The Mass Rock – revisited

This post was originally published way back in 2014 but I have updated it with a few new photographs and edited the text slightly.

An raibh tú ag an gCarraig? / Were You at the Rock?

nó a’ bhfaca tú féin mó grá / Or did you yourself see my love,

nó a’ bhfaca tú gile, / Or did you see a brightness,

finne agus scéimh na mná? / The fairness and the beauty of the woman?

This beautiful song speaks to a revered tradition in Irish history and folk custom – the mass rock. During the period of the Penal Laws (late 17th and first half of 18th Century) when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed, parishioners would gather at a secret location to attend mass. The priest travelled from community to community in disguise, a lookout was posted, and mass was celebrated on a lonely rock far from the reach of the law. The song encodes the message that the people still find ways to attend mass, despite the harsh prohibition against it.

Mass rocks are often in remote locations, such as this one in Kerry, or the lead image on the Beara

Dr. Hilary Bishop, in her excellent website Find a Mass Rock says, As locations of a distinctively Catholic faith, Mass Rocks are important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to Irish heritage and tradition. She also points out that, because of the imperative for secrecy, mass rocks are difficult to find.

This stained glass window shows mass at a mass rock, with a lookout posted to keep an eye out for the redcoats

We certainly experienced this when we set out for a day of mass rock hunting. Working from a list generated from the National Monuments Service database we spent a day on the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen and had trouble finding all the rocks on the list. One, if it was still there, had disappeared under impenetrable layers of gorse. A second rock was last recorded in the 1980s: residents were no longer familiar with it.

One of our favourite holy wells, at Beach on the Sheep’s Head, also incorporates a mass rock. Mass is celebrated here every August

Knowledge of mass rocks has passed down from generation to generation. In the deep countryside, the sites maintain a mystique and a sense of the sacred. We’ve written about the mass rock and holy well at Beach, where Mary conjured up a blanket of fog to confuse the English soldiers and allow the priest to escape. At Beach and at our first stop, the mass rock at Glanalin on the Sheep’s Head Way, mass is still celebrated.

The Glanalin rock (above), and the one we visited on the Beara Peninsula, are good examples of the remote locations typical of many mass rocks, high on a hillside or hidden in an isolated valley. You can picture the procession of worshippers, in ones and twos, slipping silently through the bracken, pausing to make sure they are not being watched, climbing higher, following an overgrown trail, arriving at the meeting place where the hushed crowd awaits the arrival of the priest.

One of the rocks we found (above) looked for all the world like a fallen standing stone – and that’s probably what it was. (I wonder if I should go to confession, though – I’m sure that sitting on a mass rock would qualify as at least a venial sin.)

A mass rock that is easily visited is the one at Cononagh Village (above), right at the side of the main road into West Cork, the N71. This site is beautifully maintained – Cononagh is obviously proud of its heritage: signage and flowers invite the passerby to take a closer look.

The mass rock we visited last year, at Foherlagh, has a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. This one even had a small scoop-out in the rock, identified as a holy well

Another easily accessible site is Altar, at Toormore. This is a wedge tomb, probably over 4,000 years old and excavated in 1989. It remained in use through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. Dr. William O’Brien, in Iverni, says of this site: …over time this tomb came to be regarded as a sacred place, housing important ancestral remains in what was a type of community shrine. How fitting, then, that the flat capstone of the Altar wedge tomb became, in the Penal Days, a mass rock. And how intriguing to think of the continuation of this sacred space over the course of thousands of years.

But perhaps our favourite of all the mass rocks we have visited is the one at Castlemehigan. We wrote about it here. It started out life as a cupmarked stone perhaps in the Neolithic, then probably got converted into a bullaun stone in the Early Medieval period, before finally serving as a mass rock – and it has all the stories to go with its long history.

 

A Tale of Four Churches

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe is a magical place. The story of its four churches leads us from the dawn of Christianity in Ireland through turbulent times and many centuries when religious differences and sectarian strife marked all aspects of life in Ireland.

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church  2, Mass Rock 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church 4, Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church. 2, Mass Rock. 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church. 4. Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

We love going down to the Medieval church at Kilcoe or wandering the boreens along the Roaringwater River. Those boreens are now part of the Fastnet Trail Network and last weekend, at the Launch, we were treated to a talk about the locality from Fr Patrick Hickey, Parish Priest of Timoleague and a noted scholar of West Cork History. This blog post was inspired by that talk – thank you, Fr Hickey!

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Kilcoe gets its name from St Coch, a nun said to be a colleague of St Ciarán of Cape Clear, who preached Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick, in the 5th Century. It is possible she founded a church here, but what we do know is that one was built in Medieval times – a building that still exists although the ivy is doing its best to take it over.

It’s a beautiful and atmospheric place, on the water, overlooking Roaringwater Bay. Two castles are in view: Kilcoe and Rincolisky, a McCarthy and an O’Driscoll Castle respectively. Each has a fascinating history that deserves a post of its own sometime. Some special features remain in this ruined church – windows with carved ogees, a lovely arched doorway, a piscina (for washing vessels) or stoup (for washing hands), a recess for storing vessels and the remains of a possible altar.

