Uncovering sacred spaces

Mass Rock at Sylane, Co. Galway

Dating from the time of the Penal Laws (1695-1829) there are many Mass Rocks or Carraig an Aifrinn around Ireland. Some are now in prominent places due to the development of land. Many are still hidden, unnoticed in hedges and fields. During the Penal times Catholics were forbidden from celebrating mass, so these hidden places became very important. Look-outs were posted and the priest was brought to a prominent, flat rock in a small dip or valley to say mass. In a similar way, teachers or educated men went about the country in hedge schools, hiding from the authorities for fear of punishment.

Often mass was said at night under cover of darkness and in some places, small holy objects have been dug up near these altars. If a flat stone was not available, one was taken from a nearby church.

As with many aspects of local history there is a great deal of folklore associated with the Mass Rock. One story from Laragh, Co. Monaghan records the discovery of a priest saying mass by an officer on horseback (probably a ‘priest hunter')

…when he was on point of arresting the Priest a sudden gust of wind blew the Priest's vestments frightened the officer's horse causing him to jump up and toss and kill the rider thus saving the Priest's life.

Sylane Mass Rock

It is said that the Mass Rock pictured was used by Fr. Ulick Nally who evaded capture for many years by posing as a servant in a nearby house.

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