Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Were You at the Rock?

by James Bemis


James Bemis gives a beautiful and stirring account of the fierce English persecution of Irish Catholics from 1536 to 1829, and how the Irish struggled to keep their faith alive. Because the Catholic faith was banned and attending Mass would incur the death penalty, faithful Catholics would gather at midnight at a secret "Mass Rock" in the countryside to celebrate Sunday Mass. The courage and faith of the priests and laity during this time was astounding. Bemis explains how the Catholic faith survived in Ireland and urges his readers to be thankful for all those who sacrificed their lives for the Faith.

Larger Work

Latin Mass


22 - 25

Publisher & Date

Keep the Faith, Inc., Ramsey, NJ, Winter 2005

Mass Rocks and the Survival of the Faith in Ireland

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?
Did the sun shine gently round her,
Making gold darts through her hair?
And will you stay silent as the day
When the wind has left the air?
— "Were You At the Rock?"
(traditional Gaelic hymn)

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 and 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 government. 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 mountain peaks for the approach of 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 the implements 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 reading of the Last Gospel, most scatter in different directions to escape detection. A few stay behind to have their confessions heard. 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 by English Protestants 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.

Under the English Yoke

To understand the significance of Mass Rocks, one must understand Irish history. Ireland's long, torturous relationship with England began with the granting of Ireland by Pope Adrian IV to King Henry II in 1155 after the king promised to reform and protect the Church there. This was the first but by no means the last of the British monarchy's broken promises regarding Ireland.

Centuries later, when King Henry VIII broke with Rome, a diabolical attack was launched against the Catholic Church. The king appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533. Cranmer was deeply influenced by the Protestant ideas sweeping the Continent, especially regarding the sacrifice of the Mass. In 1534, the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, making Henry head of the Church. The Irish Parliament passed a similar act in 1536, bring the Protestant Reformation to Ireland by making Henry Supreme Head of the Church. Although many Irish chiefs accepted the act, neither the clergy nor most commoners followed them in their apostasy.

After Henry's death in 1547 and the succession of the ten-year-old Edward VI, Cranmer began revising the liturgical books as part of this theological revolution. For the Reformation to take place, he observed that 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."

Thus if the sacrilegious rebellion was to succeed, the Mass had to be eradicated. All references to a sacrifice were eliminated from the service. Altars were torn down and replaced by communion tables. Belief in transubstantiation was considered 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 Cranmer's plans were interrupted when Henry's Catholic daughter, Mary, became queen in 1553. She repealed the Act of Supremacy in 1554 and punished those who spread national discord through heretical teachings. Catholics hoped for a respite from the years of brutal persecution experienced under the last two monarchs.

Unfortunately, Mary's short reign ended in 1558. Her sister, Elizabeth, picked up where Henry VIII left off. In 1559, Queen Elizabeth reinstated the Act of Supremacy, making herself Supreme Governor of the Church in England. While the effort to "Protestantize" England proceeded apace, attempts to displace Irish culture and religion had been unsuccessful.

But "Good Queen Bess" was not to be deterred: She commanded that Ireland be brought completely under her authority and that the Protestant religion supplant the Catholic one. She was prepared to use strong measures — to say the least — to enforce her directives. As Protestant author William Cobbett observed, "The Protestant religion was established by the gibbets, the racks, and the ripping knives."

In 1560, a compliant Dublin parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy (establishing Elizabeth as head of the Irish Church) and Uniformity (abolishing the Mass). The Pope's claim to spiritual jurisdiction was declared treasonable, and any priest caught saying Mass was liable to severe punishment. Catholics refusing to attend the new Protestant service incurred substantial financial penalties.

Naturally, 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 established to provide for the persecuted Irish Catholics. With great courage, these men returned to Ireland knowing their lives would be continually in grave danger. Nevertheless, "a strong and enthusiastic Irish world was being built up abroad," writes historian Edmund Curtis, "and as the idea of a Counter Reformation grew, the Irish abroad, acting with leaders at home, determined on a Crusade to recover Ireland for the Faith. The easy-going religion of the old sort was replaced by zeal, determination, and the conscious knowledge of the grounds for one's religion."

The First Mass Rocks

Once back in Ireland, an underground sustained the Catholic clergy. Many befriended the priests, 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 that the priest and congregation could shift the altar during bad weather to provide respite from wind and rain. Many were near 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 sixteenth century, Protestantism had become the religion of England. In Ireland, however, it was clear that attempts to impose the new religion were a failure, largely because of local resistance. As Edmund Curtis writes, "To the common man of the time 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 they believed Christ founded and committed to Peter."

Elizabeth was followed to the throne by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England in 1603. Under James I and later Charles I, despite the latter's efforts to seek toleration for Catholics, little improvement occurred for the Irish.

However, after defeating the British in the 1646 battle of Benburb, the Irish once again tasted religious freedom. "Mass-houses" (the word "church" was reserved for Protestant sites) were tolerated and priests free to go about their business. But this brief respite ended in 1649 when fanatical, Catholic-hating Puritans took control of the English government. With the arrival of Oliver Cromwell in Dublin in August 1649, the most furious assault yet on Irish Catholics began.

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. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "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."

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. Edmund Curtis observes, "The majestic and world-wide system of the Church of Rome could not be tolerated like some Protestant sect seeking a modest toleration; the very greatness of her empire and the completeness of her claims over the souls and minds of believers marked her out for special persecution form the narrow Protestant and English nationalism of the age."

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 because of the refusal of Protestant landlords to 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?

James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review, and a columnist for Catholic Exchange's The Edge.

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