent to Archbishop Gilmartin, of the Archdiocese of Tuam of which Knock is a part. The letter recorded that McConnell was repeating what he learned from a man who had been a policeman in Knock at the time of the alleged apparition. The Constable stated that knew a Protestant policeman at Knock in 1879 who worked a magic lantern to make the apparition. McConnell claimed that he had been told that the policeman had been projecting images from the Barracks in Knock on to the wall of the Church and some people saw the images and took them for visions. The priest sent another letter in 1936 this time to Father Fergus the Archbishop's secretary. However, in 1947 McConnell put pen to paper and wrote his own letter to the Archbishop. This letter is still in the archives of the archdiocese. He claimed that his informant was McDermott. This time he did not mention that the policeman said the image was projected from the Barracks. McDermott apparently said that a Protestant policeman who was good at making projector images trained religious images on the gable for practice. Some people saw them and thought it was an apparition. He said that this picture making was done more than once. The policeman realised that what he had done was being taken very seriously and he could lose his job. So he urged his comrades to tell nobody and he asked for a quiet transfer from Knock to somewhere else.

The latest edition of the book, The Apparition at Knock by Father Walsh dismisses this claim for there is no corroboration and mainly because an image cannot be projected to the gable wall from the Barracks. The Catholics agree that this claim is mere hearsay. They say Mc Connell waited decades before revealing this. But that cannot be proven. He may have chatted about it for years before talking to a priest and writing the letter. He was serious enough to write a letter about it. He would only have done this if he had felt it was the truth and that hard evidence could have come up. Plus we know now that the policeman would have had a motive. The motive was to protect the priest and pacify a turbulent parish and thus make his own job easier. McConnell and McDermott's story would have been less accurate over time. But the main thing is the claim that a policeman had been making the vision.

The letter was not written to cause trouble. At that time it was doubtful that Knock was going to become a major shrine.

The claim was written a long time after the event. Mr McConnell may have confused the information he received. He may have been told that a policeman had been projecting images from the Barracks with a magic lantern and that he projected them unto the gable. He may have taken it to mean the images were projected from the Barracks. He misunderstood or misremembered. The error certainly does not make him a liar for he knew being a Knock resident that experiments had been done in attempts to see if the vision was the product of a magic lantern or not. He said he thought he was told the images were projected from the Barracks because he really did think that. How else could you explain him saying the image was projected on the church from the Barracks when he must have known it was impossible? Michael McConnell was known as a decent man. He was not a liar.

There is a report of lights being seen on January 5 and 6 1880 on the gable at 11.00 pm. Mrs Kileen from Knock, Miss Anderson and Miss Kennedy saw the lights. They saw lights on the gable of the Church that were not too bright and then dimmed and moved around. At one stage, Anderson thought she could make out the shape of the Virgin (page 100, The Apparition at Knock). Two policemen at midnight also saw the lights on the gable later on at midnight. This sounds like attempts were being made to reproduce the 1879 vision. The lights show that somebody had a magic lantern somewhere and that though the police ruled it out they were a very ingenious somebody. The police only checked the schoolhouse and the wall behind the church and that made them confident but the user might have put his instrument elsewhere.

Archdeacon Cavanagh at the time of the apparition was not very popular in his parish. If people were going to speculatively gossip that someone performed the apparition hoax then why didn't they blame the Archdeacon? Why pick a policeman of all people? Did somebody know it really was a policeman?

The Daily Telegraph claimed shortly after the apparition that a projector could not have been used for it would have got the attention of the "observant policemen" (page 65, The Apparition at Knock). It never occurred to them that if the apparition light had been as bright as some of the witnesses said the police would have been there quicker. The policemen were suspiciously and conspicuously absent from all that happened. They did not go to the gable. They did not do foot patrols to protect the Archdeacon from those unsavouries who wanted to cut off his ears that night. They did not notice the fire like light that Patrick Walsh spoke about. What is more - the barrack was only 400 yards away from the Church (page 66, The Apparition at Knock). What is worse - there was a clear view of the gable from the barrack! Either the police were involved in the hoax or a lot of lies were being told by the visionaries.

On the night of 5 January 1880 a number of people including two policemen says that lights that went dim and got bright again appeared on the gable. The policemen stated that they checked the area for lights and decided there was no trickery. This information was got from

"There's the light," and then both I and my comrade saw the end of the church covered with a rosy sort of brightness, through which what seemed to be stars appeared. I saw no figures, nor did my comrade ; but some women, who were praying there, declared that they beheld the Blessed Virgin, and one went nearly frantic in consequence. We stood and watched the light for some time before starting again on our rounds." "How do you explain the light ?" " I can't explain it." " Did you look around to see where it came from ?" "I did ; but everything was dark. There was no light anywhere, except on the gable." Thus the policeman, who offered to produce his comrade in corroboration.

