The Doneraile Mass Rock

By Michael Shine - Mallow Field Club Journal 2000 (by kind permission)


THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION : The beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland can be dated to 1536, when the Irish Parliament declared that Henry the Eight was the head of the Church in Ireland. However, the development of separate Protestant and Catholic Churches took place much later, as distinctions between the two religions were distinctly blurred in the early years. Henry was more interested in power than in theology, and originally only wanted to replace the power of the Pope by the power of the King. Thus, clergy could conform to the new regime without any great changes in their usual forms of service and worship. And, so, traditionally minded clergy could continue to operate in their old forms of observance. Under Henry's daughter, Queen Mary, therefore, it was easy, for a short time, to revert to a Catholic established church, and this showed the failure of the Reformation to put down any deep roots in Ireland, but, with the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 the task of creating a Protestant Church began again. The Act of Supremacy of 1560 restored the supremacy of the monarch, and the Act of Uniformity of the same year ordered attendance at the parish church or pay a fine of 12 pence, known as the recusancy fine.. Provision was made for the use of the Book of Common Prayer. Protestantism was to be introduced into the parish churches by English speaking clergy, and the people made to attend by the threat of the recusancy fine. But the policy which had been so successful in England failed to take root in Ireland. A big handicap to spreading the Reformation in Ireland was the use of an English liturgy, which was to be spread by an English-speaking clergy. Even the medieval Irish Church, although it professed one faith, had been racially divided into an Anglo-Norman Church and a Gaelic Church. To try and spread Protestantism by the use of English was to limit the appeal of the new religion from the start. Also, in Ireland, there was not that anti-clericalism which was so widespread in England, and which had close links with the intellectual religious ferment and humanist thinking which was sweeping Europe in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was a very English thing, and was closely linked to the Dublin government, which was the seat of English power and influence in Ireland. But, the Dublin government was weak, and there were large areas in Ireland where its writ did not run at all. Even where it had control the Dublin government could not support the local magistrates in enforcing conformity. The lack of support from the state added greatly to the problems of the Established Church in Ireland. It is sometimes thought that the reformed church inherited the full ministry and property of the medieval church. What it actually got was a dilapidated institution. Even before the Reformation the rectories or small churches had been poorly maintained, and by the end of the turbulent sixteenth century most of them were in ruins. Amongst these ruins were the Doneraile rectories of Rossdoyle (Oldcourt), Rossagh, and Cloustoge (Kilconnors), and Cahirduggan church in Cahirduggan parish. The resources and income of the church also declined. In the areas controlled by the government, the dissolution of the monasteries meant the transfer of a large amount of church property, such as benefices, tithes, and dues into the hands of laymen. Few of those laymen gave priority to the care of souls, and most had little interest in giving a large part of their revenues from a benefice to support a properly trained curate. By the year 1661 there was no curate in Doneraile or Cahirduggan.

AFTER THE REFORMATION After the Reformation, by about 1550, almost all existing Catholic Church property had been confiscated. Such Catholic Church property was taken over by the Church of Ireland.The rest were in ruins by the wnd of the century. Catholics then celebrated Mass in thatched cabins, which they called chapels. The title "Church" was reserved for the Protestant building.The Protestants called the Catholic chapels "mass-houses" By the 1570s the thatched mass-houses became the norm in the country districts of the south. The persecution of Catholics under Cromwell seems to have been worse than during the later Penal laws..In New Ross in October 1649,he stated that where the Parliament of England had power,the celebration of Mass would not be allowed, and it was from Cromwell's time (1650) to about 1760 that the Mass-rock became so much part of the Irish experience.

