Staring at a fixed light in the darkness of an April night, it seemed to move to the left. Looking away, then looking back again, the experience was repeated. Of course, the light never moved, its apparent movement was due to a phenomenon called the autokinetic effect, something identified in the Nineteenth Century and researched by scientists in the early Twentieth Century.
Staring at the light as it seemed to trace a path back and forth, there was a recall of a strange phenomenon from the 1980s, the moving statue of Ballinspittle in Co Cork. Crowds of the devout would gather to pray at the statue of the Madonna because there were claims that people had seen the statue, with its halo of lights, move. The concept of autokinesis, the scientific explanation, was rejected. The faithful could not accept the rational interpretation, that if one stares at a light for long enough, it will move. Instead, there were claims of miraculous intervention, signs from divine origins. Even if one was inclined to accept the possibility of such revelations, the medium chosen seemed an odd one for the divinity to choose: how would the swaying of a plaster statue convey a message to the waiting audience? How would its movements be interpreted by those who chose to see them as a sign from on high?
The Ballinspittle phenomenon came to an abrupt halt when fundamentalist Christians attacked the statue with sledge hammers, preventing further possibility of it being seen to move. The moment had been so much forgotten that an Internet search was necessary to verify the story. The Wikipedia page on moving statues quotes anthropologist Peter Mulholland who sees such phenomena as “stemming largely from adverse childhood experiences and a concatenation of historical, cultural, political, religious and sociological factors.”
The revelations of clerical abuse and institutional concealment of paedophiles were still more than a decade away, but it was a time of upheaval. The 1983 referendum that introduced a constitutional prohibition of abortion was a sign of a theocratic state that was beginning to feel itself under pressure to change. In retrospect, the constitutional amendment seems a last shout by the bishops rather than a sign of continuing ecclesiastical power. The Eighth Amendment now seems an attempt to shore up an edifice of influence that was beginning to crumble. The coming referendum is a sign that the prelates have come to the point they feared. If Peter Mulholland is right, the “concatenation of historical, cultural, political, religious and sociological factors” may be bring another bout of moving statues.