Thirty years ago in 1985, Ireland was gripped by the summer of moving statues. From Ballinspittle in County Cork to suburban Dublin, people gathered at religious monuments in the hope or belief that they would witness statues physically moving before their very eyes. While this story is well-known now, one aspect of the story has largely been forgotten. At Ballinspittle, where huge crowds and sections of the international media gathered over several months, the monument of the Virgin Mary was attacked with axes and hammers by a fundamentalist religious group from Dublin, leading to a high-profile court case, media appearances and a few broken windows in Clondalkin (more on that below!)
1985 in Ireland is perhaps best remembered for the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough, as a year of much violence in the North and for the founding of the Progressive Democrats by Des O’Malley in the South. For many reading this however, it is perhaps a year best remembered for standing at roadsides and roundabouts.
Ballinspittle, about 5 miles southwest of Kinsale, was to find its way into the pages of the New York Times and papers right across the world as a result of events there in July 1985. The first reports in the Irish media began to appear around 26 July, with reports of two local women claiming to have seen the statue of the Virgin Mary in the town moving, at a shrine that had been there since the 1950s. What was interesting is that the local Parish priest was in no hurry to endorse the claims being made, remarking that he had no comment to make. From small groups of local people, word spread throughout Munster in particular, and by 31 July the press were reporting that 5,000 people had shown up at the monument on a single night. The media jumped on all of this, but there had been claims earlier in the year, by schoolchildren in Kerry, that they had witnessed a Marian statue in their local church move. Fintan O’Toole, as a journalist with Magill, travelled to Kerry and interviewed some of those who had claimed to witness the Marian statue there moving, in a feature which was published before events at Ballinspittle. Now however, with what was allegedly happening in Cork, people took those claims more seriously too and this was seen as a chain of events.
The Bishop of Cork, Michael Murphy, issued a statement informing people that “direct supernatural intervention is a very rare happening in life, so common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto at Ballinspittle with prudence and caution. Before a definite pronouncement could be made by the Church all natural explanations would have to be examined and exhausted over a lengthy period of time.” This approach was similar to that which had been taken in Kerry by the church.
For the local economy at Ballinspittle, The Irish Times reported that “the shops and the two local pubs have been given an unexpected boost in an otherwise quiet tourist season.” One woman wrote to the newspapers noting that bus companies seemed to be making a killing bringing the curious and the faithful from right across Ireland, while it was reported one man got a telling off from the gathered crowd for opening his chip van directly opposite the shrine, something one journalist noted was found to be “unsuitable to the solemn nature of the occasion.” A local told a visiting American journalist that “Knock spawned souvenir shops and a partially-completed airport, why can’t we do the same?”
The story made the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and the paper quoted the Government press secretary Peter Prendergast as saying “three-quarters of the country is laughing heartily. In Dublin, the citizens are anxiously watching James Larkin on O’Connell Street to see if it will move.” The BBC sent a reporter from Newsnight (above) and a team of cameramen to Ireland. In the weeks that followed, people began claiming that similar scenes were occurring at shrines at Dunmanway and Courtmacsherry, while in Kilkenny, there were reports of over half a dozen locations where statues were ‘moving’, and there too the church urged caution and scepticism. There was an academic intervention from staff at the Department of Applied Psychology in UCC, who claimed that “people sway when standing still for a period of time and what they are looking at appears to move.” They called it the ‘Ballinspittle Phenomenon’. They claimed that it was an issue of light, as “the statue appeared to move only when it is dark.” In the North, Unionist Jim Wells of the DUP told the media that:
We find much of Roman Catholic doctrine repugnant… [we find it repugnant] that the Virgin Mary is regarded as a deity that can be prayed to, who can forgive sins and heal the sick and all that, that shrines which can supposedly move in Ballinspittle or wherever it is can delude thousands into believing that there are some magical powers. That is superstition of almost African tribal levels.
In October the statue at Ballinspittle was attacked in very dramatic fashion. In front of dozens of praying onlookers,three men wielding axes and hammers went to work against the monument.During the attack, one of those praying shouted that “you must be Satan to do something like this”, while one of the vandals shouted back “you are worse to be adoring false gods.” The men were arrested by Gardaí and the ensuing court case grabbed the headlines. The three men had travelled from Dublin with the aim of smashing the monument, and it was revealed that they were essentially evangelical Protestants of an extreme bent. The men called it ‘Operation Zero’, stated that their aim was “elimination of all false idols from Ireland.” One of the three stated “The statue at Ballinspittle only moved once – when I hit it. If it moves again I’ll be back.”
Magill magazine found the humour in events, noting that:
An angry local councillor, Dennis O’Reilly, who is a founder member of the Grotto Committee, said: ‘If we caught them they wouldn’t walk again. We should take the law into our own hands’.” – Irish Press, November 1, on the Ballinspittle massacre. Should the councillor make good on his threat of violence this would be the first known example of people coming away from a shrine on crutches. Also, why were the alleged perpetrators of the massacre not charged under the Offences Against The Person Act?
In court, it became clear that the leader of the men was Robert Draper. He described himself as a preacher of the Christian Faith Centre of Ireland, and a follower of Dr. Gene Scott, an American pastor and religious broadcaster. Draper was living in Clondalkin at the time, as was one of the other men, while the third was a CIE worker from Ballymun. Draper used the platform provided to put forward his own religious beliefs, telling those gathered that “all false idols must go”, and newspaper reports noted that he boasted that since attacking the monument he had “slashed the face of the statue of the Blessed Virgin outside the Catholic Church in Ballyfermot. As a Christian, Mr. Draper says his convictions force him to act against these images, which offend God.” The Irish Times noted that:
At his home in Clondalkin, the front windows has been boarded up since someone put a brick through them following the Ballinspittle incident. He has been getting some hate mail, but is unmoved by public opposition to his campaign against holy statues.
Despite openly boasting of smashing the monument, and threatening to do so again, the men were not sentenced. Draper later went on Irish television and explained his actions in front of a hostile audience and a bemused Gay Byrne. In the United States, Dr. Gene Scott publicly disassociated himself from the actions of the men, describing Draper and his allies as “the most ridiculous association I have ever heard in a lifetime of confronting ridiculous things.” While Draper was acquitted in the Ballinspittle case, further attacks on religious monuments in the capital, including one at Quarryville in Clondalkin and another in Ballyfermot, saw him back in the courts. He was probably the only person surprised when he was sentenced in January 1987:
In 1990 The Irish Times said that “not a twitch has been observed in any statue recently”, though curiously it was claimed in 1997 that the statue at Ballinspittle was allegedly moving again, though it failed to draw the same numbers. On that occasion, it seems nobody from Dublin took it upon themselves to travel south with a hammer.
The summer of moving statues was parodied by the cult television series Brass Eye in the 1990s, where a statue of the Virgin Mary was said to be driving a car around rural Ballakreen: