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Stories from Lourdes: Praying for a miracle


Night vision: a torchlight procession at Lourdes
Night vision: a torchlight procession at Lourdes
Holy shrine: Lourdes grotto
Poetic influence: Lourdes basilica
Religious experience: the masses worship in Lourdes

By Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan

In selected extracts from their new book, authors Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan, uncover some of the Northern Ireland stories about the famous French shrine.

Two Belfast pilgrims cured during first Irish national  Pilgrimage

More than 3,000 Irish men, women and children of all ages converged on Ireland's main ports in September 1913. There were invalids on stretchers and in wheelchairs, clergy, doctors, nurses and ambulance men, not to mention ordinary people who were just plain curious or devout. All were heading on the adventure of a lifetime to a faraway place called Lourdes.

The atmosphere at their departure was electric. Pilgrims crowded the decks of their ships from bow to stern, waving to those onshore. Their friends and relatives waved back. As the steamers weighed anchor, the crowds on the quaysides sang the Ave Maria and Star of the Sea. The hymns were taken up by those on board. A mighty explosion of song rang out, echoing over the sea as the ships receded farther and farther from the shore.

Many cures were reported during that 1913 pilgrimage, including two from Belfast. The first involved Michael Downey, who lived in Ormond Street and suffered from chronic and disabling sciatica. He had tried numerous remedies to no avail. Despite being treated at the Royal and Mater hospitals, his case was declared to be medically hopeless. He had to be stretchered all the way to Lourdes.

On immersion in the Lourdes baths, Downey experienced a remarkable recovery. "After Michael Downey's first immersion in the blessed water on Friday," a news report explained, "he felt much stronger, and next morning he surprised nurses and doctors by walking briskly and fearlessly, casting his supports aside." Since then, Downey experienced no return of his complaint and took part in all the exercises and devotions pertaining to the pilgrimage. He returned home cured.

Another Belfast resident, eight-year-old James McAllister, had suffered from hip disease since the age of two. Described as "always a delicate child", he was unable to walk without crutches.

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Half an hour after he was immersed in the baths, he too was cured. Dispensing with his crutches, he ran up the hill leading to his hotel. Once more, he returned to Belfast in full health.

Despite numerous cures associated with the 1913 pilgrimage, Irish author Rose Lynch, who had accompanied the trip, identified something she felt was far more important. "What stands out on my mind most is the wonderful happiness and peace that pervades Lourdes, and that everyone feels there," she wrote in her book The Story of Lourdes, which was published in 1921. Our Lady of Lourdes, she concluded, had brought to all who came to visit the happiness and peace that "passeth all understanding". It proved to be the ultimate achievement of the 1913 pilgrimage.

Londonderry man walked unaided for first time in three years

In 1929, James Francis O'Kane fell 54ft from the masthead of a ship in Belfast docks. He sustained multiple injuries, primarily to the spine and hips. Despite six months of treatment in hospital, his mobility was restricted and he could barely walk. At the beginning of 1932, doctors advised him that only by amputating his right leg could his life be spared. O'Kane wasn't impressed. "I would rather die with two legs than live with one," he said.

As luck would have it, the Catholic Travel Association had organised a five-day Easter pilgrimage to Lourdes, departing London on March 24, 1932. O'Kane made sure he was on board. "At that time I had no control whatever over my feet and was only able to slide along with the aid of a stick," he later recalled. "I knew that if I reached Lourdes I would be made fit and well."

Things turned out exactly as he had expected. Immediately after his arrival, he noticed an improvement in his mobility. "I thought I felt slightly better," he said. The following day - a Sunday - he felt even stronger. "I walked from my bed to the dressing table on Sunday morning - the first time I had walked unaided from the date of the accident," he noted.

On that day, he also walked to the grotto. He did so without using his stick. He brought it with him, however, but only to discard it. After adding his stick to the pile of crutches - and having offered thanks to Our Lady - he then walked away unaided. "The pilgrims who saw him on the outward journey are astonished at his present condition," an observer commented at the time.

O'Kane's wife was overjoyed to see her husband on his return. She had gone to the railway station to meet him. "I was looking into the carriage windows to see where he was and help him out and get his bags," Mrs O'Kane remarked. "Imagine my feelings when I saw a smiling man walking fit and well towards me. I could hardly believe it was my husband. I could hardly keep from crying with joy."

Although his case made him quite famous, O'Kane was unmoved by the media furore. Instead, he was focused on returning to Lourdes as soon as possible - the next year, hopefully, and each succeeding year after that. The reason was to offer thanks to Our Lady, whose intervention he believed had brought about his cure.

First air pilgrimage left Belfast for Lourdes in 1949

Just after noon, on a foggy morning in August 1949, the first ever air pilgrimage departed Nutts Corner Airport for Lourdes. On board were 44 invalids and stretcher cases, some of whom had not left their beds for years. A 60-year-old woman had been bedridden for two decades. One girl, who was paralysed, had been forced to lie down face-forwards for two years. They were accompanied by a blind girl, along with sufferers from heart trouble and TB.

All 44 pilgrims were part of the 1949 Down and Connor Diocesan Pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes. Relatives and sightseers enthusiastically sang the Ave Maria as the pilgrims boarded the plane. The mood inside the aircraft was equally joyous, with one observer noting an atmosphere of "eagerness and buoyant cheerfulness". All going well the passengers would soon join the other 900 members of the pilgrimage - those less physically distressed - who had travelled ahead by land and sea.

