September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

The public-address system pumps an endless stream of prayers across the rain-soaked cow pasture while hundreds—sometimes thousands—of miracle seekers crane their necks to stare at a six-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is no ordinary Virgin. The 30-year-old statue, which stands outside the tiny hamlet of Ballinspittle in County Cork, Ireland, is said to do things that run-of-the-mill icons cannot. People have reported seeing it wave, shake, breathe, blush and even take on the countenance of Jesus Christ. The plaster and concrete Madonna has attracted the devout and the curious from all over the country and from as far away as Italy, West Germany and the United States. They gather every night, rain or starshine, to stare at the face of the statue, which is crowned with an electric halo, searching for some sign of life. They are seldom disappointed. “She is moving!” exclaimed Margaret Beals, a Bostonian who was visiting relatives in Ireland when she skeptically decided to check out the shrine one night not long ago. “It was moving from the shoulders up. I saw it tremoring. Yeah, there it goes! Look at that!”

For years local residents have reported seeing the Virgin moving, but their reports were ignored until late in July when Katherine O’Mahony, a local housewife, swore that she saw the statue taking in some fresh air. “She was breathing,” O’Mahony says. “Her chest was moving like she was lifelike.” Word of O’Mahony’s vision spread rapidly. The next night 150 people came to the shrine, and the following evening the crowd numbered over a thousand. The phenomenon reached a frenzied pitch on last month’s Feast of the Assumption when 25,000 souls crowded the Ballinspittle countryside. One excited local leader claims that 80 percent of the pilgrims actually see the statue do something—although, alas, they don’t all see it do the same things at the same time. Reported movements range from the mundane—mere nods and shakes—to the truly operatic. “I looked up and saw Our Lady ascending into heaven with her feet out,” said septuagenarian Josephine Foran of nearby Bishoptown, who visited the site with her daughter Elizabeth, 35. “We’re not making up anything. We saw the Lord’s face and we saw what we thought said ‘Padre Pio’ on the Virgin’s face. We were kneeling there and her face became human like a baby’s. It was lovely pink flesh. We couldn’t make this up.”

Nobody has accused the witnesses of fictionalizing, but some experts, like Dr. Jurek Kirakowski, a perceptual psychologist from the University College of Cork, claim that their eyes are playing tricks on them. “If you look at a hazy object for any length of time, you begin to interpret what you see and see things in it,” he says. “Like walking through a forest on a misty night—with an active imagination, you will see all sorts of things leaping out at you.”

Among the skeptics is Father James Davern, pastor of Ballinspittle’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church. “I couldn’t perceive anything supernatural there,” he says. “I failed to see any movement, even with high-powered binoculars. The statue does not move. If the grotto committee would put a bright spotlight on it—as I have asked—the alleged movements would cease.” Father Davern sees the local miraclemongers as more concerned with mammon than with God. “Their stewards stop traffic at strategic points so the shopkeepers can benefit,” he says, disgusted. “It’s sickening how they have commercialized it so quickly.”

But for John Whitbread, the commercial aspect of the phenomenon is the biggest miracle of all. Whitbread makes his living selling hamburgers, chicken, sausages and french fries from a little truck in Ballinspittle, and the advent of hungry crowds has caused his business to be fruitful and multiply. “Weatherwise, this was a very bad summer,” he says. “Except for this, we’d be doin’ nothin’ at all. I hope she keeps movin’—the longer, the better.”

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