The antiquity of devotion to the Virgin Mary among the educated and the literate in Ireland in the Christian era before 1800 is not in doubt, but the emergence of an intense Marian piety taking organized forms among the mass of the Catholic population was mostly a development of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Evidence of Marian devotion prior to 1800 survives in Bardic poetry, in traditional prayers, and in the use of the rosary among some Irish Catholics. But before the Great Famine the orientation of so much of popular religion toward sacred spaces in the natural environment (holy wells, sacred trees and stones, the reputed graves of saintly men and women, revered monastic ruins, and other ancient pilgrimage sites) meant that Catholic piety was not yet focused on the Virgin Mary.
The rapid spread of the Marian cult after 1850 can be traced to a combination of external and internal factors. During the long reign of Pope Pius IX (1846–1878) the papacy itself and the Vatican bureaucracy were squarely behind the propagation of devotion to the Blessed Mother throughout the Western world. In numerous instances this campaign impinged directly on Ireland. Rome was a vigorous proponent of parish missions as a means of religious revival and evangelization, and parish missions were perhaps the single most important agency in the extension of the Devotional Revolution in Ireland after 1850. The male religious orders that conducted parish missions usually placed a heavy emphasis on the cult of Mary by erecting statues and altars to her in the churches they visited, by establishing Marian sodalities and confraternities, and by encouraging the praying of the rosary through their preaching and example.
The swiftly multiplying female religious orders were also of great importance in the spread of the Marian cult. In their schools the nuns promoted devotion to the Blessed Mother especially by setting up sodalities, the most widespread of which were those connected with the Children of Mary. In the general extension of this sodality the apparitions at Lourdes in 1858 exercised a major impetus. The Lourdes phenomenon, which deeply influenced Catholic popular piety all over Western Europe, had an extraordinary impact in Ireland. It greatly multiplied the number of Children of Mary sodalities in Irish convent schools over the course of the following decade. More broadly, it led to a remarkable intensification of the Marian cult throughout most of Catholic Ireland. One dramatic sign of this development was the famous series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary (and other visions) beginning in August 1879 at Knock in County Mayo. That small western village became for a few years the site of great religious fervor (including claims of hundreds of cures) and the focus of large pilgrimages from other parts of Ireland.
Although Knock had steeply declined as a pilgrimage center by the late 1880s, the broader Marian wave gathered even more force and crested in the years 1930 to 1960. In those decades signs of the cult of Mary were everywhere in Ireland. There was a proliferation of books, pamphlets, periodicals, films, and plays linked to the cult. A pilgrimage to Lourdes became an annual exercise for many thousands of Irish Catholics, and many more thousands who remained at home supported the pilgrims with money, prayers, and benevolent actions. So strong was the Marian zeal gripping Irish Catholicism that Knock shrine itself experienced an extraordinary revival. According to shrine authorities, pilgrim traffic to Knock roughly tripled in the late 1930s, rising from about 80,000 in 1937 to nearly 250,000 in 1940. By the time of the "Marian Year" in 1954 the shrine authorities were boasting of a million pilgrims at Knock, though this figure appears to be a serious exaggeration.
Three explanations have been offered for the steep upward curve in Irish Marian enthusiasm over the period 1930 to 1960. First, the fierce anticlerical violence and desecration associated with the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 produced an intensified Marianism by way of reaction. A second factor was anticommunism, which flourished especially during the Cold War and took Our Lady of Fatima as its central icon. The cult of Fatima, with its central anticommunist message, eclipsed the cult of Lourdes in Ireland after 1945, and Irish Catholics embraced the praying of the rosary with unprecedented fervor. And third, there was a strong social and cultural dimension to Marianism in this period, when swiftly changing sexual mores outside of Ireland seemed to threaten the severe sexual restraint associated with the Irish demographic characteristics of late marriages and high rates of bachelorhood and spinsterhood. As the epitome of sexual purity, the Virgin Mary was perceived as the most essential bulwark of the traditional moral order.
Then, rather suddenly in the 1960s and 1970s, the Marian wave swiftly receded, and Irish Catholicism as a whole entered a troubled new era which has not yet ended. Already by the late 1960s traditionalists were bemoaning the near-collapse of the praying of the family rosary, for which they mostly blamed the impact of television on patterns of family life. Also clearly on the wane before 1970 were other Marian devotions such as May processions, the erection of household altars in the month of May, and the wearing of Miraculous Medals and Brown Scapulars. The flagship institutions of Irish Marianism—the Legion of Mary and Our Lady's Sodality—went into steep decline as well. The notorious episode of the "moving statues" in the summer of 1985, when thousands flocked to Marian shrines, was one of the last gasps of the old order. Among the leading reasons for this marginalization of Marianism in Ireland (and elsewhere) were the dramatic weakening (and eventual reversal) of the Cold War, the revolution in sexual attitudes, and the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) in certain critical areas, especially liturgical reform (emphasizing Christ much more than Mary) and the sidelining of devotional practices linked to popular belief in miracles. These factors operated in a fundamentally new context hostile to Marian enthusiasm: From the 1960s Irish society was increasingly characterized by materialist values and cultural openness to the outside world.
Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Marian Shrine of Knock: The First Decade." Éire-Ireland 28, no. 2 (summer 1993): 55–99.
Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Peak of Marianism in Ireland, 1930–60." In Piety and Power in Ireland, 1760–1960: Essays in Honour of Emmet Larkin, edited by Stewart J. Brown and David W. Miller. 2000.
Larkin, Emmet. The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism. 1976.
Larkin, Emmet. "The Parish Mission Movement, 1850–1880." In Christianity in Ireland: Revisiting the Story, edited by Brendan Bradshaw and Dáire Keogh. 2002.
Magray, Mary Peckham. The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750–1900. 1998.
James S. Donnelly, Jr.