Mass Rocks of Ireland

Keeping the Flame of Faith Alight

The ‘Mass Rock’ is a structure that is peculiar to Ireland. It is classified as “a rock or earth-fast boulder used as an altar or a stone-built altar used when Mass was being celebrated during Penal times (the 1690s to 1750s AD), though there are some examples which appear to have been used during the Cromwellian period (1650s AD). Some of these rocks/boulders may bear an inscribed cross” (The Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland). They are, for the most part, located in isolated places, because such locations were especially sought so religious ceremonies, such as the Catholic Mass, could be celebrated by the faithful. Such rites had been prohibited as a result of Oliver Cromwell’s decimation of Ireland and the ‘Penal Laws’ enforced after William III’s victories at the Boyne and Limerick. Bishops were banished from Ireland and priests had to register with the authorities to preach, which made the practice of Roman catholicism both difficult and dangerous during these years with ‘Priest Hunters’ being employed to seek out and arrest unregistered priests.

In Irish, the name given to a ‘Mass Rock’ was Carraig an Aifrinn. Other names associated with sites where Mass was celebrated in Penal times include Clais an Aifrinn meaning ‘Mass Ravine’, Páirc an tSéipéil or ‘Chapel field’, Faill an Aifrinn or ‘Mass cliff’, Leaca na hAltora indicating a flat stone or rock altar, Cábán an Aifrinn or ‘Mass Cabin’, Cnocan na hAltorach meaning ‘small hill of the altar’ and Gleann an Aifrinn indicating a ‘Mass Glen’. In many instances, the ‘Mass Rock’ was a stone taken from a ruined church and relocated to an isolated rural area, and a simple cross was carved on top. Because the practice of the Roman Catholic Mass and other rites were illegal, the services were held at random times and places with the parishioners having to spread the word from neighbour to neighbour. By the late 17th century these rites of worship had been generally moved to thatched Mass houses, and the ‘Mass Rock’locations became used as places where the local faithful could make their devotions on the feast day of the patron saint of the parish.

Penal Mass

In those dark days of the ‘Penal Laws’ and persecution, the ‘Mass Rocks’ were landmarks for the local Catholic community, but were hidden away from the prying eyes of the authorities and are, therefore, by their very nature, difficult to find. Nevertheless, In Ireland, the locations of these ‘Mass Rocks’ of the Catholic faith remain important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to the Nation’s heritage and tradition. During his visit to Ireland in 1979, the Pope recognised the continuing importance of the ‘Mass Rock’ as a reminder of the past persecutions that the Irish people faced and, even today, the Mass continues to be celebrated at some of the ‘Mass Rocks’ that are spread throughout the country.

The ‘Penal Laws’ were imposed on the Roman Catholic population of Ireland by the ruling British during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The reformed Christian faith (Protestantism) was the established faith of those areas controlled by the British Crown and an effort was made to force the Irish Catholic majority to abandon their faith and replace it with the new reformed faith. as a result, the ‘Laws’ enacted against Catholicism were very restrictive and had a long and lasting effect on the daily life of Irish Catholics, which continues to this day. These restrictive laws included –

            Restrictions on how children of Catholics were educated

            Banning Catholics from holding public office or serving in the army

            Expelling Catholic clergy from the country, or executing them

            Taking the land and distributing it among British Lords

            Dividing inherited land equally between children, to reduce land size held by individual Catholics

            Excluding Catholics from voting

            Catholics banned from inheriting Protestant land

            A ban imposed on the celebration of the Catholic Mass.

