Marian devotion in Ireland

Belfast ladies taking part in the annual Legion of Mary procession. Photo: The Irish News/Colm O'Reilly

May is the traditional month for many Marian devotions. Almost every village in Ireland has a prominent Marian shrine, and the Rosary was a part of daily life in most Irish homes until recently. Several important Marian movements began in Ireland which spread throughout the world and remain deeply influential worldwide.

Historically speaking, Marian devotion has two striking characteristics: Its manifestations often involve ordinary humble people, especially women and children. Secondly, Marian devotion often seems to increase markedly in times of crisis or persecution.


Marian devotion began in the catacombs amongst the ordinary faithful. Only later did the early Church authorities formally approve of it. It was a ‘bottom up’ phenomenon, and remained so throughout history. The practice of Marian devotions were widespread in Ireland by the 8th Century. The Middle Ages saw a flourishing of Marian devotion throughout Europe. From 1,000AD, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, “the deep feeling of love and confidence in the Blessed Virgin, which hitherto had expressed itself vaguely and in accordance with the promptings of the piety of individuals, began to take organised shape in a vast multitude of devotional practices”.

This flourishing of Marian devotion took place during the Crusades, when Christendom felt threatened, as Muslim armies took Spain and even marched into France. The ancient Christian regions of Africa and the Holy Land came under Muslim control, and Constantinople fell in 1453, threatening Europe. Against this background, religious orders, especially the Cistercians, Dominicans and Carmelites became influential in spread of Marian devotions across Middle Age Europe. St Dominic is said to have created the rosary as we know it today. Its use became widespread from the 15th Century and the tradition of dedicating the month of May to Mary developed in the 17th Century.


In the Cromwellian wars of 1642, the Confederation of Kilkenny declared the Virgin Mary ‘Protectress of Ireland’. By the 18th Century, devotional religious objects were forbidden in Ireland and so a single-decade rosary which could be hidden in the sleeve became commonplace. These were known as a Pádraigín Beag, and serve as another example of how Marian devotion flourishes in times of persecution and hardship.

One of the most significant Marian events in Irish history occurred in August 1879 at Knock, Co. Mayo when 15 people witnessed the apparition of the Virgin Mary and other figures. Once again, the 15 witnesses were ordinary poor people, and Mayo was in deep crisis as the famine of 1879 hit Connacht hard, bringing fresh terror to a region where the memories of the horrors of 1847 were still raw.


The early 20th Century would prove a high point of Irish Marian devotion. In 1917, the First World War raged, shaking the foundations of Christian Europe. To the East, the Russian revolution saw Communism take hold. During this time of great flux, in Fatima, Portugal another significant Marian event took place, beginning on May 13, 1917. Three children saw visions, and received remarkable messages, with a focus on Russia. The events at Fatima included the ‘miracle of the Sun’, when some 40,000 people saw the Sun move in the sky.

As the Irish War of Independence raged about him in September 1921, Frank Duff founded The Legion of Mary in Dublin. This small organisation began working with the poor of Dublin. After Pope Pius XI praised the Legion in 1931, it spread worldwide and has some 10 million members today, making it the largest lay apostolic organisation in the Church.

Many of Ireland’s Marian shrines were built during the Marian Year of Devotion, 1954. Saying the rosary as a family was widespread at that time, thanks in no small part to Mayo-born priest Fr Patrick Peyton, who called himself, Our Lady’s Salesman. Fr Peyton, who emigrated to the US, is famous for coning the phrase “the family that prays together, stays together”.


There was a remarkable proliferation of Marian groups in Ireland from 1930 to 1960, a time regarded as the ‘fullest flowering’ of Cardinal Cullen’s ‘Irish Devotional Revolution’, begun in the 19th Century. Through many prominent priests and religious, Ireland’s Marian devotional traditions were exported to the United States, Africa and Asia where they took root. In the US, Irish-American religious such as Archbishop Fulton Sheen used the new medium of television to broadcast the Catholic message to a wider audience.

The 1950s was a time of rapid social change, when the Cold War reached its height and the spectre of nuclear annihilation hung over humanity for the first time. The Marian new groups had much to say about these contemporary phenomona. They led campaigns for modesty in dress, even as the rock and roll revolution spread around the world. As the stand-off between the free world and atheistic communism threatened to explode, the words recorded by the children at Fatima seemed particularly apt to many. 


Given the time of the First World War, the Second Secret chillingly reads: “The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.”


As communism spread, a sense of profound crisis gripped many in the West, and the message of Fatima seemed prophetic to many, who turned to Marian devotions as a bulwark against the spread of communism.

In the late 20th Century, such devotions faded across the Western world. However, in Ireland Marian devotion played a strong role in public life right up to the 1980s and beyond. The opening of Knock Airport in 1986 made possible the 1.5 million annual the shrine sees today. Also in 1986, Ireland was gripped by the ‘moving statues’ phenomenon. In 1987, Pope John Paul II initiated a Marian year in preparation of the millennium and published the Marian encyclical Redemptoris Mater.

Feminine presence

Pope Francis also sees Marian devotion as vital for promoting a much-needed feminine influence in the Church. In 2010, as Cardinal Bergoglio, he said, “The feminine presence in the Church has not been emphasised much, because [of] the temptation of chauvinism” and that “woman has another function in Christianity, reflected in the figure of Mary. It is the figure that embraces society, the figure that contains it, the mother of the community. The woman has the gift of maternity, of tenderness; if all these riches are not integrated, a religious community not only transforms into a chauvinist society, but also into one that is austere, hard and hardly sacred.”

As in the past, what John Paul II called the “feminine genius” may well be critical to helping the Irish Church survive its current period of crisis.