We don’t know exactly when this church was built or by whom, but we do know it was in ruins by 1615. Perhaps it was destroyed by the same forces that laid siege to Kilcoe Castle after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – a period that marked the end of the Old Gaelic Order in West Cork.

The Medieval church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background.

The Church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background

The rise of the Protestant Ascendancy class in the aftermath of that fateful battle privileged the Church of Ireland (transplanted Anglicanism) over the Catholic faith and a series of new laws, gradually getting harsher, were designed to suppress ‘Romanism’. This culminated in the enactment, in 1695, of the infamous Penal Laws. While attendance at mass was initially tolerated, churches could only be built from wood and away from roads. Eventually, priests were expelled from Ireland and after that mass had to be held in secret, with priests moving from hiding place to hiding place. At Roaringwater Pier Fr Hickey talked of the typical cargo of the smuggling ships that plied their trade from there: each ship to arrive from France would be carrying tobacco, brandy – and a priest!

From this period we find the Mass Rocks scattered around rural Ireland, identified on the basis of local tradition. The one at Ardura Beg is just up from a tiny pier that would have offered possibility of a quick escape. Many stories have come down of lookouts warning of the approach of the ‘red coats’ and the miraculous ways in which priests would make their escape. (See here and here for examples.)

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Places of worship must be located where they are accessible and the first two are close by the sea, which afforded the easiest travel routes in Ireland for most of its history. However, roads were constructed eventually and the next two churches were located along these new routes. The first one, we’ll call it the Old Church, was built along the new road that led from Skibbereen to the Beara Peninsula. After 1778 the anti-Catholic laws were gradually relaxed, although it was not until 1829 that full Catholic Emancipation was won by Daniel O’Connell. The Old Church was probably built around 1800 and was a simple ‘barn-style’ edifice which served an impoverished and famine-stricken populace for a hundred years.

Left, the Old Church near Roaringwater Pier. Right, an example of a simple ‘barn style’ church in West Cork

By the turn of the 20th Century it was deemed unfit for purpose. Nowadays it is a gentle green space, lovingly tended and in use as a grotto. Children were buried there – it was not a cillín, but a consecrated graveyard – and a memorial remembers them now.

Grotto and Chirdren Memorial. A place for contemplation

Grotto and Children’s Memorial. A place for contemplation

Catholic Emancipation ushered in a long period of church building by the newly-confident Catholic majority. The new road from Skibbereen to Ballydehob was constructed at the end of the 19th century and the New Church was built there in 1905, right beside the bridge over the Roaringwater River.

Kilcoe Church and Bridge

Bridge over Roaringwater River

The two styles of churches common at the time were Neo-Gothic, Influenced by continental cathedrals, and Hiberno-Romanesque which took its inspiration from the Early Medieval Romanesque style of Old Ireland and featured wonderful doorways and round towers. The Kilcoe New Church, the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, was built in the Neo-Gothic style, with a large rose window at the eastern end.

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Originally the side-aisles did not have seats – poorer people could stand there for mass, while those who could afford a penny would occupy the pews. As the church fund grew, thought was put into ornamentation and stained glass was commissioned for several windows. The rose window was executed by the Harry Clarke Studios in 1943 and shows scenes from the life of Christ and of Mary.

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Altar and side windows were the work of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass. The choice of stained glass – from Dublin-based Celtic Revival artists rather than the English or Continental firms that supplied most church glass at the time –  was a choice that demonstrates the nationalistic feelings that were rife in West Cork at the time.

Irish History is written large on her landscape. In this one small area – these sites are within a couple of kilometres of each other – we see encapsulated sixteen hundred years of history, starting with St Coch and ending with the latest incarnation of a church at Kilcoe. Their beauty and their peaceful settings have been hard won. They should serve to remind us that peace and tolerance must always be cherished and safeguarded.

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Mizen Mission

Tooreen Lake

Tooreen Lake

A joint post by Robert and Finola…

Finola

According to the forecast today could be the last fine day of 2014, so we decided to make the most of it and set off on a mission. And what a day it was! Cold, yes, but with that brilliant light that only happens on crisp winter days.

Looking across Roaringwater Bay

Looking across Roaringwater Bay

Our mission? it was to find a piece of prehistoric rock art I had last visited over 40 years ago in the townland of Castlemehigan, near the end of the Mizen Peninsula. But once in the vicinity of Castlemehigan we couldn’t resist continuing to the end of the tiny road, which climbed up the rocky hills on the northern side of Crook Haven. Parking the car, we climbed to the highest point we could find. We’re used, by now, to the jaw-dropping views around here, but even by Mizen standards, this was something special. 

Crookhaven Village

Crookhaven Village

South of us, across the Haven was the village of Crookhaven nestled in its protective harbour. Looking north we could see across the Sheep’s Head to where the unmistakeable outline of Hungry Hill loomed on the Beara Peninsula. To the west was the White Strand and Brow Head, crowned by the historic Marconi telegraph station and to the east was the whole of Roaringwater Bay: Cape Clear Island, Sherkin, Baltimore, and the ring of hills that run down to the water.

