Click here to see Dr. Hilary Bishop's 'Find a Mass Rock' website
Penal Laws were brought to Ireland in 1695 by the British and forbade the practice of Roman Catholicism including the celebration of mass. Dotted around the parish, in places hidden from general view, there are a number of old Mass Rocks. Mass Rocks are places where Catholics gathered to practice their faith during Penal Times. A priest caught celebrating mass would most likely be executed.
As masses were illegal and therefore dangerous, they had to be secret and so you will find Mass Rocks in out of the way places which often have some high ground nearby from which some of the congregation could keep a look-out in case of danger approaching. To further guarantee secrecy, the masses would not have taken place at set times but rather at random times verbally shared amongst the people of the area.
Continued below gallery
In April 1958 'The Fold' magazine published an article called 'Mass Rocks in Iveleary' by Rev. John Ryan C.C.. Below are some excerpts from that article with comments from me interspersed.
Carraig na Séipéal, Gortnahoughtee.
Photo courtesy Tony Miller,
Courtesy Tony Miller
Courtesy Tony Miller
Cum an Tsagairt.
Picture courtesy Dr. Hilary Bishop
picture courtesy Dr. Hilary Bishop.
Seipeil na Gloire, Currahy. Date on walling stone.
Picture courtesy Dr. Hilary Bishop.
Seipeil na Gloire, Currahy. Mass Rock.
Picture courtesy Dr. Hilary Bishop.
Rossmore Grotto, the ruins of the mass-hut are no longer visible above ground level.
Cum an Tsagairt.
Picture courtesy Padraig Kelleher
Dromanalig Mass Rock, right on the road edge.
I would dearly like to find, photograph and record those surviving. Since writing the original article, a fair amount of new information and photos have become available to me thanks mainly to Padraig Kelleher, Dr. Hilary Bishop and Tony Miller B.A., to who I owe a great debt.
Rev. Ryan: The parish of Iveleary (Uibh Laoire) is rich in the number of its Mass-rocks. It had Parish Priests almost continually during the Penal Times. Part of the time, at least, they were known to the authorities and, apparently, not disturbed by them. At other times they must have been in fear of their lives. There can be no other explanation for the remote and inaccessible position of some of the Mass-rocks.
About three miles west of Inchigeelagh, near the southern Lake Road, in the townland of Coornahahilly, there is one hidden between two cliffs of rock. Both approaches to it are through marshy ground. The spot must have been chosen so that no stranger could come on the congregation unawares during Mass. The rough altar was there till about thirty years ago. By mistake, the stones were then removed for road material. The main slab, however, could not be broken and the workers, learning that it was a Mass-rock, took it back to the spot whence they had taken it. It is still there, lying on the ground.
Me: I cannot find any evidence of these remaining.
Fr.Ryan: Two Mass-rocks in the Coolmountain district, one in Tullough and one in Toureen, are also very difficult of access. That in Toureen is so remote that, as already remarked, the flat stones used by the congregation have remained undisturbed for about two hundred years. It is possible that in those days the spot was near a bridle-path (The Butter Road) and was more accessible than it is now.
Me: Both of these have been found and photographed by Dr. Hilary Bishop and Tony Miller. See photos.
Rev.Ryan: The same may be true of another Mass-rock at Cum an tSagairt, Ballingeary, which is also very difficult of access.
Me: This one is indeed difficult to access. To quote Dr. Hilary Bishop "It consists of a large irregularly shaped sandstone boulder. It has been particularly well weathered and its geological make up appears different to other rocks in the vicinity. The Mass Rock is shaped like the prow of a ship and measures 2.3m in length. Its height ranges from 0.65m to 1.55m and the boulder is orientated on a NE-SW axis. There is a large natural hollow on either side of the Mass Rock and it is believed that the priest used to to place the candles in these hollows during Mass. A modern day cross has now been erected on top of the monument by the landowner." The Record of Monuments and Places (R.M.P.) says that this is not a mass-rock because it is a natural feature. This, of course, is nonsense considering its location in a valley known as Cum an tSagairt for at least 170 years. They have not applied the same logic to Carraig an Seipeil in Gortanhoughtee which is also a natural feature. Photos courtesy of Padraig Kellerher and Hilary Bishop.
Rev. Ryan: Not many Mass-rocks are pointed out in the Ballingeary district, possibly because the Mass would be usually said at Gugane Barra, which in those time was sufficiently remote. Rev. Denis Mahony lived there as a hermit from 1698 to 1728.
