Travelling South and North Ireland during the last week of November, Sanal Edamaruku spoke in public meetings in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast and met politicians, professors and students and supporters of atheist and rationalist organisations in several places. Before he left for Germany, the leaders of Atheist Ireland, who organized and hosted his journey, invited Sanal to visit the village Ballinspittle, the place of the famous Catholic “miracle” of the “Moving Mary” statue.
In Summer 1985, a Mary Mania broke out in Ireland. There were claims at some fifty different sites all over the country that Mary statues had started moving. Thousands of believers rushed to offer prayers and witness the alleged signs of god. Over the years, most of these claims died down, but the grotto of Ballinspittle kept attracting miracle hungry pilgrims from all over the world.
The little statue, some five feet high and with a halo of small light bulbs, stands some 20 feet up the side of a hill in an ivy-clad grotto, surrounded by a natural garden. There is a balustrade down some fifteen meters away that keeps visitors at a distance. As expected, Mary did not move during Sanal’s visit. To keep an objective check on her, Sanal fixed a laser beamer on a tripod, throwing the red light dot right on the statue’s face. During more than one hour of careful watching, no movement could be recorded.
“It is obvious that the ‘miracle’ needs certain conditions to happen, and it is easy to understand why,” Sanal explained in a meeting in Belfast. “There has to be twilight or darkness, preferably some wetness and a bit of fog in the air – the typical Irish weather. May be a gentle breeze plays with the leaves surrounding the figure with the halo of sparkling lights. Then imagine a crowd of believers who have come from far off places with great expectations and hopes, murmuring monotonous prayers for hours or singing hymns, occasionally interrupted by a frantic: She moves! See, she moves! In such a scenario, you may actually observe a real movement. But of course its not the statue that moves, but the onlookers themselves. It’s an optical illusion and a mass hysteria.” Sanal recommended a small self-experiment: “Stand still on a spot in the darkness of a park for some time, eyes sternly fixed on a street light in some distance, and count up to three thousand. There are good chances that the lamp post starts swaying by then.”
Interestingly, the Catholic church neither approved nor rejected the controversial “moving” of the statue so far. That is the typical strategy: they would wait for a century or two if a “miracle” develops in a suitable way before officially adopting it and starting the canonization processes. The Vatican is not in a hurry. Of course, meanwhile they would not forget to position a huge collection box at the site.
Sanal also made another very interesting observation: The statue of “Blessed Virgin Mary” of Ballinspittle was opened to the public in 1954 to mark the centenary of the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception”. Its alleged moving in summer 1985 was excellently timed. The rumour just spread while the Irish media flashed a well orchestrated series of dramatic reports about unwed mothers giving birth, and while the Catholic church was fighting tooth and nail against attempts in the Parliament to liberalize the law of contraception. Eventually, the Irish Health Act was amended that year, allowing condoms to be sold without prescription to people over 18. That was a revolution – and marked the beginning of the Catholic church loosing its iron grip on the population.
After Ireland, Sanal paid a short visit to Germany to meet the press, friends and colleagues and then flew to Sweden for lectures in Stockholm, Uppsala and Goteborg.
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