WHY DID Mary come at this particular time in history and why did she choose this particular place? These were my questions as I drove up Ireland's N17, the main highway from Galway to Knock. Why did Our Lady of Knock come to a small, unremarkable town in the West of Ireland on Aug. 21, 1879?

This freeway turns out to be the perfect place to consider these questions. Driving out of County Galway and into Mayo you are quickly surrounded by mile after mile of stone walls enclosing green pastures. This is an ideal spot to stop and capture some of the most beautiful scenes of Ireland. From a historical view, these walls are a testimony of a people forced to survive on land totally inadequate for farming. In order to grow their crops and provide grazing for their animals, farmers in the West of Ireland had to turn rocky ground into green pastures.

Nineteenth-century Knock was a place of abject poverty. More pointedly, there were two major factors that appeared to have paved the way for Mary's alleged apparition.

First there were the Penal Laws set up by Irish Protestants who believed they had to destroy Catholicism in order to preserve the nation. The laws forbade Catholics to buy land and limited the length of time they could lease it. It was also decreed that “no person of the popish religion may publicly teach school or instruct youth and students were forbidden to study abroad. Priests were forbidden to enter Ireland and if the Banishment

Act, which banned all bishops from Ireland, had been strictly enforced, Catholic priests in Ireland would have simply died out.

These Penal Laws remained in force for most of the century, until 1778 when the first of two Relief Acts were passed. In 1782, when the second Relief Act was passed, the Penal Laws were effectively ended.

The potato famine of 1845–1851 also played a role, altering rural Ireland forever. In 1841, the population of Ireland was approximately 8 million. By the end of the famine, 10 years, later it stood at half that, with approximately 3 million people dying of starvation and another million emigrating. The West of Ireland was hit particularly hard.

Thirty years after the famine, on Aug. 21, 1879, Our Lady of Knock, along with St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist and the Lamb of God, allegedly appeared to 15 people in the town of Knock, Co. Mayo.

Unlike many other Marian apparitions, Our Lady of Knock had no verbal message for the faithful. And yet, following the two centuries of persecution and poverty, her reason for coming seemed clear. She had come as a beacon of hope and strength for the suffering faithful.

The shrine at Knock attracts more than a million pilgrims a year and hundreds of cures have been reported by the sick and disabled. The Church has never formally approved the apparition, but in 1979, its centenary year, the shrine received its most famous pilgrim, Pope John Paul II.

The Pope's visit helped raise the status of the Knock Shrine to that of one of the major Marian shrines in the world. In his homily at the time, John Paul II said: “Here I am at the goal of my journey to Ireland: the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock. Since I first learned of the centenary of this Shrine, I have felt a strong desire to come here, the desire to make yet another pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Mother of Christ…Yours is a long spiritual tradition of devotion to Our Lady. Mary can truly say of Ireland what we have just heard in the first reading: So I took root in an honored people. (Sir 24:14)”

The Pope also honored Knock by raising the status of the recently built church at the Knock Shrine to a basilica, calling it the Basilica of Our Lady Queen of Ireland.

The basilica was the first of many additions made to provide for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit Knock each year. The ground floor area of the basilica covers more than one acre and can accommodate some 10,000 visitors. On the Feast of Corpus Christi, 1983, the new Exposition Chapel was opened.

In July 1990, the Chapel of Reconciliation which allows 65 priests to hear confessions at the same time, was opened to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims seeking reconciliation.

Finally, there is the Apparition Chapel which houses the statues of the apparition figures. Inside there is room for 150, but since the walls are made of glass, thousands of people can gather at the apparition site for prayer.

Knock is a one-street town with everything in walking distance. Many bed and breakfast establishments in the area are comfortable and charge reasonable rates. Directly across the street from the Shrine is St. Mary's Hostel, run by the Daughters of Charity. Pilgrims can stay for approximately $20 a night, which includes a full Irish breakfast.

A full day at Knock is necessary to experience all there is on the shrine grounds. The Knock Folk Museum offers a complete history of the apparition and a history of the town in the 19th century. Souvenir shops along Knock's main street offer bottles for collecting holy water from several fonts. Nearby restaurants cater to pilgrims and are reasonably priced.

Mass is offered throughout the day and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered from 11A.M.-7P.M. There is Anointing of the Sick each day as well as the rosary and the Stations of the Cross. On the First Friday of each month from May to October there is an all night vigil, which begins at Midnight and ends with Mass at 4 A.M.

During the pilgrimage season, from May to October, reservations are recommended. The town is especially busy during the third week of August, which includes the Feast of the Assumption and the Feast of Our Lady of Knock.

For information on arranging pilgrimages contact: Rev. Parish Priest, Knock Shrine, Co. Mayo, Ireland, Phone: 094-88100.

John McCormack is based in Cheshire, Conn.