In Ireland, the Catholic faith was banned by the English invaders under Cromwell’s leadership in 1649. With puritanical hatred, the churches were desecrated and closed, and a bounty of ten pounds was placed on the head of every priest. ‘Priest Hunters’ were employed to seek out and arrest Catholic priests, who were subsequently hung, drawn and quartered by the authorities. Moreover, any person caught hiding or giving sustenance to a priest would be hanged immediately. But the faith was strong among the Irish people, and Sunday was still the day when you were obliged to obey the word of God rather than the laws of the English government against what was seen as the ‘True Church’. Often rising from their beds in the middle of the night the family prepared themselves for a long, cold, silent walk in the darkness they would follow narrow, almost hidden trails towards mountains, forests, or bogland, where they would disappear from sight among thickets, trees, and bushes. In this hidden place Irish men, women, and children would kneel on the ground before a massive rock, while others would stand guard, watching for the approach of English troops. A curtain of sorts would be pulled around this makeshift altar, from behind which could be heard the voices of a man and a boy preparing to celebrate the Mass. On the altar would be placed a book, a tablecloth, wine, water, and bread, but none could see those making the preparations and, therefore, could not be forced to identify the person offering them the Eucharist.

Silence prevailed in the darkness with the cries of young children being muffled by the hands of their mothers, while the Mass continued. After the consecration, a line forms quietly behind a protruding rock near the sanctuary curtain. Each takes a turn kneeling on the cold stone, as a voice says, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.” A hand reaches out from behind the veil and places a Communion Host on every tongue. The, After the reading of the Last Gospel, most scatter in different directions to escape detection. A few stay behind to have their confessions heard. Afterward, only a boy and a man remain, hiding any evidence of what occurred. With the man’s blessing, the youngster heads off into the woods. Finally, the man, his priest’s kit stowed safely under his arm, slips into the forest, disappearing like a thief in the night. Such places are scattered throughout Ireland and are often found hidden deep within lush, green forests in remote mountain areas. Ramblers and adventurers occasionally stumble across what appear to be ancient open-air amphitheaters that have been carved into the mountainside and are the remains of Penal Mass sites and represent the vicious persecution of Irish Catholics by English Protestants from 1536 to 1829, during which the Faith was outlawed and priests hunted down like criminals. It was in these places that the Mass was celebrated in secret for the faithful during several periods in Irish history. But it was at these Mass Rocks that the light of the Faith was kept lit, even in the darkest of times, and for many Irish people these sites still represent ‘Holy Ground’.

England’s long and torturous persecution of the Irish began when Pope Adrian IV bestowed Ireland on King Henry II in 1155 after the King promised to reform the Church there. Almost four-hundred years later King Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome and launched a terrible attack upon the Catholic Church under English control. In 1536 the Irish Parliament followed the Parliament in England by enacting the ‘Act of Supremacy’, which made Henry head of the Church and brought the Protestant Reformation to Ireland. Many of the Irish chieftains accepted this new situation, but the Catholic clergy and the majority of the ordinary people of Ireland rejected the ‘Act’. After Henry’s death and the succession of his son, Edward VI, the English Church began to attack the Catholic Faith in two main areas. Belief in ‘transubstantiation’ was declared a heresy and was punishable by death, and this attack upon the Holy Eucharist gave parliament courage to pass laws that would exterminate the Mass from England, and from Ireland. This assault, however, was interrupted with the accession of the Catholic Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter. It was a sign of hope when she came to the throne and repealed the ‘Act of Supremacy’ in 1554 and began punishing those who had spread the ‘heretical teachings’ of Protestantism throughout her kingdom.

Unfortunately, Mary’s reign was a short one and in 1558 she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth. The ‘Act of Supremacy’ was reinstated and Queen Elizabeth was made Supreme Head of the Church in England. The great effort to make England a Protestant country continued, but all efforts to remove the religion and culture from Ireland was greatly resisted. Undeterred, the Queen commanded that the Irish be brought under control and submit to her authority, allowing the Protestant religion to replace the Catholic faith of the people. She was, furthermore, prepared to use the strongest measures to enforce her will, including the gibbet, the rack, the axe, and the sword. In 1560 the Parliament in Dublin was persuaded to pass the ‘act of Supremacy’, making Elizabeth head of the Irish Church, and the ‘Act of Uniformity’, abolishing the Mass. Any person that continued to accept the Pope’s claim to spiritual jurisdiction in Ireland was considered to be a traitor, and any priest that was caught saying Mass would equally receive severe punishment for their treachery. In addition, any Catholic who refused to attend the new Protestant services would be subject to severe financial penalties for their disobedience.

