In August and September 1920 the town of Templemore in County Tipperary is the sight of alleged Marian apparitions. Thousands of people come to the town daily to see the apparitions. The affair occurs during the Irish War of Independence and results in a short-lived local truce between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Crown forces. When the truce ends, pilgrims stop coming to the town and the sightings end. The affair is sometimes referred to as the Templemore miracles.
In January 1919 the Irish War of Independence begins and lasts until July 1921. On the night of August 16, 1920, British soldiers of the Northamptonshire Regiment attack Templemore in reprisal for the killing of an Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) officer by IRA volunteers earlier that day. They fire volleys and burn homes and businesses. No civilians or IRA men are killed but two soldiers die by accident in the fires.
Shortly after the attack, a sixteen-year old farm labourer named James Walsh claims that he was visited by the Virgin Mary in his cottage in the nearby townland of Curraheen. She told him that she was troubled by what was happening in Ireland. At her request he digs a hole in the ground in his bedroom and this soon fills with spring water. Afterwards he claims that all three statues of the Virgin Mary in his home began to bleed. He takes these statues to Templemore, where the bleeding is witnessed. One man who had been crippled for most of his life claims he is dancing in the streets after visiting Walsh’s cottage. He is the first of many who claim to have been cured of their ailments in the presence of Walsh or the statues.
Locals believe that divine intervention had prevented any of them being killed or wounded during the attack by the British. Walsh gathers people around the statues to say the Rosary in Irish. According to Ann Wilson, the statues are seen “as asserting the Catholic Irish identity of the population in the face of the non-Catholic British opponent, a superior spiritual power which would win out against the much more substantial, but merely worldly, advantages of the enemy.”
The affair is soon reported in local and national newspapers, which causes more pilgrims to go to Tipperary, both to see the statues in Templemore and Walsh’s cottage in Curraheen. On August 31, 1920 an RIC inspector writes to the Dublin Castle administration, estimating that over 15,000 pilgrims per day are coming down. Many come seeking cures for various illnesses and report that they had received them. One RIC officer resigns from his job to join a religious order. One soldier is reported to convert to Catholicism. The influx results in a large economic windfall for the town.
The official position of the church is one of ‘extreme reserve.’ The parish priest Reverend Kiely refuses to see the statues. However, no effort is made to stop people making pilgrimages. Local IRA commander James Leahy notes a division between older and younger clergy in the local church, with older clergy generally being skeptical of Walsh while younger clergy are more enthusiastic about his claims.
Prior to the apparitions beginning, Wilson had given a Virgin Mary statue to a local RIC constable named Thomas Winsey, according to the Tipperary Star. Winsey placed the statue in the barracks. This too is said to be bleeding. One day a large crowd of pilgrims besiege the barracks and have to be physically restrained when they attempt to enter it. The statue is removed from the barracks. Police and military stop appearing on the street shortly after.
The IRA effectively takes over the area at this point. They keep order, organise traffic and help pilgrims. However, they do not appear in the streets in uniform and there is an informal truce in effect between them and Crown forces.
Local IRA commander James Leahy is concerned at the effect that tips given to IRA volunteers were having on discipline. He and other local commanders interrogate Walsh and stop believing him after this. He contacts IRA Director of Intelligence Michael Collins. Collins has Dan Breen interrogate Walsh. Breen reports that Walsh “was a fake.” Collins sarcastically replies, “One can’t take any notice of what you say, Breen, because you have no religion.”
Having failed to get the church to intervene and denounce Walsh, Leahy and other IRA members decide to restart the war anyway. On September 29, IRA volunteers attack a group of RIC men between Templemore and Curraheen. Two constables are killed. As anticipated, this brings police and army reinforcements to the area. Soldiers loot and desecrate sites outside Templemore associated with the pilgrimage. Rumours begin that the town itself would soon be attacked. Pilgrims flee the area. The statues apparently stop bleeding.
Interest in the statues and Walsh’s cottage largely end at this point, ending Templemore as a sight for pilgrimages. However, Michael Collins does receive a statue at his request. Upon receiving the statue, he smashes it. He discovers that inside is an alarm clock connected to fountain pen inserts containing sheep’s blood. When the clock strikes a certain time, it sends a spurt of blood out of the statue, giving the impression it is bleeding. It is not clear whether this statue performed in Templemore or was one of the ones owned by James Walsh. Collins had received complaints from a local priest that IRA volunteers had engineered statues that would bleed at intervals.
James Walsh is labelled as a possible spy by Dan Breen. At the request of Templemore clergy he is taken to Salesian College in Limerick and placed in the care of Father Aloysius Sutherland. He emigrates to Australia in 1923, settling in Sydney. Towards the end of his life he attempts to enter numerous religious orders but is unsuccessful due to a prior divorce. He dies in Sydney in 1977, having never returned to Ireland.
Historian John Reynolds states at a talk that the affair could have been a prank that got out of hand or was a money-making swindle. He speculates that Walsh may have been used by others, who really instigated it. He discounts the local IRA as having been the instigators.
The affair is not well-known despite gaining worldwide attention at the time. However, in November 2012 the Irish-language television broadcaster TG4 screens a documentary about it. In 2019 the book The Templemore Miracles, written by John Reynolds, is published.
(Pictured: Children pray beside statues that were reported to have started bleeding, Belfast Telegraph, http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk)