mass rock

Irish Mass Rocks and Solitary Communion

Words I Never Thought I'd Hear

There are some words in life I never dreamt I’d hear.

“Masses are cancelled.”

On 13th March 2020, I heard them. Masses across Ireland were being cancelled.

“All places of worship are to close.”

In Northern Ireland on 23rd March 2020. I heard them. All places of worship are to close to the public.

Coronavirus has altered every thread of the fabric of our society as we once knew it.

Priests will still say mass but no-one will be there to hear them.

And, although I am no longer a believer, the idea of a priest offering a “solitary communion” in an empty chapel touched me; those two words were never supposed to go together.

It got me thinking about Mass Rocks in Ireland and of the meaning they would have had for my Donegal  and Castlederg ancestors.

mass rock
This Image Courtesy of Kevin Higgins

A Mass Rock (Carraig an Airfinn) was a rock used as an altar in mid 17th century Ireland as a location for Roman Catholic masses.

During the times of the Penal Laws in Ireland (1695-1750) observing Roman Catholic mass was illegal; churches were closed and many priests forced to leave the country.

Priest-hunters roamed the countryside looking for those remaining so they could get a bounty or reward offered under the harsh, restrictive and oppressive laws of Oliver Cromwell.

The faithful could not partake of their sacred pilgrimages; nor could they bury their dead according to their custom.

Mass Rocks were landmarks for the local community to congregate to observe mass; the rocks placed in hard to find places, hidden away from the prying eyes of the authorities.

Many were to be found in woodland settings, off the beaten track, in the search for safety from Crown Forces and the elements.

Observing Mass was dangerous and difficult; harsh penalties would be imposed for anyone caught attending or for anyone who was thought to be harbouring a priest.

The times and locations of the Masses were shared word of mouth.

The priest would carry an altar stone from place to place and lay it on the designated Mass Rock to prepare the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Sometimes, local families would take turns to hide the altar stone between masses. It took incredible courage and bravery as they may have been put to death had they been found out.

mass rock signpost

On the road from Carndonagh to Ballyliffen, there’s a sign pointing up a narrow lane on the left. 

And, about 200 yards up that lane, another sign points me into a glade where lies the Carndonagh Mass Rock.

On this Mass Rock stands the cross from the old Carndonagh Church.

Many locals still come to visit on the May Day celebrations in Honour of Our Lady and decorate the Mass Rock with garlands of wildflowers.

The thought evokes memories from my childhood as we sang;

“Bring flowers of the rarest,
bring blossoms of the fairest,
from garden and woodland,
and hillside and dale.
Our full hearts are swelling,
our glad voices telling,
the praise of the loveliest
flower of the vale.”

mass rock

My ancestors were a humble people. My grandfather doffed his cap to the local priest.
They were much more innocent. Not necessarily a good thing, but more innocent nevertheless.

And way back through many pages my ancestors travelled to their Mass Rocks; walked barefoot and in fear, to follow their faith.

I could almost feel their breaths on my cheek as I stood in this glade.

And I am now comforted by their courage.

This too shall pass, mo chairde. This too shall pass.


Solitary Communion

 Places of worship stand bereft;

naked without the clothing

of their congregations.

Cathedrals, churches, chapels, temples,

meeting-houses, masjids and mosques

are all empty.

Lone priests say mass;

offering a solitary communion

to hymns of whispering dust.

In Ireland, the chapels have been empty before;

pilgrim paths overgrown

without the feet of the faithful to tend them;

and the dead buried without custom.

And the rocks are still standing.

The wildflowers are still blooming.

The ocean still crashes at the feet of Sliabh Liag

and its waves continue to make

sacred communion with our shores.


Beir bua agus beannacht,


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