The aircraft flew low, travelling unpressurised at just over 4,000ft, in consideration of those aboard who had heart trouble or suffered from pulmonary TB.

The plane, as a result, bore the brunt of any low-lying bad weather. Spirits were kept high by the food - milk, cakes and fruit - which was far better than anything available back home, where post-war rationing was still being enforced. Four nurses - only one of whom had flown before - administered medicine, rearranged pillows and took care of their patients. The steward took care of the food.

For six days, the Down and Connor pilgrimage remained in Lourdes, visiting the grotto, entering the baths, attending masses, participating in the many ceremonies including the torchlight procession, and praying to Our Lady. They were given the honour of leading the torchlight procession, walking or being carried ahead of the 90,000 pilgrims from European countries who took part. Then, on September 1, they returned home.

Words failed an accompanying journalist in describing the venture. He tried "important" and "wonderful" but he finally settled on something else. More important, he said, was "the faith that moves sick people to make the long journey to Lourdes; it is the faith that transcends the physical risks that the journey entails, and even the knowledge that at its end there is no guarantee of cure". That, he said, was the mark of what the invalid air pilgrimage from Belfast in 1949 was all about.

Donegal woman living in England cured from cancer in 1962

The family of Sally McCloy, in Co Donegal, woke to grim weather at the start of the August bank holiday in 1962. Where Sally lived - in Coventry - conditions weren't much better; the bank holiday was a bit of a washout there, too. However, the weather didn't matter to Sally as she was far away, having just arrived in Lourdes.

Sally was suffering from cancer, weighed five-and-a-half stone and had been carried by boat and ambulance train all the way from Coventry to the shrine. In severe pain, she was desperately seeking a cure. Her health was so bad that she feared she could not endure the long journey through England and France. "I knew that I was not expected to live," she remarked.

Although born and brought up in Letterkenny, Sally was living in the UK and had four children. Her husband Dan worked with an engineering company in Coventry.

Even though she was dying, it was her husband and children, and not herself, she was worried about. "My prayers were always for my husband Dan and the children," she said.

During the procession of the Blessed Sacrament in Lourdes, something extraordinary happened. "There was like a sudden burst of light," Sally recalled. She instantly felt free. It was as if a weight had been lifted from her body. The pain that had afflicted her for months was gone. "I knew I was healed," she remarked.

Despite feeling well, she feared on her return to Coventry what her medical specialist might say. "He examined me and for a minute didn't say anything," she recalled. "I had a terrible feeling that although I felt well and the pain had gone, that he hadn't found any change." But he had. What he said next came as a shock. "This isn't imagination; it's absolutely wonderful," he remarked. The cancer was in remission. It would shortly be gone.

Sally put her miraculous recovery down to faith. Maybe her own prayers had helped, she reflected, because they had been directed to her family and not herself.

Her family's prayers had possibly helped too as had those of people at home in Letterkenny. But she had no doubt the visit to Lourdes was central to her cure - that's where the miracle had happened.

Over the following three years, Sally was investigated by the Lourdes Medical Bureau. A panel of doctors from all over the world questioned her and examined her medical records. Her visits to the bureau took place on an annual basis. The bureau finally verified her cure, pronouncing her free of cancer.

Poet Seamus Heaney visited Lourdes as a teenager

In 1958, Seamus Heaney joined 1,000 fellow pilgrims on a diocesan pilgrimage from Londonderry to Lourdes. The visit wasn't Heaney's idea; instead, it came from his Aunt Jane, who paid the fare. No doubt, the prospect of such a great adventure - his first abroad - must have thrilled the recent school-leaver who had just begun studying at Queen's University in Belfast. Heaney worked as a 'brancardier', or stretcher-bearer, in Lourdes.

He bore the sick on their stretchers to the grotto and to the baths. Later, he recalled images of rosaries and mantillas, prayers recited out loud or in hushed tones, members of sodalities wearing sashes, banners and pennants and, above all, the enduring image of Lourdes - discarded crutches, hanging near the grotto, having been left there by those who found they could miraculously walk.

The weather was sizzling, the hottest of the year. On the day of the Eucharistic Procession, the sun burned down. At one stage, Heaney almost fainted from the heat and fumes.

Despite the conditions, he was in his element, ferrying the infirm on stretchers, pushing wheelchairs, serving as an altar boy and carrying the thurible with its incense during various ceremonies. The images were powerful and potent, momentous and memorable and imprinted themselves on his mind for the rest of his life.

After four days in Lourdes, Seamus Heaney and the other pilgrims wound their way back to Ireland.

They met English Channel gales and Irish Sea fog on their return, but nothing could dampen their spirits. Heaney arrived home bearing a container of Lourdes water, a brancardier's shoulder-strap to show to his priest, a globe with snowflakes for somebody's mantelpiece, and a certificate testifying to his stretcher-bearing work. But he came home with a lot more than that.

In time, Lourdes would appear in his poetry, notably in Brancardier, with its images of carrying the sick to the bleak concrete where they awaited their baths; of Belgian miners in their blue dungarees, marching in procession, carrying brass lamps; of the distinctive acoustic in the basilica; and, most of all, of the powerful impact Lourdes has on those who pay it a visit. The images remained with the poet up to the time of his death, more than half a century later, in August 2013.

The Village of Bernadette: Lourdes, Stories, Miracles and Cures - The Irish Connection is written by Colm Keane and Una O'Hagan. Published by Capel Island Press, £15

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