restricted access Knock Shrine: The Worst of Times—The 1940s
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Knock Shrine:
The Worst of Times—The 1940s*

The surviving documentation on Knock shrine after its great revival in the 1930s offers a remarkable window on a series of conflicts that took place between the lay leaders of this notable pilgrimage site and the priests and archbishops who exercised ecclesiastical authority over the shrine. The conflicts that occurred were largely invisible to the outside world because the lay leaders most concerned—Liam Coyne and especially his wife Judy Coyne, who outlived her husband by almost fifty years (he died in 1953, she died in 2002 at age 97)—went to unusual lengths to present a picture of tranquility and consensus to outsiders. In her memoir about Knock, Providence My Guide, published posthumously in 2004, Judy Coyne chose to exclude details of serious quarrels with a succession of local priests and two of the archbishops of Tuam for fear that to do otherwise would cause grave damage to the shrine to which she had dedicated the whole of her [End Page 213] long adult life.1 But the preservation and generous release of many of her personal and official papers, along with the recent opening of the papers of Archbishops Joseph Walsh and Joseph Cunnane, have made it possible to pierce the curtain and to trace the numerous tensions and conflicts that punctuated the history of Knock shrine from the early 1940s through the 1980s. This essay will focus on the sharpest of these conflicts, namely those of the 1940s, which pitted the Coynes and their supporters against the priests of Knock as well as against a significant section of the Knock community itself.


By 1940 Knock shrine had recovered impressively from a long period of devotional neglect and had re-emerged to become by far the single most important pilgrimage site in Ireland. According to official reports, Knock was then attracting perhaps as many as 250,000 pilgrims during its season, which was at its height between May and October each year.2 The recovery was guided by the Knock Shrine Society (hereafter called the KSS), whose principal lay leaders were Liam and Judy Coyne.3 This remarkably strong-willed and highly disciplined husband-and-wife team came from comfortable backgrounds (hers was much more prosperous than his), and their lifestyle may best be described as upper-middle-class by the 1930s. Liam Coyne was one of the nine surviving children of Margaret Coyne and her husband John. Liam’s father was already deceased by the time of the 1911 census, but his mother, then aged 52, and one of his elder brothers, Thomas, owned and operated a pub and grocery business in Ballyhaunis, where they lived in a fine building (partly a small hotel) with fourteen rooms on Bridge Street at the town square.4 The [End Page 214] family was notably religious. Three of Liam’s sisters were Mercy nuns and one of his brothers was a priest.5 With a baccalaureate degree in law from the old Royal University in Dublin and brief experience as a solicitor in Ballyhaunis, Liam Coyne was active on the political side of the republican movement during the War of Independence, when he played a prominent role in organizing republican courts from an office in the Irish Department of Home Affairs in Dublin.6 He also gained a seat on the Mayo county council, eventually being chosen as its chairman. His brief imprisonment by the British no doubt boosted his future professional prospects, and he became the first Free State district justice for southwest Mayo in 1922 after siding with the pro-Treatyites in the political divisions after 1921 among former revolutionary comrades.7 His wife Judy did not have a university degree (few women in Ireland then did), but she had been well educated by the Dominican nuns at their imposing residence and boarding school—the Dominican Convent of Jesus and Mary—on Taylor’s Hill in Galway city, and before that by the Saint Louis nuns at their convent school in Balla. She was one of the eleven children (four sons and seven daughters) of James P. Begley and his wife Annie (née Joyce...