Stories of the supernatural interrupted the usual war news from Ireland and headlined newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic in late summer 1920. A teenage boy reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary; he said a spiritual font gurgled from the interior dirt floor of his rural home; statues and other religious images appeared to weep and bleed; and thousands of the sick and lame who traveled to touch these items claimed miraculous cures. The events were so astonishing that the Irish Republican Army and British police and military combatants briefly entered an informal truce.
The episode began with the Aug. 16, 1920, IRA murder of a Royal Irish Constabulary officer at Templemore, County Tipperary, about 90 miles southwest of Dublin and 50 miles east of Limerick cities. RIC and soldiers from a nearby barracks quickly responded with their own violence in the town. That’s when teen James Walsh started sharing his visions of the Virgin, which he said began weeks earlier, and relocated his fluid-oozing religious items from Curraheen townland to the Templemore front yard of newsagent Thomas Dwan.
Suddenly, “weird manifestations of healings” replaced the Irish revolution’s tit-for-tat, as the Associated Press reported in the first dispatch published in U.S. newspapers. Templemore was temporarily spared further violence.
The makeshift altar of religious items in the Templemore yard of Thomas Dwan.
A “special cable” published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported:
DUBLIN, Aug. 28–In South Ireland, where the country is terrorized by racing lorries bristling with English bayonets, the state of mind of the whole population is so nearly hysterical it has paid more than the usual attention to the supposed miraculous bleeding of the religious images in a house near Templemore, and the simple people are traveling miles to see it. … Priests retain their reserve and stories of miraculous cures are dying out. The Dublin newspapers have ignored the story as well.
In fact, there was plenty of news coverage, in Dublin and elsewhere. The “miraculous happenings at Templemore were first published in the evening papers of Saturday the 21st August,” Rev. P. Collier wrote in the opening sentence of his first-person account, published in Ireland and America.
Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal of Aug. 23 headlined “Templemore Sensation.” The front page of the next day’s Evening Herald reported:
The rush of pilgrims to Templemore, Co. Tipperary, continues. To-day large crowds arrived by train from North and South. From an early hour this morning the traffic was almost continuous through the town of carts and motor cars bringing people from different parts of the country. Very many of these arrivals were invalids. Without any way prejudicing the authenticity or otherwise of the extraordinary events the general public (says the ‘Irish Independent’) would be well advised to observe due caution and patience until more complete investigations have taken place and an authoritative ecclesiastical pronouncement has been made. …
A correspondent for the Skibbereen Eagle of County Cork cited the (Dublin) Evening Mail and (London) Daily Express in a more skeptical dispatch:
I came to see a miracle and I saw one. It was not a miracle of bleeding statues, but of limitless, almost pathetic belief. … The local priests are not enthusiastic. Their attitude is one of reserve. They refuse to discuss the matter with Press representatives, and appear to think every man must decide for himself.
Remember that Ireland in 1920 was “terrorized” not only by the year-old violence between the IRA and Britain authorities, but also the accumulated death, injury, and other horrors of the just-ended Great War. Some people still became “hysterical” at the sight of a motor vehicle or an airplane. Electric lighting would not arrive in the countryside for decades. A potent mix of Catholic beliefs and folklore illuminated the popular imagination.
Secular and sectarian press coverage of Templemore continued through September 1920. The Catholic Standard and Times of Philadelphia and other diocesan newspapers published stories from the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) News Service, forerunner of today’s Catholic News Service. The Philadelphia paper published this story on its front page three weeks after the dateline:
DUBLIN, Aug. 27–Whatever view the Church may take of the so-called miraculous happenings at Templemore and Curraheen, after all the evidence with respect to them has been obtained and weighed, there is no doubt that these happenings have resulted in an exalted piety and an intensified fervor in the town and country. The mysterious, and as generally believed, supernatural events are regarded as an omen of great suffering combined with divine protection for Ireland in the immediate future. …
Image published in the Great Falls (Montana) Tribune on Oct. 3, 1920. Thomas Dwan’s surname is misspelled as Divan, the ‘w’ split into an ‘i’ and ‘v’.
The Irish-American press minimized the story, mostly likely to avoid embarrassing efforts to win U.S. political recognition of the fledgling Irish republic, or inflaming Catholic-Protestant divisions. The New York-based Gaelic American buried a few lines on an inside page roundup of Irish news. The Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, republished a New York Times account based on the testimony of a South Dakota priest, identified in the photo caption above. The Irish Press, Philadelphia, and the News Letter of the Friends of Irish Freedom, Washington, D.C., skipped the story. Other Irish-American papers were not immediately available for review.
Lourdes & Knock
Rev. Collier, in his first-person account “in a spirit of devotional inquiry,” reported that Templemore had been a “quiet town” until the mysterious events “brought it into startling prominence as the newest holy well or Lourdes.” Templemore, he wrote, was “strangely similar” to the 1858 apparition of the Virgin Mary to a French peasant girl, a comparison made in other reports from Ireland. What Collier’s piece and most other accounts did not mention, however, is the Marian apparition at Knock, County Mayo, about 100 miles northwest of Templemore. There, 41 years earlier almost to the day, the Virgin Mary and other religious figures were said to have appeared to 15 witnesses.
The Offaly Independent offered a thoughtful exception in a mid-September 1920 column, which framed all three events in a tone neither dismissive nor credulous:
Templemore continues to be the mecca for invalids from every part of Ireland, and will in all probability continue to be while the fine weather lasts. … There are fresh stories of fresh cures brought back every day, with the result that invalids continue to flock to it. There are many people, both lay and clerical, very skeptical. They do not believe in the thing at all and insist in asserting that it is all humbug. … There are numerous stories going the rounds in regard to the extraordinary happenings at Templemore. The stories lose nothing in the process of narration; to a great extent they are rather over-developed and enhanced and sensationalized by a little addition. … The same is true of the manifestations at Lourdes [and] the same is true of the apparition at Knock, Co. Mayo, in 1879. In time the atmosphere of skepticism which hovered around Lourdes began to melt away and … became an accredited fact. … The story of the apparition at Knock failed to obtain the same recognition, but still the people finally believed, and cures were effected.
Today, Lourdes and Knock remain Catholic Church-recognized Marian pilgrimage sites, drawing tens of thousands of visitors annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (See my 2017 post, What you need to know about Knock’s vision visitors.) Templemore’s brush with the supernatural is conspicuously absent from the history section of the town’s website.
This image from Templemore appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Sept. 12, 1920. Boy at right of women holding statue appears to be the same as top photo.
The IRA eventually became suspicious that Walsh faked the “miracles”, or worse that he was a spy for the British, and the young man was exiled to Australia. Some pilgrims had probably been healed by faith, but the cure-seeking crowds ceased as violence returned to Templemore. The New York Tribune reported the “utter savagery” of a Black and Tan attack on the “scene of the recent bleeding statue miracles.”
For more details about these events, see John Reynolds’ stories in History Ireland and The Irish Times. He is the author of The Templemore Miracles, Jimmy Walsh, Ceasefires and Moving Statues.
Read more about “American Reporting of Irish Independence” in my ongoing series.