The Penal Laws: The period from 1691 to 1761 was the age of the Penal Laws against Catholics in Ireland, when a determined effort was made to consolidate the Protestant ascendancy. After the Battle of the Boyne and the Treaty of Limerick, a whole new series of laws were passed against the Catholic clergy.The first of these was the Banishment Act of King William lll in 1697, in which it was decreed that""all popish archbishops, bishops,vicars-general, deans,Jesuits, monks friars and other popish clergy and all papists exercising ecclesiastical authority, should depart from this kingdom before the 1st of May 1698" This law had an underlying political motive. In the early eighteenth century the Catholic church was still committed to the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne of England.The government thought that the best way to counter this and keep the Church away from political subversion, was to remove the regular clergy who had direct continental links, and indeed had been trained in European seminaries.England and France had been at war twice in this period and the English succession were were an important element during both these wars.

The Government kept tabs on the diocesan clergy by the Registration Act of 1704 in the reign of Queen Anne. Under this Act, every popish priest in the country on the 24th. of June 1704 -had to be registered with the government. He also had to find two securities of £50 each that he would be of good behaviour, and that he would not leave the county in which he was registered. No parish priest was allowed to have a curate, and registration was compulsory under pain of banishment.1089 priests in Ireland registered under this act.

The Abjuration Act of 1709 compelled priests to take an oath of abjuration, denying the claims of the Stuarts to the English throne. Only 33 priests took this oath.

Places of Worship. As long as the priest was registered Catholic worship could take place. Many mass-houses were built at this time, and there were numerous huts, sheds and movable altars. In 1731 Doneraile had a kind of shed instead of a mass-house. Mass was said in many parts of the countryin open fields, or sometimes in the ruins of an ancient church or abbey. But the picture of the mass-rock , with the watchers on the hill-side waiting to warn the priest of approaching soldiers, is rather exaggerated for the eighteenth century.

In many places Mass was said at some Carraig an Aifreann (mass-rock) quite openly all the year round. It was said there because there was no parish chapel, either because the people were too poor to build one,or more usually because the landlord refused to give them a site. As the Catholic bishops had been expelled, no new ordinations could take place in Ireland. The authorities hoped that when the registered priests died there would be no successors and Catholics would then turn for spiritual consolation to the Established Church.

SITES OF MASS-ROCKS The majority of known sites were located on poor quality land, which was neglected by the landlords. Many were on wet land or in rough wooded glens, where horse soldiers did not like to travel. Some sites were on well known landmarks, such as old forts, so that when people were informed that Mass was to be celebrated, they knew exactly where to go. Some Mass rocks may represent earlier (perhaps pre-Christian) sacred stones, as would seem to be the case with the so-called "holy wells." Some sites were close together. This was so that the altar could be shifted during bad weather, and thus the priest and congregation could be sheltered from wind and rain. Such sites could be described as mobile. "As the wind blew" decided where Mass was celebrated. Many sites were near streams. People travelled to Mass along the bed of streams, so that they would not leave visible footprints, which could be easily followed. Mass paths probably did not come into being until after the relaxation of the Penal Laws about 1760. Mass rocks and alter sites were also far away from main roads of which there were very few at the time The verbal tradition about mass-rocks and altar sites is being lost, particularly where land has changed hands. In the seventeenth century, plantations may have led to the destruction of Mass sites of the Cromwellian period. Recent changes in farm structure and practice have led to the disappearance of more sites. Again, farms have been bought and sold since we joined the European Union. Smaller farms have merged into larger farms, with nobody now living on them. Land reclamation has also destroyed some sites, and so important traditions have been lost.

THE DONERAILE MASS ROCK Undisturbed and almost forgotten since it was last used in the eighteenth century, the mass-rock in Doneraile parish, came to light again in the early 1960s. It is situated in Carker Middle townland on a sloping hill of Old red Sandstone Drift.It can be found on the 6 inch Ordnance Survey Sheet ,No.17,1.20cm. from the north and 2.50 cm. from the east.The National Grid Reference is (C0017 n 028), 16314/11344.

It was rediscovered when a forestry party was working in the area. Tommy Dunne was the ploughman and Lar Murphy was his helper.Joe McLoughlin was the forester in charge.