Back in the vicinity of the rock we knocked on the door of a farmhouse to ask directions and permission. Often when we do this we are met with a blank look – not every ancient monument location has survived in the folk memory of the local residents. But this time we hit it lucky, with Florence O’Driscoll – ah yes, he knew it – the mass rock is what we were looking for. I showed him a picture of the rock and he confirmed that was the one, it was on his land and he would take us there.

Castlemehigan Rock

Castlemehigan Rock

My write-up and drawing of the time brought back some memories of an unusual rock with very large depressions, almost more basins than cupmarks. I also had a very clear recollection of being taken to the site by Bernard O’Regan, a local (and well-remembered) amateur archaeologist who was very helpful to me at the time. Because the rock was very overgrown, he had arranged to have it cleaned for me and when we arrived there were two men on top of the rock hacking away the gorse and heather. Nowadays, rock art specialists abide by an ethic of zero surface contact – no clearing or scrubbing allowed!

Castlemehigan rock surface

Castlemehigan rock surface

Although this rock lacks any of the circles, grooves and lines that add interest and appeal to many panels of rock art, it is special in other ways. Several of the cupmarks are unusually large, and one is basin-shaped (that is, with straight sides and a flat bottom).

Oriented to Mount Gabriel to the east

Mount Gabriel clearly visible

Some cupmarks appear to run in rows and the rows run in specific directions – one line of cupmarks run directly east/west pointing at the lake that lies about 100 meters away at the bottom of the field. Another line pointed to Mount Gabriel, about 15 kms away on the distant horizon. The two large basin-like depressions are directly north/south of each other.

row of cupmarks

Row of cupmarks

What could be a standing stone is located a few metres away.

Standing stone?

Standing stone?

In comparing my original drawing, done 42 years ago, there wasn’t much I would change. Some cupmarks appear to have pecked areas between them which conjoin them in a dumb-bell motif. My original decision was that there were two dumb-bells, but perhaps now I would be tempted to say there were three or even four. However, this just illustrates the subjective nature of the recording process. Especially where lichen obscures the surface, decisions like this come down to professional judgement and experience: drawings can differ from one recorder to another, or even from one visit to another when lighting conditions show up more or less of the carving detail.

Original drawing, updated by Robert

Original drawing, updated by Robert

Robert

This earthfast boulder is a beautiful object – not least because of its setting. I love these Mizen landscapes – they have a very particular character. Large areas of rock outcrop are interspersed with the tiniest fields, tracks and bog. Here there are lakes close by – once natural features, they have been turned into reservoirs to serve local communities. The marked rock overlooks one of these – this one supplying nearby Goleen.

Mount Gabriel clearly visible from the Derreennaclogh stones

Mount Gabriel clearly visible from the Derreennaclogh rock

This example reminds me in some ways of the Derreennaclogh rock – it’s of similar size and shape. Also, at Derreennaclogh Mount Gabriel is prominent on the western horizon, and we’ve been told that the setting sun towards the short end of the year appears to ‘roll’ down the slope of the hill at times. At Castlemehigan the rock also looks out to Mount Gabriel – this time to the east. This is a relatively isolated piece of rock art: the nearest recorded example is at Cooradarrigan, on the far side of Schull. It’s tempting to think that the flat, table-like surfaces of both Derreennaclogh and Castlemehigan were considered significant to those ancient people – who made them notable by marking them – because of their settings which relate to unmistakable landscape features. Otherwise, one might question why large areas of flat rock surface in the immediate vicinities – ideal for carving – have apparently been left untouched.

Florence and Finola

Florence and Finola

Florence O’Driscoll, our guide on this expedition, proved to be a fund of information. He had farmed the land which had been his father’s before him. Finola must have met his father when she explored the rocks over forty years ago. Florence carried the stories of the rock from his father’s generation, and probably from generations before that. He told us that the rock had been used as a mass rock in penal times – and that the hill above it was known as Cnocan an Aifreann (the hill of the mass): there is what certainly appears to be a cross carved into the rock surface, close to the large basin (Finola did not record this in her original drawing – she will add it when we update the records). Florence told of the time that the ‘Tans’ (the Black-and-Tans) caught red-handed the Priest celebrating the mass: the Priest threw the crucifix into the lake below the rock (the lake was then smaller than it is now). Ever since then, says Florence, the lake has never run dry – and never will.

Look for the possible cross carving on the right

Look for the possible cross carving on the right

It’s interesting that stories carried through local tradition pay no heed to time or history. They don’t need to: the ‘story’ is a part of the rock, as much as the carvings are. Florence told the tales as if they had happened yesterday. I hope they will continue to be told as long as the rock continues to display its enigmas.

Mass in penal times (Maggie Land Blanck Collection)

Mass in penal times (Maggie Land Blanck Collection)