The Avondhu - By The Fireside



The laws against education were also overcome at practicall­y all levels. Young men intended for the priesthood secretly went abroad to the Irish colleges on the continent and returned as priests to their home parishes, where they were sheltered by their families and friends.

The illegal hedgeschoo­ls flourished. Subjects taught there varied but included the three r’s as well as Gaeilge, Latin, Greek and history, depending on the competency of the teacher.

The Penal Laws had been aimed mainly at Catholics, but Presbyteri­ans and others who didn’t conform to the Establishe­d Anglican Church also suffered.

Mass was still celebrated but only when it was safe to do so in secret and isolated places, as attending Mass was risky and could be a matter of life or death. Because attending was illegal, the times and places were not scheduled and parishione­rs would be obliged to spread the word of them from mouth to mouth. Mass was frequently celebrated in the open air at altars known as Mass rocks situated in out of the way places in fields, glens or mountain sides. There would usually be a look-out in a prominent position to warn of approachin­g danger such as Redcoats or a priest hunter.

The usual Irish name for a Mass rock site is Carraig an Aifrinn. There are many other names indicating locations where Mass was celebrated in Penal times, such as Altar Field, Gleann an Aifrinn (Mass Glen), etc.

As the locations were well away from prying eyes, either of the authoritie­s or of others who were willing to betray them, Mass rock sites are sometimes difficult to find as they are often in out of the way places.

The majority of these Mass rocks are known primarily at a local level, their location having been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Of the 300 or so Mass sites in Ireland the majority are in the west and the south. Of these, it is estimated that there are around 200 in county Cork. Research on these sites is very scarce. So it could be a potential area for a thesis for a master’s student or a PhD candidate.

There is an interestin­g account in Bailiúchán na Scol/The Schools Collection on Dúchas. ie, of a day trip by pupils and teacher of Rathcormac school on 29th June, 1937 to Carraig an Aifrinn in the townland of Knockanani­g, Fermoy. The pupils travelled by donkey and car and pony and car and when they arrived at the rock, they said a few prayers, had a picnic and said a decade of the Rosary before they left.

What is interestin­g about this account is the picture or drawing that accompanie­s it, which shows little or no change in the site since 1937, which is a good thing.

Mass rocks are important religious and historical monuments that provide a link to our Irish Catholic heritage and tradition, of which we should be justly proud.

Just as the Mass rocks are a reminder of Penal times, so too is the custom of the Station Mass of today. Both traditions should not be allowed to die out.

Tuilleadh Léitheoire­achta:

Hilary J. Bishop: www.findamassr­

Muiris Ó Súilleabhá­in, Liam Downey and Dara Downey eds. Antiquitie­s of Rural Ireland schoolscol­lection


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