Mass Rocks and the Survival of the Faith in Ireland

One of the things my brother, Bob, sister-in-law, Veronica, and I did in our walk through the west of Ireland (Aug. 14-20), was to visit the site of one or two Mass Rocks. What’s a “Mass Rock” you ask? Well, read this column and Part II next week to get a sense of some of our courageous and faithful Catholic heritage.

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“Were You at the Rock?” – Mass Rocks and the Survival of the Faith in Ireland by James Bennis

Did you go then to the grey rocks,

And behind a wind-swept crevice there,

Did you find Our Mary gently waiting,
Our Lady, sweet and fair?...

"Were You At the Rock?"

(From a Traditional Gaelic Hymn)


Mass at St. Mullins Mass Rock, Carlow


Ireland, 1649. The Catholic faith is banned by English invaders, churches are desecrated, then closed. A bounty of ten pounds — twice that of a wolf — is placed on each priest's head. Those captured are hung until nearly dead, their stomachs cut open with cleaving knives, disemboweled while still alive, then beheaded. Finally, their bodies are chopped into four pieces. Anyone found harboring a priest is hanged immediately. Nevertheless, it is Sunday and you owe an obligation to God that is higher than any to the English. Arising at midnight, your wife readies the children for the long, chilly walk outdoors. In darkness the family silently marches out the back gate, down the grassy trail toward the mountain and then disappears into the thick green trees.


Before a massive rock, Irish men, women and children kneel on the heather of the hillside. Sentries stand watch on the surrounding peaks for any British troops. A curtain is pulled around an altar built of loose stones but noises come from within as a man and a boy prepare for Mass: book, tablecloth, wine, water, bread. No one can see those behind the sanctuary curtain — and thus could never be forced to identify who offered them the Blessed Sacrament. In the black stillness, a baby's cries are muffled by a soft maternal hand. Then, it is quiet.


"Introibo ad altare Dei," intones the older voice. "Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam," replies a younger one. 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.


After the Last Gospel, most scatter in different directions to escape detection. Some stay behind for Confession. Afterwards, 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.


Scattered throughout Ireland, often found hidden deep within lush, green forests in remote mountains, what appear to be ancient open air amphitheaters carved into the mountainside can still be found, and intrepid travelers occasionally stumble across them. At the center of each is a large pile of loose stones resembling a makeshift altar. Frequently, a small box-like structure, looking not unlike a confessional booth, is nearby.


These are no ordinary rustic relics. Rather, they are "Mass Rocks," vestiges of the persecution of Catholics from 1536 to 1829. Here, when the Faith was outlawed and priests hunted down like criminals, Mass was celebrated secretly for the faithful. For several periods in Irish history, it was at these Mass Rocks where the light of the Faith continued to flicker, even unto the darkest of nights.


For Catholics, this is Holy Ground.


Mass Rock at Ballingeary



Mass Rock, Briefne near the Iron Mountains

Under the English Yoke

When Henry VIII broke with Rome, a diabolical attack was launched against the Catholic Church. He appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Cranmer was deeply influenced by Protestant ideas, especially regarding the sacrifice of the Mass. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, making Henry head of the Church. The Irish Parliament did so in 1536. And though many Irish chiefs accepted the act, neither the clergy nor most commoners followed their apostasy.


After Henry's death in 1547, at the succession of his son Edward VI, Cranmer revised the liturgical books as part of this theological revolution. For the Reformation to take place, he knew two primary elements of the Catholic faith must be rooted out: "the doctrine of transubstantiation, of the real presence of Christ's flesh and blood at the altar . . . and the sacrifice and oblation of Christ made by the priest for the salvation of the quick and the dead."


If the sacrilegious rebellion was to succeed, Mass had to be eradicated. All references to a sacrifice were removed from the service. Altars were torn down and replaced by tables. Belief in transubstantiation was considered to be a heresy punishable by death. Cranmer's assault on the Holy Eucharist provided the impetus for laws passed by parliaments to exterminate the Mass from England and later from Ireland….But these attempts to displace Irish culture and religion had been unsuccessful.


The surest way to stamp out the Mass was to eliminate priests. But the English found that these brave men, though imprisoned, starved, tortured and executed, were not so easily exterminated. When the door to educate priests in Ireland closed, a window in Europe opened.

Young men wanting to train for the priesthood attended seminaries in France, Italy, and Spain specifically to provide for the persecuted Irish Catholics. With great courage, these men returned to Ireland knowing their lives would be continually in grave danger.




The First Mass Rocks

Once back in Ireland, an underground sustained the Catholic clergy, hiding them in their homes and caring for their material needs. Through concealment and subterfuge, sacraments were offered in private houses. But a venue to allow larger groups to receive them was needed.  Thus, the use of Mass Rocks arose. Because of the persecution, the banned Holy Sacrifice had to be celebrated outdoors on a mountainside or in a remote field. The faithful were secretly notified of the meeting place where they could come to Confession, hear Mass and receive the Blessed Sacrament.


Virtually every parish in Ireland has at least one Mass Rock. These sites were especially common in Northern Ireland because of Cromwell's plan to displace Catholics with Protestant farmers. Mass Rocks — the Irish word for Mass is An Aifrean — have given names to towns such as Ardanaffrin, Mullachanafrin, and Lugganafrin.


