Rocks and stones have always been special to the Irish. The Stone of Fal, reportedly brought to Ireland by the Tuatha de Dannan, was said to have the power to roar – but only when a man fit to rule Ireland stood upon it. The Rock of Doone, similarly only roared out under one fit to be a Chieftain of the O’Donnells of Donegal. Although the great rocks ceased to roar when Christ was born, their tales stir a sense of pride for they relate to traditions and great heroes whose courage we can admire, but few can imitate! However, the most courageous stories in Irish history relate to another rock and the courage and fidelity of the ordinary people who made them so special. What we take for granted, they would have celebrated; what they endured, few of us could survive. Their long-suffering hardships, patience, fortitude, and undying faith made certain rocks special. They are the Mass Rocks – large flat-topped boulders found in the woods, hills, and glens throughout the Emerald Isle, leftover from the receding glaciers that covered Ireland during the Ice Age or, as one old woman told me, they were put there long, long ago in hidden places by God Himself for the people to use when the Mass was to be forbidden because He knew what was to come.
At any rate, it did come in the 17th century when England tried to usurp Ireland into its empire. It was decided that the Irish had to become English and denounce their Gaelic culture, customs, and traditions. When the Irish fought the theft of their heritage, Penal Laws were imposed to punish any who practiced Irish ways. One of the laws banned the Catholic religion and Bishops were outlawed under penalty of a year in a penal colony. If they returned after release, they would be hanged, drawn, and quartered! The law also imposed penalties on priests, but many courageously remained, administering in secret. The clerics who faced such persecution were heroes indeed, yet equally courageous were the people, whose passion for their faith led them to protect the outlawed clergy. That support made it possible for the priests to exist and administer to the faithful who even risked fine and dungeon just to hear a Mass. It was then that those natural rocks became altars for the forbidden Mass to be safely celebrated away from watchful eyes.
In sun or rain, sleet or snow, the faithful would trudge into the woods or gather on a hill or in a hollow wherever a large flat rock could be found! Exposed to the elements, they knelt as the priest offered the sacrifice of the Mass on that hidden ‘altar’. Priest hunters, who received a bounty for any cleric they captured were always a danger, as was the British military, so sentries were posted to keep watch for any who might be bent on arresting the faithful and especially the priest! Since those who attended the celebration were at risk of imprisonment, the location of the Mass Rocks was a closely guarded secret. Also secret were the hidden trails known as Mass Paths that led the faithful to worship there. In a glen near Drogheda during one harsh winter, it is recorded that the people even walked barefoot in an icy stream down into the glen so that there would be no footprints left in the snow to betray the location of their Mass Rock.
These are the people whose courage is inspirational. Certainly, the clergy were heroes for theirs was a difficult role. But it was the people – the mothers, fathers and children who refused to turn away from their faith no matter the cost – who are the unsung heroes. All they had to do was embrace the Church of England and they could have had employment, their children educated and their bellies full. Some did; some took the soup, but they were few.
Today the need for secrecy is gone, yet on special occasions, descendants of those courageous faithful of yesterday will gather around one of the hidden Mass Rocks to hear a commemorative Mass and remember the sacrifices made to preserve the faith for future generations. As for the Mass Rocks themselves, they are evocative symbols, reverently preserved as relics of a heroic past and a courageous people who would not surrender their faith regardless of the persecution they faced if caught. In 2008, the Kingston, NY Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) had a large stone quarried and delivered to the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural Center in nearby East Durham as a replica of an Irish Mass Rock. It was placed in the care of the local AOH Division who promptly adopted the name: the Mass Rock Division and was officially dedicated in 2009. The Suffolk County AOH recently added a Mass Rock replica to the Tom Clarke Memorial on County Road 111 in Manorville, Long Island for the similar purpose of serving as a reminder of the incredible courage and devotion of our ancestors who kept the faith alive during the Penal times. -- Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian Emeritus