THE MASS ROCK (Carraig an Aifrinn)
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
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 these 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.
These are the Mass Rocks – large flat-topped boulders found in the woods, hills and glens throughout the Emerald Isle, left over 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 forbidden because He knew what was coming!
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 those 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 the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It was then that those natural rocks that God had left for them 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, climb up a hill or gather 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 rock. 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 seek to arrest the faithful kneeling in prayer – and especially the priest! Since those who attended the celebration were at risk of imprisonment, the locations of the Mass Rocks were a closely guarded secret. Many took secret trails known as Mass Paths to worship at their secret stone. 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 priests and Bishops 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 very few.
Today the need for secrecy is gone, yet on special occasions the 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 the succeeding 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 AOH Division had a large stone delivered to the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural Center in East Durham as a replica of an Irish Mass Rock. It was placed in care of the local AOH Division who promptly adopted the name: the Mass Rock Division. It was dedicated in 2009 as a reminder of the incredible courage and devotion of our ancestors who kept the faith alive during the Penal times. Then, on 5 May 2019, members of the New York State AOH gathered at the Mass Rock replica in East Durham on the 10th anniversary of its dedication to remember our faithful ancestors and the gift of faith that they had left to us.