There is, however, a rock at Dromanalig, called Carraig an tSagairt, though there is no tradition of Mass having been said there.
Me: UPDATE Aug.2015: A natural boulder immediately adjacent to the road and traditionally a mass rock has been found by Padraig Kelleher in Dromanalig. This must be the Carraig an tSagairt referred to by Fr. Ryan.
There is also a wedge tomb at Gortnabinna, just outside the parish, called Carraig an tSagairt. A name like that must mean that, like many other wedge tombs, it was later reused as a mass rock. It was also used as an observation post during the War of Independance. Photos.
Rev. Ryan: At Curraghy, north-east of Ballingeary, there is another Mass-rock and, near it, the remains of one of those little chapels, just large enough to shelter the altar and the priest, which were used in the (later) more peaceful periods. The date 1753 is on one of the stones.
Me: This is known locally as Séipéal na Glóire. Dr. Hilary Bishop says: “ Situated on private farm land in the parish of Uibh Laoire, this site consists of both a Mass Rock and a penal chapel. See also the article: Seipeal na Gloire - Chapel of Glory
The flat topped Mass Rock Mass Rock is situated a few meters to the north of the penal chapel site and consists of a large square shaped boulder sitting atop a natural rock outcrop. The view from the top of this rock provides a 360° view of the surrounding area right across to the Derrynasagart and Shehy Mountain ranges.......Mass was last said at this site in celebration of the Millenium by the local history society Cumann Staire Bhéal átha’n Ghaorthaidh”.
Rev. Ryan: Buttesworth, High Sheriff of Cork, in a report in 1731 mentions "7 sheds used as Mass-houses, 2 priests, and 3 popish schools in Inchigeela," evidently referring to these little chapels.
Another one was near the top of Monalea, on the south side. Part of the walls of this were standing till they were removed during the civil war to fill a hole in the road.
Still another was on the south side of Pipe Hill. The place is still known as Carraig an tSéipéal.
Me: We have a photo of this one, thanks again to Tony Miller. It is situated on private farmland, fully visible from the roadside and is located in the In the townland of Gortnahoughtee. The Mass Rock consists of a huge outcrop of rock that resembles the shape of a chapel. A wind break was constructed at the site, probably to shelter the priest and his congregation in Penal times.
Rev. Ryan: A fourth was not far from the Protestant Church, in the field opposite the present Lourdes Grotto to the east of Inchigeela. It is told of this, as of other Mass-rocks, that when all the surrounding furze was burned, the "chapeleen," as it is still called, alone remained intact.
Me: A loop has been taken out of this road here since Fr.Ryan's article was written, leaving the site of the mass house on a grassy area in front of the grotto. Dr. Bishop says “There are no longer any visible remains above ground but field research indicates that this Mass Hut measured approximately 9.9m W-NW wide and between 11-15.8m N-NE in length. It is likely that the entrance was situated in the north-east wall of the building and that the altar was situated on the south-west wall as there appears to be a mound behind the altar area possibly resulting from the collapse of the gable wall at this end”.
Rev. Ryan: The same happened to another Mass-rock in Cooligrenane, in the angle between the southern Lake road and the Mall road. Twice, in recent years, when the surrounding vegetation was burned, the bushes around the Mass-rock were spared. It would seem that Divine Providence is reproaching our forgetfulness.
There was another Mass-rock in Carriganeela, not far from the old Kilbarry Church. No trace of it now remains. Up to recent times, old people living in the vicinity went and said their Rosary there when they could not go to Mass on Sunday. The field next to it is called Pairc na n-Easbog.
The best known of the Mass-rocks, and the one latest in use, is in Curraheen, about a mile south-west of Inchigeela. The rough altar is still there. It has a plaque with the inscription "Altar of Penal Times. Mass was said here 1640-1800." The grave of two brothers, Rev. Daniel Nevil who died in 1803, and Rev. Bartholomew Nevil who died in 1798 and who both said Mass here, is in the old churchyard. It is said they lived for a time in a house that is now part of the farmyard of Mr. Jeremiah Lucey, Curraheen. This Mass-rock was probably in use up to the time of Father Holland's appointment as P.P. in 1816. Fr. Holland was saying Mass in a cottage in the village for some years before he built the first church which is now the parochial hall. In 1842 he laid the foundation-stone of the present parish church at Inchigeelagh.
Me: This one is still there and well looked after. See photo.