Most people associate them with the Penal Laws. Some don’t notice them at all. But, as an AHRC-funded project has shown, Catholic Mass Rocks are an important and emotive emblem of Irish Catholic history.
The Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland offers a definition of Mass Rocks. They are classified as “a rock or earth-fast boulder used as an altar or stone-built altar, used when Mass was being celebrated during Penal times (1690s to 1750s AD), though there are some examples which appear to have been used during the Cromwellian period (1650s).”
According to Irish folklore, priest hunters once searched for Mass Rock sites in order to kill the priests they found there. Some believe they murdered the worshippers, too. Today, Hilary Bishop seeks Mass Rocks for a very different reason: to document their existence before the knowledge is lost.
“Mass Rocks are hugely important in the Irish psyche,” says Bishop. “They are a tangible link to Catholic heritage. It doesn’t matter who you speak to – everyone seems to know where to find one.” However, there was never any requirement to record them, she says. “They were supposed to be a secret, so their locations have been passed down orally. People picked them because they had a resonance and a spiritual value – some are likely to have been pre-Christian sites.”
The Penal Laws remain an emotive and complex subject. Passed between 1695 and 1756, they limited the public expression of Catholicism in Ireland. “Mass became a secretive act, celebrated by fugitive priests and their congregations. Mass Rocks marked the sites where they did this.”
Bishop became interested in Mass Rocks while carrying out research for an MPhil in archaeological heritage management, which was funded by the AHRC, and which laid the groundwork for further research. “It enabled me to change my career path and has led to further, ongoing, research at doctoral level,” she says. While examining the impact of EU funding, specifically the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme, on the management of archaeological monuments, she realised just how many such sites had gone unrecorded. Her PhD, which was based within the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, builds on this research.
“While carrying out my master’s research, I would go to farms to interview farmers who said: ‘Oh yes and that’s a Mass Rock’. So I knew there couldn’t possibly just be 99 in Cork,” Bishop says of the existing records. She was right — her research has expanded this to a potential count of 380 for just one county.
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. Many are in remote or inaccessible places, on private land or just physically hard to access. Some have been removed, buried, broken up or else are lost due to reforestation. “They can be 365 metres above sea level or down in a gallery wood,” she says. “They’re rarely easy to reach. They were deliberately hidden away where the authorities wouldn’t find them.”
Early cartographers omitted Mass Rocks from maps because they had no reason to include them, Bishop notes. “It might have looked like an endorsement or legitimisation of Catholicism — and a lot aren’t recorded because archaeology is often classified as being pre-1700,” she adds. “However, a limited number now appear on Ordnance Survey maps and within the Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland.”
Even if she knows where a Mass Rock is supposed to be located, Bishop frequently needs to draw on local insight. “Often, the knowledge has been passed down through the family. People will say: ‘Hang on, I’ll go and ring my aunt,’ or suggest I ask in the post office. I find people are always really excited to help because they’re pleased someone is researching this.”
Bishop runs a website, www.findamassrock.com, 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. Of the sites that are accessible to the public, quite a few are regularly used. “They might be used to celebrate a saint’s day or a particular day of the year.”
The research also questions some of the myths about Mass Rocks, says Dr Patrick Nugent, who supervised Bishop during her MPhil research before moving back to Ireland to become a priest. “She’s not supporting the myths or the revision of them.” Previously, there were two ways in which Mass Rocks were viewed, he explains. “They were a symbol of oppression and persecution. Then the revisionists came along and said that didn’t happen.”
“Hilary’s work shows Mass Rocks were used 150 years before the Penal Laws,” Dr Nugent says. “Catholics had no place to worship after the churches were taken over so they used Mass Rocks and barns. When the Reformation came, the only change initially was that some of them knew King Henry VIII had replaced the Pope as head of the church. Everything else stayed much the same until Queen Elizabeth I came on the scene and was excommunicated.”
The National Folklore Collection, held at University College Dublin, has proved a rich source of clues as to the potential whereabouts of Mass Rock sites. Archivist Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh says he was aware that the folklore archives contained accounts of Mass Rocks. “I didn’t know they were so plentiful, though. Having someone carefully pick their way through the material brings out some extraordinary information.”
The archive material was collected around 80 years ago, when the majority of people in Ireland were still rural dwellers. It is currently being digitised online. “The beauty of this research is that you have an actual physical monument to cite on the ground,” says Mac Cárthaigh. “We often overlook the cultural elements of the landscape. Bringing this to a wider audience is important because it invests the landscape with meaning, significance and power. These are things not quite within living memory, but within generational memory.”
They also represent a history that previously went unrecorded, says Flor Hurley, honorary organiser, Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, which funded some of Bishop’s later research. “Mass Rocks are giving a voice to people who often don’t have one.”
Article by Anne Wollenberg