Elizabeth and her advisers were convinced that the surest way to eliminate the Mass from the religious life of the Irish was to eliminate the priests who served them. But, despite imprisoning, starving, torturing and executing these men, the English authorities could not stop the tide of new priests rushing to replace them from various seminaries established in Europe. Young Irish men wanting to train for the priesthood attended seminaries in France, Italy, and Spain that were specifically set up to provide priests for the persecuted Catholics of Ireland. In the knowledge that their lives would constantly be in grave danger, these men returned to Ireland. It was the zeal and determination of such men that brought them to the fore as leaders of the great ‘Counter-Reformation’ that would recover Ireland and other nations for the Catholic faith.

Those priests returning to Ireland now found an ‘underground’ network of supporters ready to assist and sustain them in their work. They hid the priests in their homes and provided them with all their materials needs. By using secret places and subterfuges these priests were able to offer the sacraments to the faithful in various private houses. However, there arose a need for places where the sacraments could be delivered to larger groups of people, and thus arose the use of Mass Rocks. Because of the continuing persecution of all Catholics, the banned sacraments would have to be celebrated outdoors on some remote mountainside or field. In secret, these places were prepared and the faithful were clandestinely notified of their location, where they would have their Confessions heard, celebrate Mass, and receive the Blessed Sacrament. The practice spread quickly throughout Ireland and almost every parish in Ireland can lay claim to a Mass Rock from these times, especially in Northern Ireland where the ‘Plantation’ of farmers took hold. As you can imagine, these secret locations varied. They were far from the main roads, hidden on rugged mountainsides, or in rough wooded glens, or even in noted landmarks like the ruins of forts, abbeys, and churches. Many locations were sited near streams so that no tracks would be left for the enemy to follow. At the same time, however, some locations were close to one another so that the priest and people could move during bad weather to give respite from the elements. There were some locations, also, that were hidden away in naturally formed grottoes, while nearby others were ‘holy wells’ that might be used for baptisms.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Protestantism had become the established religion of  England. While, in Ireland, it was clear to the authorities that all their attempts to impose the new religion were a failure, because of the strength of local resistance. Queen Elizabeth was succeeded after her death by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England in 1603. Under the rule of James, and his son, Charles I, despite the latter’s efforts to seek toleration for Catholics, there was little improvement in the lives of Irish Catholics. But, after the defeat of English forces at the ‘Battle of Benburb’, the Irish people once again gained a taste of religious freedom and their ‘Mass Houses’ were tolerated and the priests were permitted to go about their business without hindrance. This, however, was only a brief respite and quickly ended when the rabidly anti-Catholic Puritans took control of the English government, and the subsequent arrival of Oliver Cromwell to Ireland in 1846 heralded the greatest onslaught yet on Irish Catholics. They were to be shown no mercy under Cromwell’s rule, with entire towns razed to the ground and populations massacred. There were entire areas of fertile Irish land confiscated and given to Cromwell’s soldiers, Protestant adventurers and farmers, and Cromwell’s stated aim was to ensure that there would be no Catholic Irish east of the Shannon River. He gave them the option of going “to Hell or to Connacht.” All Catholic clergy were ordered to leave Ireland and put to death if they refused alongside any who would give them shelter. As a result, it is said – “To such an extent was the persecution carried that Catholic churches were soon in ruins, a thousand priests driven into exile, and not a single bishop remained in Ireland but the old and helpless Bishop of Kilmore.” Mass Rock 5Again, the use of ‘Mass Rocks’ became common and the faithful kept watch for the approach of ‘Priest Hunters’ and English soldiers. there were occasions, however, when the soldiers came, catching the worshippers unawares as they prayed and slaughtered them, splattering the blood of men, women, and children across the makeshift altars.

