Roadside Shrines and Grottoes
Nobody can travel for any distance in Ireland without encountering a roadside shrine or grotto.
They vary from just a small statue set into a wall, to large, elaborately constructed tableaux and the vast majority are Marian Shrines, although some celebrate local saints and others, such as the one on the left, depict the crucifixion.
In spite of the documented drift away from organised religion that has taken place in Ireland over the past few decades, they are almost invariably well tended and often bedecked with fresh flowers.
Many are close to Holy Wells, places now associated with Christian saints but whose origins almost certainly date back to pagan times, and other are situated in places that have significance locally that long predates the shrines themselves.
Featured image: Grotto in Mitchelstown by Kman999
1954 – The Marian Year
Although a few date from the early part of the 20th century, most of these shrines date from 1954, which was dedicated by the Vatican as a Marian Year, a year of celebration of and devotion to Mary.
Probably no other country embraced this year with greater fervour than Ireland.
As well as erecting hundreds of shrines commemorative stamps were issued, the Irish named many girls born that year Marian or Mary.
The number of young women entering convents soared and on May 16th 30,000 people marched through the centre of Dublin to celebrate Queenship of Mary.
The tradition of devotion to Mary persisted after 1954, albeit among ever declining numbers, though it is one now confined mainly to an older generation.
When I was at boarding school in the 1970s we rose early each morning in May (the month of Mary), went outside to a Marian Shrine in the school grounds and there, although barely awake, sang hymns in praise of Mary.
It didn’t exactly fill us with glee at the time, but I seriously doubt you would get any group of teenage girls to do that to-day!
It is a sign of the times that there was another Marian Year in the late 1980s which passed pretty much unnoticed by the bulk of the Irish population.
Still, in almost every parish, there is a dedicated band of people who maintain the shrines and grottoes which have become part of our landscape and our heritage.
In 1985 a phenomenon occurred which grabbed news headlines around the world, became a topic of conversation all across the country and, for a time at least, saw a resurgence of interest in Marian Shrines.
Or at least many people believed they did, and flocked in their thousands night after night to experience these ‘miracles’.
Others remained skeptical, attributing what people saw to an optical illusion brought about by staring intently at a statue lit up in the twilight against a dark background.
The phenomenon began when local people reported that the statue of Mary at a grotto in Ballinspittle in Co Cork (shown here) moved.
Crowds gathered on subsequent evenings and many of those present, who had often travelled considerable distances, reported seeing movement.
In rapid succession reports came in of similar phenomena at shrines all over the country, until eventually just about every part of Ireland had its very own moving statue.
And then almost as suddenly as it began, it seemed to end. People moved on and there was little mention of or interest in the shrines outside those who had been there anyway before the curious crowds arrived.
Visiting Shrines & Grottos in Ireland
There is little need to direct anyone to a particular place to see a shrine or grotto – you will just see them, they really are everywhere!