Illuminations: The Mass Rock

Illuminations: The Mass Rock
By:  J. Michael Finn

In these times of Covid-19, things in Ireland are eerily similar to those of 17th century Ireland.  Currently, the Covid Level 5 restrictions regarding religious activities in the Republic of Ireland are: Public worship is forbidden; religious services must be held online; only up to tencan attend funerals; only up to six people can attend a wedding; and baptisms can only be celebrated in exceptional circumstances, that is, if the person is in danger of death.

In March 2021, the Catholic bishops of Ireland appealed to the government of the Irish Republic to relax these restrictions, stating, “It is particularly painful for Christians to be deprived, of the public expression of our faith during the most sacred time of Holy Week and Easter. Consideration must be given to people’s mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing. For people of faith, gathering for worship is fundamental to their identity and to their spiritual lives.”

On March 17, Catholic Culture Columnist Phil Lawler lamented, “Please, Irish readers, reassure me. Tell me that somewhere in the republic, stalwart priests are celebrating Mass, regardless of government restrictions. Tell me that loyal Catholics are gathering – perhaps at the “Mass rocks” where their ancestors celebrated the Eucharistic liturgy during an earlier era of repression. Tell me that the fire St. Patrick kindled has not burned out.”

What are the Mass rocks referred to by Mr. Lawler?  A Mass rock (in Irish: Carraig an Aifrinn pron: karr-ig an af-rin) is a flat rock or gathering of stones used as an altar in mid-17th century Ireland as a location for Catholic Mass. 

Isolated and secret locations were required in those days to hold religious ceremonies, as celebrating Mass was a matter of great danger. This was a result of both Oliver Cromwell’s campaign against the Irish, and the Penal Law of 1695.  

Bishops were banished from Ireland and priests had to register with the government under penalty of death.  Priest hunters were employed to arrest, and often execute, the unregistered priests.  Mass rocks were used in Ireland from 1536 to 1829.

The English believed that the way to stamp out the Mass was to eliminate priests. But they soon found that these brave men, though imprisoned, starved, tortured and executed, were not so easily exterminated. When priests were barred from Ireland, they were forced to exile in Europe. Young men wanting to train for the priesthood attended seminaries in France, Italy, and Spain. These seminaries were specifically established to provide training for the persecuted Irish Catholics.

Showing great courage, these priests returned to Ireland knowing full well that their lives would be continually in grave danger.  Back in Ireland, an underground network developed that supported 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.

Those who sheltered priests or provided their houses for Mass 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.”

So, a more secret venue to allow larger groups to attend Mass was needed. Because Catholic religious worship was illegal, Masses were not scheduled, and parishioners would be obliged to spread the word of them by mouth. 

Some of the Mass rock places may have also been used for patterns (patterns refers to the devotions that take place within a parish on the feast day of the patron saint of the parish). It is claimed that virtually every parish in Ireland had at least one Mass rock.

As one might expect, the locations of the Mass rocks varied greatly. Far from the main roads, some were hidden in the mountains, some in rough wooded glens, while others could be found in well-known landmarks like ruined forts. Many were near streams so footprints could not be traced.

These secret Mass sites were always subject to discovery. According to historian 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.”

A traditional Irish hymn called “Were You at the Rock” speaks to the remoteness of the Mass as well as the need to “stay silent as the day” about the site of the Mass rock:

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?

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.

Today, Dr. Hilary Bishop seeks Mass rocks in order to document their existence before the knowledge of their locations is lost. She has been adding to the existing records by finding and photographing Mass rocks. This is no easy feat, given that they are usually hidden from sight and often difficult to find.

Bishop runs a website,, enabling members of the public to share or request information about Mass rocks. She records GPS co-ordinates, but doesn’t publish them if they refer to private land.

In these times, let us hope that the Irish Government listens to the Irish bishop’s request and relaxes the Covid rules regarding in person religious services; otherwise a return to the Mass rocks may be necessary.

*J. Michael Finn is the Ohio State Historian for the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Division Historian for the Patrick Pearse Division in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Chairman of the Catholic Record Society for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. He writes on Irish and Irish-American history; Ohio history and Ohio Catholic history. You may contact him at [email protected].

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