THE ANNUAL MASS AT THE MASS-ROCK. The Mass which is now said annually at the Mass Rock, was started by Canon Cotter, in July, 1984, following discussions with local resident Pat O'Kelly, and with the co-operation of other people in the vicinity. The forestry people did the heavy work of clearing up the area. Pat O'Kelly cleared the stone with a wire brush. The annual Mass is now an important event at Carker. Not only is it attended by Doneraile parishioners, but also by people from the adjoining parishes of Ballyhea and Kildorrery., as well as by people from across the border in Co. Limerick. It is now sign-posted, and people visit it regularly, with larger crowds on Sundays. From the beginning there was a great interest in it, and this has been maintained. People who have emigrated and returned home have showed a special interest in it. Each year, before the month of July, when the Mass is celebrated , people living at some distance from the site have made enquiries about the exact date, so that they could bring their relatives to it. People have come from as far away as Cork City to attend the Mass. The O'Kelly family have played a big part in organising the annual celebration of Mass there, with the help of the local priests and others. They brought seats for the occasion form the Community Centre in Doneraile. The future of the event is now secure, and it will be held every year in future. Canon (now Monsignor) Denis O'Callaghan from Mallow said Mass there in 1990, and many people were glad that his extra dimension had been given to Doneraile's mass-rock. The area near the mass-rock has changed in recent years. People named McGrath once lived about 100 yards from the rock, about 20 years before the Forestry took over this area, early in the 20 the century. Their white house was a landmark, which could be seen from the top of Curraghkerry Hill by anyone coming from Mallow. There were four other families further out. All are now dead. The Peddler's Grave is a mysterious site located near the path leading to the mass- rock. It is a mound of stones about the length of a grave. The old people told Pat 0' Kelly that everybody passing threw a stone at it. It is thought that it is the grave of a travelling man, who either died or was murdered at this spot. The tradition is that each time a person passes the grave he must throw a stone on it to avoid personal misfortune. The tradition about the mass-rock is strong in the area. Old people were always talking to Pat Kelly about it. These people are now dead. Lar Murphy also heard about it when young, but did not pay much attention at the time. He had known of its existence for the last forty years, but did not hear anything about mass-rocks going to school. The Carker mass-rock gives much food for thought. Perhaps, people felt more need for God when living in difficult times. Even in relatively modern times the people of this area had a great devotion to the Mass, and rarely missed it. Sixty years ago, Pat Kelly saw them passing his house in pony and traps on dark winter mornings, while others walked to the 8.30 a.m. Mass in Doneraile. So, we have a picture of a people attending Mass at some danger to themselves in Cromwellian times, and later in the 18th century, when Mass was barely tolerated under the Registration Act. This is the scene we are looking at, and perhaps we could be remembering Father Tadgh O'Dalaigh, who, 300 years ago, said Mass on the mass-rock at Carker Middle, with the people gathered round him, showing their loyalty to and faith in the Mass.


"The Royal Visitation of Cork. Cloyne. and Ross. and College of Youghal." Authorised by Bishop William Lyon, 1615. "An Abstract of the State of Popery in the Diocese of Cloyne." dated 6th November, 1731.

"C1erical and Parochial Records of Cork. Clovne. and Ross." by W. Maziere Brady D.D., Alexander Thom, Dublin, 1863.

"The Penal Laws. 1691-1760." by Maureen Wall, Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 1961.

"Sites and Monuments Records for Co. Cork." "Times Past," Volume 6, 1989-90, the Journal of the Ballincollig Community School Local History Society. In this Journal, nearly 200 Mass rocks and altar sites have been identified in Co. Cork, with a map and grid showing their exact locations.

Broadcast from County Sound Radio, Mallow, on 26th August, 1990, by Rev. Father Michael Harrington, Mallow, Michael Shine, Lar Murphy, and Pat OKelly from Doneraile, on mass-rocks, with with particular reference to the Doneraile mass-rock at Carker.

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