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Ballinspittle (Moving Statue)

Ballinspittle (Moving Statue)

Ballinspittle is a village in county Cork, Ireland, and the site of a reported paranormal moving statue of the Virgin Mary. In the same year, 1985, many statues of the Virgin Mary throughout Ireland were reported to be moving. The first reports began in Asdee, county Kerry, on February 14, when several children claimed to have seen a statue of the Madonna and Child at the parish church of St. Mary open its eyes and move its hands. Other people confirmed that they had seen movements.

In July two teenage girls reported seeing movement in a statue of the Virgin Mary at Ballinspittle, in a grotto some 20 feet up the side of a hill. This was a Marian year shrine, and the statue was illuminated by a halo of 11 electric lights.

Within days of the first reports, thousands of pilgrims visited Ballinspittle every night, some traveling hundreds of miles. At regular intervals prayers were spoken on a public address system and the people joined in. Each night many people claimed that they saw the statue move in some way. The most commonly reported movements included changes of countenance, super-imposition of other sacred faces, opening and closing of eyes, movements of the hands, and rocking to and fro.

Ballinspittle and its moving statue rapidly became a media event, reported and discussed in newspapers and on radio and television. Among the many thousands of visitors to the shrine were journalists, camera operators, priests, nuns, doctors, lawyers, engineers, housewives, and ordinary people from all walks of life. Surprisingly, even hardened skeptics reported seeing movement. On one occasion a gang of Hell's Angels motorcyclists stood quietly at the shrine, and although they did not believe that the statue moved, they blessed themselves before putting back their crash helmets and driving off.

Naturally enough the church hierarchy became somewhat concerned. While appreciating the devout atmosphere created by many pilgrims at an open-air shrine, ecclesiastics believed that regular church attendance would be a more practical demonstration of faith. The bishop of Killala stated, "We don't mind people gathering together to pray, but we want them to go into the church to do it." Moreover many people visited the shrine out of mere curiosity or even skepticism; others criticized what they regarded as mass hysteria. Bishop Michael Murphy of Cork warned that "common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto in Ballinspittle with prudence and caution," but he also relished the fact that "crowds are gathering there in a great spirit of prayer."

Nobody denied that the statue itself was a purely material construction. It was a standard five-foot eight-inch Lourdes model cast in concrete. The statue maker, Maurice O'Donnell, recalled, "Her hands are reinforced with wire, and I remember the day she left the works for Ballinspittle. I was making so many at that time there was no time to dry them out before painting, so lots of statues in the shrines around the country are still unpainted. But that was in the Marian Year, 1954. The bottom has dropped out of the statues market since the Vatican Council."

But in 1985, these statues were reported to be moving in shrines all over the country. Not everyone took the moving statues seriously. With characteristic irreverent wit, Irish comedian Brendan Grace recorded a humorous song titled "Is That You Moving?" A new play was written by Brigid McLoughlin titled "Moving Statues." McLoughlin stated that the play "sends up the rituals and double-standards of Catholicism in Ireland."

Although many people claimed that the statue actually moved physically, it seems clear that the majority of reported movements were imaginary. Some may have been related to what psychologists call "eidetic imagery," in which prolonged staring may combine with imaginary mental imagery to produce an illusion. A team of psychologists from Cork University College established that the phenomena did not register on film or motion sensors. Other observers talked of optical illusions, autosuggestion, or mass hallucination. But to many people, the question of physical or visionary movement seemed irrelevant in the highly spiritually charged atmosphere of the grotto. For them, the real movement was one of the soul. On July 31, a 37-year-old Cork housewife named Frances O'Riordan, who had been completely deaf since age 20, claimed that she had her hearing restored during a visit to the Ballinspittle grotto.

With the sudden influx of thousands of visitors and journalists, telephone kiosks were installed at the grotto, as were two concrete toilets. Special bus services were organized, but there was no commercial exploitation of the grotto. The crowds continued to throng at the shrine for over three months, until on Halloween, October 31, there was a sudden and brutal affront to the respect and devotion of the pilgrims.

Three men drove up in a car. Two of them strode swiftly to the shrine, jumped over the fence, and hacked away at the statue with an axe and a hammer, completely destroying the face and severely damaging the hands. The third man calmly took photographs. The spectators were too stunned and horrified to intervene. Someone said, "You must be from Satan to do such a thing!" The men laughed and said, "Well, you're worse to be adoring false gods." They then drove off in their car. Local people linked the attack to a religious sect that had scattered leaflets at the grotto, stating that people should adore the head of Christ in their local churches. Three men were later arrested and charged with malicious damage to the statue. Meanwhile prayers were said at the grotto, and people claimed to have seen the defaced statue continue to move.

The grotto committee arranged for the statue to be repaired, and since its reinstatement at the grotto, pilgrims have still assembled there.

Meanwhile the three men who had been arrested after the Ballinspittle incident were identified as Robert Draper, Roy Murphy, and Anthony Fowler, members of the Faith Center Movement, a Pentecostal Christian church of American evangelist Dr. Gene Scott of Los Angeles, California. The three men were tried at Portlaoise Circuit Court on Tuesday, March 4, 1986, before a Judge O'Higgins and charged with "causing malicious damage in a place of divine worship." The judge stated that he had to be "particularly zealous in guarding the rights of the three defendants" and dismissed the case on the grounds that the Ballinspittle grotto is not, in fact, a place of divine worship. To the defendants, of course, it was a place of sinful idolatry.

Robert Draper, who wielded the axe and hammer at Ballin-spittle, emerged from the courtroom triumphantly proclaiming that he was going to demolish other images in wayside shrines. He is since reported to have smashed two more statues, one in Ballyfermot and another in Clondalkin. He appeared with his fellow iconoclasts on the popular "Late Late Show," hosted by Gay Byrne on RTE Television on March 7. Draper arrogantly cited the fourth and fifth commandments of the Old Testament and Exod. 23:24 as giving him divine sanction to smash all religious statues in Ireland, regardless of the rights and views of other people.

As reporter Eoghan Corry stated in an article in the Sunday Press (March 9, 1986), "there isn't a safe statue in the country."

Meanwhile from Los Angeles evangelist Scott indignantly disassociated himself from the activities of the Irish statue smashers and described the Robert Draper group as "the most ridiculous association I have ever heard in a lifetime of confronting ridiculous things." In a press statement he specifically said, "I abhor violence in any form. I am in the process of preserving and restoring a 23 million dollar religious shrine in Los Angeles at the present. I am also president of Sunset Mausoleum in Berkeley, California, which has a 16-foot statue of Christ commanding the cathedral chapel, which was made of the marble from the same quarry from which Michelangelo made Moses. I abhor the thought of anyone anywhere in this world defacing any religious object and totally disassociate myself from anyone who claims to perpetrate such activity in my name."

For a fascinating account of the Ballinspittle story and the other moving statues of Ireland, see the book Seeing is Believing (1985).


Tóibín, Colm, ed. Seeing is Believing. Ireland: Pilgrim Press, 1985.

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