From Boyle to Lourdes: schoolgirls’ epic trip recalled




The extraordinary journey taken by two schoolgirls from Boyle in Co. Roscommon to Lourdes over 125 years ago is recalled in a new book by bestselling author Colm Keane and his wife, former RTÉ newsreader Una O’Hagan.

  ‘The Village of Bernadette: Lourdes, Stories, Miracles and Cures – The Irish Connection’ is a new book which includes many fascinating tales about the renowned place of worship. One of those stories relates to the visit to Lourdes by two young girls from Boyle, named Mary Anne and Bridget.

  The girls set off on their journey in 1893 having been chosen from a class of 38 to travel to Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared on multiple occasions in 1858.

  Stephen Bonsal, a 28-year-old American journalist who interviewed the Roscommon girls when they visited the shrine, reported that they had travelled over with the aim of bringing back jugs of holy water, along with “great bundles of rosaries, chaplets, and beads that had been blessed by the priest of the grotto”.

  In an article published in The Century Magazine in March 1894, Bonsal marvelled at how the girls had managed to – eventually – make it to Lourdes. 

  According to his account, the girls got lost and zigzagged their way to south-west France. Instead of heading south from Paris, they took a train in the opposite direction, to Brussels. From there, they headed to Bordeaux, pointed themselves in the direction of the Pyrenees, and eventually, with much good fortune, arrived at Lourdes. 

  “How these pilgrims from Boyle ever did reach Lourdes still remains a mystery to me,” wrote Bonsal. He said that the girls had experienced some “misadventures” in Paris, where they “nearly cried their eyes out” .

  Their worst misfortune came when they took the express train from Paris to Brussels instead of the ‘rapide’ for Bordeaux. Eventually, they arrived at Lourdes with “a crowd of pilgrims”.

  Bonsal wrote: “Early in the morning and late in the evening I saw them drawing water from the miracle spring and carrying it up the hillside and into the city in earthenware jars. In their lodgings they had placed a score or more of mammoth milk cans in which they intended to transport the waters back to Boyle. It was weary, slow work”.  

  One afternoon, Bonsal spotted in the newspaper La Croix that the Second Home Rule Bill had passed in the House of Commons.  

  “We made merry as best we might in the shadow of the holy places,” he recalled. “But on the part of the colleens the gaiety was forced and far from real. Tears came into their eyes as they thought of what they were missing”.

  He recalled that Bridget said: “There will be many a bonfire around Boyle tonight”.

  The girls “disappeared from view following their meeting with Bonsal,” authors Colm Keane and Una O’Hagan write in their book, adding: “Hopefully, they had an easier, smoother, more direct journey home, via Paris and not via Brussels or some other city east of the Volga!”

  St. Bernadette’s impoverished childhood, her work as a shepherdess, visions of Our Lady, harsh treatment as a nun, and tragic death at the age of 35 are recalled in the book.

  Numerous Irish miracles and cures at Lourdes are recollected. Recoveries from cancer, epilepsy, lung problems, skin disease, pain, paralysis and physical disability are included.

  John F. Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Brendan Behan and Seamus Heaney are among the millions who have visited the shrine. You can read their stories, along with those of other Irish pilgrims in ‘The Village of Bernadette: Lourdes, Stories, Miracles and Cures – The Irish Connection’.