Hungary and the story of the "Irish Madonna"

Story by Tom Kelly

Monday, 15th September, 2008 12:00pm

On a recent visit to Hungary, Moate woman Mary Henson visited the shrine of the Irish Madonna in Gyòr, where a painting of the Virgin Mary, left there by an Irish bishop in 1663, shed tears and blood on St Patrick"s Day 1697, the same day penal laws were introduced in Ireland. Writing for the "Westmeath Independent", Mary Henson explains how this painting came to be worshipped by the Hungarian people.

On a recent outing to Central Europe - Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic - a tour group of over 40 people from Ireland had the privilege of visiting various churches and basilicas as well as other venues and places of interest in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, all steeped in history. Surprisingly, it wasn"t the stroll in Vienna Woods or boat trip on the Danube that was the highlight of the trip for everyone - it was the Gyòr/Irish connection.

In a side chapel of the cathedral in the city of Gyòr in Hungary, is a beautiful picture of the Virgin Mary and child which the people of that country call the Irish Madonna, and which they venerate under the title "Our Lady, Consoler of the Afflicted". The extraordinary story of the Irish Madonna in Gyòr is not legendary, but is based on fact and the testimony of reliable witnesses.

Gyòr is the main city of northwest Hungary, and lies on one of the most important routes of Central Europe half way between Vienna and Budapest. The city, the sixth largest in Hungary, is one of the five main regional centres of the country. Rich in historical buildings, this mellow and colourful town with characteristic corner balconies and narrow winding lanes, hosts a vast array of architectural, cultural and natural traditions. The area has been inhabited since ancient times.

It was in this medieval town, which has changed little since the 17th century, that it all began. The treasured icon, once the cherished possession of an Irish bishop named Walter Lynch who was attached to the Diocese of Clonfert in Co Galway from 1647 until his untimely death in exile in Gyòr on July 14, 1663, after fleeing the Cromwellian religious persecution in Ireland.

It is believed the Lynch family who held many mayoral posts in the city had a leading role in the construction of St Nicholas Church in Galway in 1320, and the Chapel of Our Lady built in 1561. According to history from this church came the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, now stationed in Gyòr.

The Diocese of Clonfert became vacant following the transfer of Bishop John Burke to the Archdiocese of Tuam, and in March 1647, Walter Lynch was appointed Bishop of Clonfert.

Following the 1641 Rising, it was a very disturbed and difficult time in Ireland. The struggle was carried on by forces under the direction of the Catholic Confederation which was formed earlier in Kilkenny. Soon Bishop Lynch became involved and took an active part in the deliberations, but owing to disunity and divisions within the Confederation, and the arrival of Oliver Cromwell and his army, and the death of the leader of the Confederate forces Owen Roe O"Neill, the Catholic cause was doomed and soon collapsed.

Bishop Lynch had to flee his diocese of Clonfert and take refuge in Galway prior to the city"s surrender to Cromwell. To avoid capture he made his way to Innisbofin before escaping to the continent where he eventually found asylum in Belgium.

It was in 1655 in the city of Vienna that he met Hungarian Bishop John Pusky of Gyòr who was to befriend and invite him to his diocese where he appointed him as his auxiliary and he was made a member of the diocesan chapter. The Irish bishop learned Hungarian and worked for a decade among the faithful there. Meanwhile, back in Ireland Cromwell had died; King Charles was back on the throne in England, conditions had begun to improve and there was some relaxation of the laws against Catholics.

Although grateful for the hospitality and welcome he received in Gyòr, his heart longed for his native shore but sadly, he wasn"t destined to return to his homeland again. As he was preparing to leave, he died unexpectedly on July 14, 1663, and it is in that city that greeted him in his exile, that his body now lies.

Amongst his few personal possessions, was his most treasured - the painting of the Madonna and child from the Cathedral in Clonfert, which he feared at that time might fall into impious hands. After his death the picture was placed over a side altar in a side chapel in the cathedral in Gyòr. It is still in the same place today, but now in a richly adorned shrine. It would probably have received little attention or honour, were it not for the wonderful happening that took place there on St Patrick"s Day, 34 years later.

Early on the morning of March 17, 1697, as mass was being offered in the Cathedral, what appears to have been a sweat of blood and tears was noticed on the picture. Obviously this caused great wonderment and excitement among the congregation who were present. The face of the Madonna was wiped with linen, but the blood and tears continued to flow for two to three hours. The linen used to dry the liquid is preserved in a silver and glass casket in the cathedral, where it can be seen and venerated to this day. A discolouration on the linen appears like a bloodstain.

The picture was taken down, removed from its frame and examined under scrutiny, but no explanation could be given. News of the marvel spread to the far corners of the city; not only Catholics, but Protestants and Jews flocked to see the miracle, which was witnessed by thousands and many gave written testimony of what they saw.

Following this strange and seemingly miraculous occurrence devotion to the Irish Madonna grew, and a special shrine has become a much-adorned shrine in her honour.

On his deathbed, Dr Walter Lynch bequeathed the picture of the Madonna and child to the Bishop of Gyòr, who placed it in the cathedral. Bishop Lynch is himself buried in the cathedral crypt. This was his first diocese after crossing the Hungarian border.

The people of Gyòr and its environs felt it was divine intervention that brought and left this treasured relic in their custody from a faraway land. They believed many national disasters had been adverted through its intercession. In 1697 the Hungarians enjoyed greater peace than they had known for years.

The first centenary of the occurrence was celebrated in 1797, the second in 1897, and the 250th anniversary in 1947, when it is estimated that 100,000 pilgrims visited the shrine.

Devotion to the Mother of God is a notable feature of both our nations; may her shrine in Gyòr be a reminder of the friendship and hospitality experienced by an exiled Irish bishop in a far-off land in bygone troubled times, and may the relationship between our countries continue to prosper and grow.

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