The police endangered their professional credibility with this claim and they were not even Catholics. Not all the people standing together at the gable saw lights - only some did. That is indicating imagination. Could this have been an attempt by the policemen to mislead people to think that there had been no magic lantern used at the previous year's apparition? Were the police trying to hide the fact that they faked the 21 August apparition? It shows the policemen were open to encouraging belief in the miraculous. It backs up the possibility that one of them may have engineering the apparition of 1879. If you cause a fake vision, you may need people to imagine they see visions too so that people will think, "Sure how could a magic lantern have been used for the first apparition when we know apparitions are still happening when there is no lantern?" Or was the policeman who allegedly made the original apparition with a magic lantern up to his old tricks again?

Also people imagining visions in the light makes us wonder if some of the official witnesses might have experienced that too.

The Archdeacon

The Archdeacon could have seen the vision from the back windows of his cottage but when he was told about it he pretended to think it was nonsense. He was taken to be a gullible man and it would be too out of character for him to disbelieve the vision.

A hearsay report was made to researcher David Berman. A top member of the Irish judiciary said that he had a solicitor friend who maintained that during the week the apparition happened, Archdeacon Cavanagh hired a magic lantern from his grandfather (page 96, Why Statues Weep). I believe this for Berman never noticed how shifty the Archdeacon had behaved on the night of the apparition. And a liar would be more likely to say that the policeman had been involved not the Archdeacon so there is something to this story. The policeman report was known then and also to accuse the beloved Archdeacon was risky and people didn't want to believe he was that devious. How do we reconcile the Archdeacon being involved and the policeman? I think the policeman projected the image for the Archdeacon and then pretended to his comrades that it was only an experiment to hide the Archdeacon's role. The Archdeacon might have given him the projector.

The apparition appeared on the south gable of the Church. The sacristy in those days was in the south end of the Church. The Archdeacon could have had a hole made in wall. The magic lantern could have been operated inside the sacristy and mirrors used to project the image through the hole and down the wall. The hole could have been filled in the next day or that night even. The gable wall was soon damaged by people stealing the cement and pulling stones out. The evidence of the hole would soon have vanished. The perfect cover! No wonder the Archdeacon was incredibly liberal about letting people do that to the Church!

"The magic lantern theory was again revived in a British television program, "Is There Anybody There?" produced by Karl Sabbagh and telecast on October 31, 1987. In this production Nicholas Humphrey demonstrated how a passable magic lantern image could be projected from within the gable of a Cambridge church, using a right-angled shaving mirror. Humphrey suggested fraud by Archdeacon Cavanagh, parish priest of Knock one of the three commissioners. In support of the theory, a document from the State Papers in Dublin Castle was cited in which Cavanagh was reported by a spy as criticizing rebels and consequently endangering his prestige in the area by championing landlords and attacking local Fenians or Land League leaders. The idea that Cavanagh, widely respected in his parish, might resort to fraud was not well received."

Eoghan Harris on Knock vision

Eoghan Harris was a journalist who wrote in the Irish Newspaper, The Sunday Independent. He stated that his grandfather was a farmer from near Knock. He with many other Knock locals believed that at the time of the 1870 vision that the vision was a hoax engineered by two policemen in the area. They used a magic lantern. It had a small lightbox that could throw a glowing image on the gable wall. It was surmised by many as well that the magic lantern was brought from America by an Irish American. Magic lantern shows were popular in the British Isles at the time. For that reason, I think the Knock vision had to be set up to look different from them. That is why I think the lantern was used to make shapes made of light while images of the faces and the lamb and the altar were stuck to the wall and illuminated. This was necessary in case a visionary would see a magic lantern show and realise what had went on. The vision needed to have features that did not seem to tally with a magic lantern projection.

And the policemen could never tell what they did! That a gullible miracle eating community would accept a rational explanation speaks volumes.

The image could have been very crude and the shape of Joseph and Mary and the Bishop and the Altar and the Lamb could have been mere shapes. The crudeness would explain why the witnesses stood at a distance from it - the reports about a few going up close are dubious. It looked better from afar. Patrick Beirne stated in the 1930's that the images were like the reflection of the moon on a wall. Most of the witnesses were evasive in relation to detail. The human mind sees bodies and faces in clouds and on toast to give a couple of examples. They are not really there but its just the way the mind tries to make sense of mess. Crude images could then have been projected from the schoolhouse.