Hundreds of people have been gathering to pay their respects to what they believe is an image of the Virgin Mary in a tree stump in Co Limerick.

There have been nightly vigils in the grounds of Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale after workers spotted the similarities while cutting down trees.

Those visiting the site believe it depicts an image of the Virgin Mary and believers have come in their hundreds to pray and light candles.

A spokesman for the Limerick diocesan office said the 'Church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism.'

'While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition,' said Fr Paul Finnerty.

Rathkeale Community Council Graveyard Committee chairman Noel White said workmen sprucing up the church land saw the image when they cut the tree.

'One of the lads said look, our Blessed Lady in the tree,' Mr White said. 'One of the other lads looked over and actually knelt down and blessed himself, he got such a shock.'

'It was the perfect shape of the figure of Our Lady holding the baby,' he said.

Now thousands have signed a petition to try to keep the stump in the grounds permanently.

However not everybody is convinced.

'It's only a tree' said local parish priest Father Willie Russell.