When the ‘Williamite War’ in Ireland came to an end after the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, the subsequent ‘Treaty of Limerick’ promised Catholics the freedom to exercise their religion, but very soon afterward the Protestant Lords and lawmakers tore up these guarantees. They persuaded the King, William of Orange, that implementing a substantial number of anti-Catholic laws, known as the ‘Penal Laws’ were the only way to subdue the native Irish. Some of these laws have been outlined above and under their authority, the Catholic faith was banned and the priests exiled under pain of death. Life was not much better for the ordinary Catholic Irish who could not teach or attend Catholic schools and were excluded from serving in Parliament, the legal profession or the armed forces. They could not vote, carry arms, own a horse worth more than five pounds, and could not act as a guardian or marry a Protestant. More importantly, they could not acquire land or hold a mortgage, but if the wife or son of a Catholic should become Protestant all things changed in their favour.

There have been many thoughts about what purpose the ‘Penal Laws’ actually served. Some have argued that they were not intended to exterminate Catholicism but to neutralise them as a political threat to the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. Others have argued that their purpose was, in fact, to eliminate Catholicism from Ireland. Nevertheless, both parties agree that the ‘Laws’ failed in part because of the remarkable tenacity of the Catholic clergy and laity, and to the difficulties encountered in enforcing them over a period of time when sectarian passions grew and then fell away. It is my opinion, however, that the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland had intended for the ‘Laws’ to completely eradicate Catholicism but, because of the resistance encountered, were forced to settle for them being a support for their own power and privilege. Meanwhile, renewed oppression caused to adapt once again. ‘Mass Rocks’ became the centre of worship and, because they were denied official education, young Irish Catholics were taught literature and religion in secret hedge schools that were often taught by fugitive priests. At the same time, the Irish Catholic peasantry formed themselves into secret agrarian societies to protect themselves against the Protestant landlords and their punitive rents.

The people again attended the ‘Mass Rocks’ to receive the sacraments and have their faith sustained. Ordinations were also held in such places, despite the prohibitions, when Bishops with several other attendees laid hands on the priests to avoid the discovery of member of the Catholic episcopacy. These leaders of the Church would wander on foot, dressed in rough clothing that made them almost indiscernible from the peasantry among whom they lived, ate and slept in broken down turf cabins, or holes in the ground covered with turf roofs. Masses were now often confined to the secret ‘Mass Rocks’ in lonely valleys or the hidden places on the hillsides, and once again these places proved to be essential in sustaining the ‘old faith’ in Ireland. By 1730, the active persecution of Roman Catholics in Ireland had greatly decreased and it became clear, even to the most hardened Protestants in the land, that the ‘Penal Laws’ had been a total failure. In 1829 ‘Catholic Emancipation’ came to Ireland and the faithful were finally permitted to use their ‘Mass Houses’ without fear. But, even after emancipation, the ‘Mass Rocks’ continued as the main places to celebrate the sacraments because many of the major Protestant landlords refused to allow Catholic churches to be built on their property. Interestingly, ‘Mass Rocks’ are undergoing a bit of a revival as people visit them as a place of pilgrimage and pray there for those men, women, and children who kept the faith alive in our beloved Ireland.

For any who would like to read more about this particular subject I would recommend ;

S.J. Connolly, Religion, law, and power: the making of Protestant Ireland, 1660–1760 (Oxford, 1992).

P. Corish, The Catholic community in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Dublin, 1981).

H.A. Jefferies, ‘The early penal days: Clogher under the administration of Hugh MacMahon (1701–1715)’, in H.A. Jefferies (ed.), History of the Diocese of Clogher (Dublin, 2005).