It looked sad and forlorn sitting by the side of the Creamery road as though it knew that it had long been abandoned. I first noticed it one rainy afternoon when I was almost seven years old. I can still vividly recall the sweet scent of wild honeysuckle, hanging heavily on the air that day. At first glance, it was just another large, almost perfect, square shaped rock, covered with briars and moss, but there was an almost eerie attraction to it as if it wanted to tell me something. I didn't pay much attention that first time, as I was out rambling, but made a mental note to find out more about it and resolved to ask my father when I returned home.
Rambling is good for the soul as it brings us back to the time when we all were nomads, with no constraints, and in the soft, warm, misty Irish rain it is a wonderful, almost spiritual experience. There is a sense of freedom that’s truly intoxicating. I went rambling most days after school and looked forward to the weekends. The secret was to get off the road as soon as possible and as I knew where all the openings in the hedges and the gaps in the walls were, I could be in that other wild, parallel world of nature in minutes.
The smell of wet heather wafts and mingles with the sweet aroma of the open countryside. The stillness seems to envelop all. I would pause and listen for the caws of the crows atop the branches of a sprawling oak tree or the melodic song of a goldfinch as he called his mate from a patch of thistles. Sometimes, a startled rabbit, scared by a wily fox, would dart out from beneath a tangle of gorse bushes, his large brown eyes wide with fear as he ran for safety. Off in the distance the faint lowing of grazing cows could be heard if I stopped and was perfectly still. Then the quiet would descend again, dropping slowly. Later that night I asked my father about the rock. He settled in his favorite armchair, rolled a cigarette from his tobacco tin and with smoke curling up toward the ceiling, in a hushed, almost reverent voice, he related the story.
The rock had been placed there soon after the Penal Law was enacted in Ireland in 1607. This law was imposed in retaliation for two major events that occurred earlier. The first was the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605 in which a group of English Catholics tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London. The second event took place in early 1607 when a group of Irish noblemen left for Europe to enlist Catholic aid for another revolt against the English crown. This became known as the Flight of the Earls. The Penal law was enacted by the newly crowned king of England and Ireland James I. James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, was among many other accomplishments, a noted and prolific author, widely known for compiling two important books; the King James version of the bible and a guide book on the subject of witchcraft and how to identify witches, titled Daemonologie. The pilgrims would bring copies of these writings with them to the new world and use them with terrifying results, in Salem, Mass.
The Penal law was strictly enforced by most notably, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell who invaded Ireland in 1649 with his new Model Army, and proceeded to subdue the population with a series of violent, repressive military campaigns. The hope was that within one generation, Catholicism would be eradicated. After the 1641 rebellion, Ireland was under the control of the Irish Confederate Catholics and an alliance was formed with the English Royalists led by the charismatic Charles II the son of Charles I, who had been executed for supposed treason. The law took away all rights from Catholics and effectively banished Bishops. Priests were required to register to preach after this date, but few obeyed this law as it would require an oath of allegiance to the English crown, if they refused they were deemed guilty of high treason and faced death, or at best, exile.
Always, an isolated location with a commanding view of the surrounding area would be chosen and a rock taken most times from a demolished Church would be placed there. It would have a simple cross carved on top, consecrated and at that precise moment, become a Mass Rock. The faithful would huddle there in silence, usually at night, rain or shine, fearful and ever watchful for the appearance of the authorities. Their faith was all that sustained them. The dreaded Priest Hunters scoured the countryside hoping to collect the bounty placed on the head of every Priest. My father went on to explain that what all those people wanted to do was to gather there in honor of some man from a place called Galilee who had sacrificed himself for the greater good of mankind. I was convinced that Galilee was somewhere up the Creamery road, but I swear, in all the rambling I did, I never found it there.
Lookouts would be posted to warn of any patrols approaching and when the all clear was given, the Priest would make his appearance and wearing a veil, say Mass. The faithful would respond in whispers and fear would be dominant. If he was ever caught performing this secret ritual, he was executed on the spot. The veil hopefully ensured that he could not be identified by anyone should they be questioned. Thankfully, the Penal Law was abolished in the latter part of the 1800's. Many of these Mass Rocks survive and still dot the Irish landscape today. They serve as a constant reminder of those dark and frightening times and attest to the indomitable and undaunted, Irish spirit.