Asked to take part in a conference on “the writer and religion,” I found the subject so wide and the implications of it so broad that the only way I could bring it into focus was to start by being both local and personal. I will begin here with a story which is both odd and true and which, for me, raises just a few of the questions that are at the heart of the subject.
The summer of 1985 was warm and fine in Ireland. The good weather meant that the evenings were often clear and sunny and, because Ireland is so far north, the light at midsummer lasts until an hour or so before mid-night. I remember that clearly, because my children were not yet teen-agers and they could ride their bicycles and stay out with their friends much later than usual. When the day was over, there were tell-tale streaks of orange and light pink in the sky—the rhyming sky of the shepherd’s delight. And so the pattern of warm evenings and changed habits continued. Therefore instead of staying in and watching August rain and lamenting a lost summer, or reading newspaper headlines about a spoiled harvest—all of which can be common summer experiences in Ireland—it was possible to go out and drive or visit friends or work in the garden.
All this has a bearing on the story. Because in West Cork, along the seaboard, the weather was also fine. In the town of Kinsale, which is a summer resort on that coast, there were more tourists than usual. This is one of the beautiful parts of Ireland and indeed, without being tribal, one of the beautiful parts of Europe. Surrounding it are small towns, villages, and farms. The terrain is fairly flat, without some of the Gulf Stream warmth which produces the dramatic palms and tropical branches of certain parts of Kerry further west.
This is what happened there. And this is how it stirred almost the whole of Ireland during that summer. Traveling back by car on one of those fine evenings, a woman stopped at a grotto which contained a statue of Our Lady. Ireland, which in the Republic at least has sustained a largely Catholic culture, had celebrated what was called a Marian year in 1950: a year, that is, in which Our Lady was honored as the Mother of Christ. The result of the celebrations was that hundreds of small grottoes and statues and shrines to Our Lady remained scattered around the countryside as continuing places of worship. This one was just outside the village of Ballinspittle, perhaps ten miles from Kinsale. It was eloquently set in the recess of a hillside, about thirty feet above the road. And on one of those sunny evenings, in late July, when travel in a car, or a visit to the places which contained such a grotto, must have seemed like a pleasant and appropriate summer diversion, a woman saw …