Aoife Kelleher’s 2010 documentary feature One Million Dubliners was an enlightening and affecting film that garnered both critical and commercial success.
Kelleher’s follow-up doc, Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village (Strange Occurrences from here on) continues to showcase the director’s dedication to capturing the human element of remarkable locales.
In 1879, fifteen people from the rural village of Knock in County Mayo bore witness to an apparition at the parish churchyard. The appearance of the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Joseph was noted in many newspapers of the day, and the film’s title comes from one such headline.
Following two official inquiries, Knock was named a Marian Shrine. Today this village of 2,000 people welcomes a million pilgrims annually.
Strange Occurrences spends some of its first act exploring the apparition. Witness’ testimonials and diary entries are read by their relatives direct to camera.
The film presents us with a historiological account of the “strange occurrence”. The handling of this sequence speaks to Kelleher’s understanding of the human aspect of this supernal scenario.
There is some interrogation of the apparition, with a little speculation as to what could have happened. But the picture is far more interested in the effect the event has had on Knock itself.
Like One Million Dubliners before it, Strange Occurrences finds a particular focus in those who make their living in the village. Kelleher interviews priests, tour guides, shop owners, and an assortment of local characters about their lives in the village.
Through this stitching together of interview material, the audience is shown the bigger picture of Knock as it was in the past and as it is now – in an age of rapid development and increasing secularity.
Of the interviewees seen in the early sections of the film, Fr Richard Gibbons is the most intriguing. There’s an energy about this man. We see footage of Fr Gibbons engaging with the parishioners, surveying building proposals, leading parades and other festivities.
The sense is that this man is at the centre of a small but lively community. His enthusiasm is infectious and seems to bleed into the pacing of the documentary, which is brisk in its movement from one vignette to another.
Gibbons talks to Kelleher about a couple of his current projects: a transatlantic pilgrimage from New York to Knock, making use of the village’s airport, and the reconstruction of the town’s basilica.
During the course of the documentary, both of these projects come to fruition. At a press conference, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, toasts the transatlantic pilgrimage.
Knock is a village, that in many ways, is embracing the modern world and the opportunities that its airport provides.
Gibbons is charming in his earnestness. He talks progressively and speaks to Knock’s unique position. It is a village that seems to sit somewhere out of time.
In its approach to tourism and marketing, the village is wholly a product of the modern world. However, its trade is built upon the apparition and older values.
In a sense, Knock represents much of rural Ireland, adapting to modern times while also fighting to retain tradition.
Moving away from Gibbons, the film’s other vignettes highlight a generational divide that exists not just in Knock, but in Ireland as a whole. We visit a street with eight rival souvenir shops.
Each gift shop is owned by a different sibling from the same family. There is a friendly completion at play as the siblings attempt to stock their storefronts with the hottest religious paraphernalia.
There is again, a warmth here for the subject matter. We can’t help but smile as one shopkeeper addresses the camera: “A lot of people say that the holy water in Knock isn’t blessed, I’m here to confirm that it is.”
We cut to a short sequence showing the holy water being blessed, in case we were still in any doubt.
Often, Kelleher keeps a respectable distance from her subjects. We are allowed to make up our own minds about their stories and viewpoints. When the filmmakers visit the town’s Holy Love Information Centre, owner Declan Waters comes off as unassuming, but the interview takes a turn when Waters speaks to the apocalypse that is facing our country. Waters shows his wares to the camera, including some anti-abortion rosary beads.
Sequences like this made me uncomfortable, but they work in the context of Kelleher’s picture as they help to build a sense of Knock as a whole. Waters and other doomsayers who appear intermittently during the film’s latter stages again illustrate this generational divide that seems to be at the heart of Knock’s identity.
Elsewhere, those of a similar age to Waters speak of the need for progressiveness from the church in our modern times. There is a balance to Kelleher’s choice of subjects.
The highlight of the film comes from a look inside Knock Marriage Introductions. This dating service based in the village aims to find suitable partners for lonely hearts around the country.
Canon Joseph Cooney and his patient workmate endeavor to make the perfect match. We see them bickering as they compare applicants’ profiles.
Height, it would seem, is the major factor in finding that special someone. “Sure, she’s too tall, he’d be looking up at her.”
Common interests also play a role in finding that perfect partner. Walking is an ever-popular interest.
To date, the service has been responsible for over 1,000 marriages since opening in the 1970s. I imagine all of the matches are height-appropriate.
As Strange Occurrences moves towards its conclusion, we meet Maria, a woman who claims to have been cured of MS by the presence of the Virgin Mary at Knock Shrine. Her case is currently undergoing investigation, and may be declared a miracle in the near future.
Again, the documentary does not ask questions of its subjects. Instead, the audience is allowed to build a picture of the case through testimonials from Maria, her doctors and other people associated with the event.
It’s this unobtrusive distance that keeps the documentary engaging throughout. The audience needs to engage with the material and interrogate it themselves.
I found the close of the film particularly touching. We are presented with the witnesses’ distant relations. An older woman speaks of the apparition in terms of familial loyalty, Knock and all that it has become provides a link to her ancestral past.
This history is at the heart of Strange Occurrences, and also, at the heart of our enjoyment of the picture.
At times, I rolled my eyes at this material, and I laughed too – the point being, that I was touched by Kelleher’s treatment of her subjects. This film moved me (and a good portion of the audience) because it takes something cosmic and makes it human.
This is a story about people – real people – that enthralls from minute one. It is, simply put, a magnificent achievement.