Mass rocks proposal could revive 17th century tradition

A 17th century ruse invoked to counter the Penal Laws has been suggested as a way of getting communities back to attending outdoor public Mass again, writes Tom Gillespie.

A Mayo councillor has suggested that the reintroduction of Mass rock altars at crossroads, car parks or large public areas would allow the public to attend services while social distancing.

Councillor Ger Deere from Castlebar said even during the Penal times people managed to attend Masses at Mass rocks in secluded locations.

He said: “I heard some of the bishops stating they would have to do Mass differently post Covid-19 and the utilisation of Mass rocks is one suggestion.

“Every community has a field or a car park that would be suitable for the Mass rock. When the coronavirus crises is over a suitable plaque could be placed on the Mass rock to commemorate those who died and survived the pandemic.

“During the Penal times it resolved the people’s determination to fight British oppression. They were in a bad state then as we are now. People are missing attending public Mass. If the Mass rock service was to be introduced it would be very easy to do social distancing in a community field or at a crossroads.

“Every community could locate a rock that would be part of their local heritage and it would be a focal point for all of the community.

“This crisis has brought out a great sense of community spirit which should be harnessed in the future. The Mass rock would be a permanent fixture to remind future generations of this sad part of our history which will be shaped by Covid-19.”

Councillor Deere is to contact the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Michael Neary, to discuss the Mass rock proposal.

A Mass rock (Carraig an Aifrinn) was a rock used as an altar in mid-17th century Ireland as a location for Catholic Mass. Isolated locations were sought to hold religious ceremonies, as observing the Catholic Mass was a matter of difficulty and danger at the time as a result of both Cromwell’s campaign against the Irish and the Penal Laws of 1695.

Bishops were banished and priests had to register to preach under the 1704 Registration Act. Priest hunters were employed to arrest unregistered priests and Presbyterian preachers under an Act of 1709.

In many instances a stone would be taken from a church ruin, and relocated to a rural area, with a simple cross carved on its top. Because the activity was illegal, the services were not scheduled and parishioners would be obliged to spread the word of them informally.

By the late 17th century worship generally moved to thatched Mass houses.

Some of the Mass rock places may have been used for patterns.

* Pictured, Mass being celebrated at the Oghilly Mass Rock, Burrishoole, by Fr. Declan Carroll, assisted by Rev. Andrea Wills, during the Burrishoole Walking Festival back in 2013. Photo: Teresa Cowley

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