Occasionally a friend of mine in England makes weekend adventures to visit sites where there are preserved “priest holes”, and he sends photos. They really give you pause. As you know, in the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholics who refused to give up their now-illegal faith would at times hide priests, who would have been arrested, tortured and murdered. Moreover, there has been a recent series about the “Gunpowder Plot” in which some brutal scenes show how Catholics were treated.
Today, by the way, they’d find us priests. There would be no place to hide, I’m afraid.
Another friend just sent a link to a fascinating piece about “Mass paths” in Ireland.
When Catholics were persecuted in Ireland during the Penal Times and could not have churches, they had to go out to some remote place and have clandestine Masses. Over time, their feet beat paths that, apparently, remain to this day.
Let’s see a bit from Atlas Obscura:
On Ireland’s southwest coast, in County Kerry, there is a small village called Caherdaniel. Nearby, there is a national park, a fort that offers glimpses of the Skellig Islands, and the sloping shores of Derrynane Bay. And, etched into this countryside, is the Caherdaniel Mass Path. Like other such paths around Ireland, this narrow track was used by Catholics to attend mass 300 years ago, during a time of religious persecution.
The locations of these passages were closely held secrets, which is why it took Irish photographer Caitriona Dunnett years to research her project Mass Paths. It was the one at Caherdaniel that first sparked her interest. “I photographed it and remembered learning about the penal times at school,” she says. “It inspired me to research and find other penal paths to photograph.”
Beginning in the 1690s, the Protestant-controlled Irish Parliament, in conjunction with the English Parliament, passed a series of increasingly stringent, brutally wide-ranging penal laws that imposed serious restrictions on the already oppressed Catholic majority. No Catholic person could vote, or become a lawyer or a judge. They could not own a firearm or serve in the army or navy. They could not set up a school, or teach or be educated abroad. They could not own a horse worth more than £5. They could not speak or read their native Gaelic. [Sort of like …early Dems.]
In an attempt to decrease Catholic land holdings, in the early 1700s, a new law prohibited primogeniture, and instead, when an Irish Catholic died, his land was divided among his sons and daughters. But any son who became Protestant could inherit everything. According to one report, Catholics made up 90 percent of the country’s population. A the end of 1703, they owned less than 10 percent of the land.
Catholic bishops were forced to leave the country. One priest per parish could remain, if he registered with the authorities. [An important development for our liturgical worship today, I think. More below.] The rest were banished, and any who returned would be executed. In 1709, another law was enacted that forced priests to take an oath of abjuration to Protestant Queen Anne. Only 33 priests are recorded to have taken this oath, and the rest had effectively been outlawed. The law also forced people to declare where and when they had attended mass during the prior month, and report any hidden clergy.
These hidden priests held mass in secret, away from watchful eyes. It might be in a shed, or outdoors, with a rock as an altar. Priests sometimes obscured their faces, so if anyone in attendance was later questioned, they could honestly assert they did not know who had led the mass. Priest hunters, who received a bounty for any bishop, priest, or monk they captured, created further peril.
Mass attendees were at similar risk. Some walked to mass along streams, to mask their footsteps, while many took these secret mass paths to worship. Penal law reforms began late in the 18th century and continued throughout the 19th century, but it was only in 1920 that the last laws were finally repealed. [1920!]
Dunnett’s project Mass Paths will be exhibited at the Custom House Studios and Gallery in Westport, County Mayo, Ireland, from March 22 to April 15, 2018. She is also running a crowdfunding campaign. Atlas Obscura spoke to the photographer about memory and landscape, researching oral histories, and how she produced her evocative images.
Read the rest there.
Lessons for religious liberty!
Not many things could entice me for a visit to Ireland – where I haven’t been since the early 80s – but I would like to see this.
On the note of liturgical worship…
First, many of the Irish clergy had to go to France for formation and survival. Hence, many of them fell into the clutches of Sulpicians, whose formation was rigid and Jansenistic (in the less technical use of the word). Eventually they and the Sulpicians would go to the New World, bringing their problems with them.
Also, because of the repression, the Irish did not develop any tradition of church architecture or – and this is important – grand liturgical worship or – and this is even more important – sacred music.
All of this formed part of the Irish experience and ethos when they came to the New World, where they – as speakers of English had advantage over the immigrating Germans, Italians, etc. The Irish came to dominate the hierarchy but effects of repression continued to work its influence in Church through a certain kind of inflexibility and low church worship. As an exercise sometimes, compare old American Irish churches and German churches built around the same time. The German churches will, in general, have large choir lofts and probably large pipe organs (or they did). Irish churches, small organs and lofts: they had no tradition of music that required lots of musicians and singers. Hence, some of the “hymns” that developed in English wound up sounding like the sentimental slop one might sing about the old sod or about a barefoot cathleen after a pint or two at the pub.
In any event, things that happened a long time ago, still influence us today. It’s good to drill in and remember.
Remembering might not prevent persecution of Catholics from happening again, but it might fend it off for a while. Perhaps we’ll know more about that after the 2018 midterm elections and 2020.
Meanwhile, that project is interesting. I noticed that there is some “crowd funding” involved, which those of you of Irish background might look into more deeply.
Finally, off the top of my head, I might recommend a trilogy of early books by Michael O’Brien. They spoke back into his foundation work Father Elijah (US HERE – UK HERE). The trilogy – the Children of the Last Days – covers a 100 year span up to the “millennium” (now past, of course, but that doesn’t make a difference): Strangers and Sojourners (US HERE – UK HERE) and Plague Journal (US HERE – UK HERE) and Eclipse of the Sun (US HERE – UK HERE). In the last of these, there is a time of persecution.
Most of Michael D. O’Brien‘s books are well worth the time.