Irish dioceses are reviving ‘Mass Rocks’ tradition

RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, the government of the Republic of Ireland banned the celebration of public Masses in the country, thereby effectively making it a criminal offense through May 10, 2021. Now the Irish office of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has launched an initiative to stress the importance of Mass by encouraging priests to celebrate the Eucharist at the historic outdoor stone altars from the times of past persecution: they are known as “Mass Rocks.” 

The reaction by governments around the world to the coronavirus healthcare crisis has had a profound effect on human rights, and not least on the right to freedom of religion and freedom of religious worship.

In the Republic of Ireland, restrictions were toughened from October 2020, when public religious worship was suspended altogether. In April 2021, breaking the law by publicly celebrating Mass was added to the penal code, thus making the Republic one of the most restrictive governments in the world with regard freedom of religion. Permission to celebrate Mass publicly was finally restored in May this year, although severe restrictions remain in place, including a maximum of only 50 people present, or less, if the church in question does not have the space deemed necessary.

The abolition of public Mass brought to mind for many Irish people the times of religious persecution suffered by the Catholics in the 16th through the 18th century, when Protestant England sought to extinguish the Catholic faith from the island. That was the time when Catholics gathered in remote and isolated spots where Mass was celebrated in secret.

Throughout Ireland, Catholics, who included both the descendants of the native Celtic Gaels and later Norman settlers, secretly attended these clandestine Masses. In rural areas they were celebrated out in the open at the famous “Mass Rocks,” mostly natural rock formations converted into open-air altars. In some areas use of these Mass Rocks continued well into the 19th century.

The courage of the priests, who risked their lives celebrating Mass at these rocks, was one factor that helped to keep Ireland true to the Catholic Faith. One of them was Father Nicholas Mayler, a parish priest in the Diocese of Ferns, in the southeast of Ireland. During the time of persecution suffered by Irish Catholics, he stayed on to care for his flock. On Christmas Day 1653, as he was celebrating Mass at a Mass Rock near the village of Tomhaggard Co. Wexford, English troops killed him. A Mrs. Lambert, one of the Catholic faithful, managed to rescue the chalice and gave it to the priest’s family. In the 19th century, a relative of the martyred priest, Archdeacon Philip Mayler, returned the chalice to the Church, which now uses it regularly for the Christmas Day Mass celebrated every year at the same Mass Rock.

It was this tradition of the “Mass Rocks” that inspired the initiative of ACN Ireland to celebrate Mass at some of these stone altars in all 26 dioceses of the country on the feast dedicated to the Irish Martyrs on June 20 this year. The organization invited all Catholics to join in these Eucharistic celebrations and pray for a special intention, namely “the renewal of the faith” through the intercession of the Irish Martyrs, in the country and throughout the world.

In 1536 Henry VIII tried for the first time to break the relationship between the Irish Church and the bishop of Rome. In places like Dublin, attempts to seize monastic lands were met with strong opposition. Many religious, such as the Cistercians at St. Mary’s Abbey in Dublin, were martyred for refusing to comply with the king’s demands.

Henry’s son, Edward VI, banned the celebration of Mass. At the beginning of the 17th century, the English Crown had gained control of most of the island and persecution increased. Catholic churches were expropriated, and priests went into hiding. The situation worsened further after Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland in 1649. Cromwell’s troops carried out widespread killings and massacres. Priests were forced to leave Ireland or face the death penalty.

A Gaelic poet from the era called Éamonn an Dúna wrote a poem about those times in Ireland. The Irish-speaking Éamonn lists the English phrases he heard, presumably from English troops: “A tory (outlaw), hack him, hang him, a rebel, a rogue, a thief, a priest, a papist.”

From the 1790s on, the penal laws against Catholics in Ireland were gradually repealed. Today, hidden “Mass Rocks” continue to be found, and interest in this tradition has increased.

—Maria Teresa Diestra & Conn McNally