As one might expect, their locations varied greatly. Far from the main roads, some were hidden in the mountains, some in rough wooden glens, while others could be found in well-known landmarks like old forts. Some were close together so priest and congregation could move the altar during bad weather to provide respite from wind and rain. Many were by streams so footprints could not be traced.


Configurations varied also. Many of the best-known sites such as Donegal's Croaghlin and Limerick's Doneraile were hidden away in natural grottos. The well-preserved Cappabane Mass Rock contains a low wall used as a Communion rail and a stone box that served as a Confessional. Near many, such as the famous one in Ballyshannon, are "holy wells" blessed by St. Patrick and probably used for baptisms.


The Protestant Ascendancy

By the end of the 16th century, Protestantism had become the religion of England. But in Ireland it was clear that attempts to impose the new religion were a failure, largely because of local resistance. Curtis writes, "To the common man no doubt the pope and theories of religion were far-off things, but the old familiar Mass and sacraments were what touched him close, and when the service in St. Patrick's was in English and the altar was removed from the east and a communion table put in the center, the majority of Irishmen felt this was not the old religion which Christ founded and committed to Peter."


In the 17th century no mercy was shown under Cromwellian rule. Catholics were massacred and whole towns razed. Entire tracts of land were confiscated and given to soldiers and Protestant ne'er-do-wells. Irish landowners were presented with the option of going "to Hell or to Connacht."


Catholic clergy were ordered to leave Ireland, and put to death if they refused. Those who sheltered them were liable to receive the death penalty. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, "Persecution was carried out to such an extent that Catholic churches were soon in ruins, a thousand priests driven into exile, and one single bishop remained in Ireland, the old and frail Bishop of Kilmore."


Use of Mass Rocks became common again. According to writer Seamus MacManus, "While the priest said Mass, faithful sentries watched from the nearby hilltops to give timely warning of the approaching priest hunter and his guard of British soldiers. But sometimes the troops came on them unawares, and the Mass rock was splattered with his blood, and men, women and children caught in the crime of worshipping God among the rocks were frequently slaughtered on the mountainside."


The Penal Laws

Following the Battle of the Boyne in 1691, the Treaty of Limerick guaranteed Catholics freedom to exercise their religion. Soon after, however, the Protestant ascendancy cynically disregarded the treaty. They persuaded King William of Orange that passing a substantial body of anti-Catholic legislation, known as the Penal Laws, was the only way to subdue the Irish natives.


…..Under the odious Penal Laws, the Catholic faith was banned and priests exiled. If they didn't leave they could be put to death. Laity were no better off. Catholics could not teach or attend Catholic schools. They were excluded from Parliament, the army and navy, the legal profession, and from all civil offices. They could not vote, carry arms or own a horse worth more than five pounds.


No Catholic could act as a guardian or marry a Protestant. A Catholic could not acquire land or hold a mortgage. If the wife or son of a Catholic became a Protestant, she or he immediately obtained a separate income, providing a strong incentive to apostatize.


Mass Rocks Used Again

Under oppression again, Catholics adapted. Denied official education, the Irish young learned literature and religion in secret hedge schools, whose teachers were often fugitive priests. Meanwhile, underground agrarian societies formed to protect peasants against Protestant landlords and their punitive rents.


At ordinations, not only the bishop but also several others together with him laid hands on the priest so that the episcopacy member could not be identified. Seumas MacManus observes, "Bishops and Archbishops, meanly dressed in rough clothing trudged on foot among their people, and often dwelt and ate and slept in holes on the ground. Thus, in the bogs and barren mountains, whether wolfhounds and bloodhounds trailed them, the Catholic clergy sheltered all that was noble, high, and holy in Ireland."


Once more, sacraments were received and the Faith sustained at the Mass Rock's improvised altars. Masses were confined now to secret places, lonely valleys or the shelter of a hill, but always with a lookout ready to ring the alarm. The belief of some hardy souls can survive for extended periods without the sacraments, but for most, access to these avenues of grace is vital. Thus, Mass Rocks again proved to be essential in sustaining the Old Faith in the Olde Sod.


A Modern Revival

By 1730, active persecution of Catholics tapered off and it became clear even to the most hardened Protestants that laws to prevent the growth of "Popery" had been a resounding failure. Catholic emancipation eventually came in 1829 and the faithful finally were allowed to use their Mass houses in peace. Yet even after emancipation, the liturgy continued to be celebrated often at Mass Rocks since Protestant landlords did not allow Catholic churches to be built on their property.


Interestingly, Mass Rocks are currently experiencing a bit of a revival. Thanks to a number of history-minded priests, occasional Masses are held at many famous sites such as Doneraile, Tabernault, Ballyshannon, and Croaghlin to commemorate those — especially the priests — who kept Holy Mother Church alive in Ireland during the terrible years of persecution.


Our Lord tells us, "Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends." This is as true today as when He said it two thousand years ago. It may be too late now to thank those who laid down their lives for the Faith, but it's never too late to remember them.


Oh, my Mary, long we wait here / While the hunter combs the mountain high, And the soft wind whispers "Guard her," / Though as hunted we must die. / Oh, the dawn is longtime coming, / And the long night clings with care, / But they shall not find with their chains to bind /My Mary, pure and fair. – Were You At the Rock?


Taken from:


Heart, Soul and Mind

Monsignor Royal's weekly column as featured in our bulletin.


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