Irish “Mass Path”, for secret worship, mapped and photographed (and some BOOKS)

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Laurelmarycecilia says:

    Fr Z, please do not forget O’Brien’s “Island of the World” It is without a doubt one of the most influential books of my life. O’Brien created a character who surviving the horrors of war completely looses himself and his Faith but who, nonetheless, finds his way back to the Church. It is a multi-level book with parts that are clear only to those who understand the Real Presence.

    [I didn’t forget it. But it wasn’t relevant to my post. All of O’Brien’s books are worth exploring. For some of them… he needed an editor… you need a little patience, but he clearly wrote from a place of contemplation.]

  2. Fr. Reader says:

    Also “Voyage to Alpha Centaury”, a great book.

  3. Pingback: Best reads for January 12, 2018 – A Lapsed Catholic Returns

  4. MacCheese says:

    What the mighty British empire couldn’t manage to do in 800 years, the Irish Bishops accomplished in a single generation! I.e. destroy Catholic Ireland
    Please Pray for Ireland.

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Ireland used to have Catholic traditions of sacred architecture, music, etc. But they were largely lost, and so there was a lack of continuity.

    Also, there was an Irish college/seminary in Spain, which I think was Dominican? But yes, there were more folks trained in France.

  6. DeGaulle says:

    We in Ireland surely need your prayers. We certainly have been let down by our invertebrate hierarchy.þ

  7. ejcmartin says:

    In the small town of Renews, Newfoundland there is a place called Mass Rock,where tradition has it the Irish fishermen would have Mass celebrated in secret. Behind Mass Rock were hills that overlook the harbour, so the lookouts could keep an eye out for nosy British Admirals. There is also a tradition that the Mayflower of landed at Renews for freshwater and other supplies on its way to Plymouth.

  8. jaykay says:

    Mass rocks are quite common. There’s one near to me, about a mile or so outside town where I live, which even in the 17th and 18th centuries was one of the larger towns in Ireland. It was totally surrounded by fields then, of course, but even at that time it wasn’t far from a main roadway, so not in a remote and inaccessible spot, although it’s still noticeable that it’s on a slight elevation, in what is generally very flat country, so that look-outs could spot officialdom coming. It was decorated with a small Celtic cross back in the 1920’s, with a beautifully-cut inscription in old Irish script – which unfortunately could do with a bit of re-cutting at this stage!

    As to the whole Jansenist influence thing, Prof. John P. McCarthy had this to say in an article in “Crisis” back in 1999:

    “What comes to mind first is the old canard about Jansenism. It is axiomatic for “post-Catholic” Irish-American journalists and popularizers to lampoon the concern the Irish-American (and Irish) Church gave to the virtue of purity. Actually, the emphasis on Jansenism to explain that feature of Irish Catholicism is grossly overdone. Many Irish priests of the 18th century were trained in France because seminaries were illegal in Ireland. Some may have been influenced by Jansenists, but Jansenism was scarcely in the ascendancy in the France of Louis XV and XVI.”

  9. Charivari Rob says:

    All sorts of questions and comments, Father, but I’ll stick with one for now.

    I don’t understand what you mean about “did not develop any tradition of church architecture”. Please expand on what you meant.

    There are beautiful churches all over Ireland. Some small, some enormous. There is quite definitely a tradition of communities who were strongly involved/invested in the building of their churches and churchland as sacred space – and a historical tradition that records and tells their stories. Ancient ruined abbeys and churches are still used as sacred ground today.

    Outside the cities, it isn’t mega-cemeteries with perpetual-care contracts like so many places in the US. It’s graveyards attached to the country churches, where the maintenance, care and “dressing of the graves” is a gathering of the parish. It may be a modest-sized church building in a lot of those little country parishes/chapels, but there is a greater awareness there of those who have gone before us for whom we must pray, the end that we all must meet eventually and that for which we must prepare ourselves.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks for this post Fr. Z, I’ve never heard of these Mass Paths. Those paths and “walking to Mass in a streambed” brings to mind a trick of the early North American explorers and missionary priests. (I don’t recall where I read this, perhaps Francis Parkman’s “France and England in North America” or a book on Fr. Marquette and Joliet. Anyway, there are numerous books these days that focus on tracking and woodlore.) Some of the early explorers and missionary priests, while living amongst the friendly Huron and hostile Iroquois, would sometimes travel along animal paths (or “animal runs”) and wear moccasins rather than European boots.

    That O’Brien trilogy is long but worth the read. The third book, Eclipse of the Sun, saw a creative use by the priest of a truck, RV, and sailboat. That said, O’Brien did remark once to Fr. Fessio of Ignatius Press that he was learning to make his point with fewer words. His novel The Father’s Tale ran to almost 1200 pages, but his recent books have been much shorter. Contemplative novels indeed.

    MacCheese: Interesting point, though I hear Silverstream Priory is doing good work.

    ejcmartin: Interesting info about Mass Rock.

  11. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    I am Irish-American (my grandfather was born in Limerick) and I married an English immigrant to the States. About 15 years ago, I was visiting my mother-in-law in England. She was a life-long Catholic, educated in convent schools and much involved in the Church. One of her daughters was there when my mother-in-law pointed to a newspaper article reporting some disturbance in Ireland. “What is wrong with the Irish?” she asked. “Why do they have to make trouble?” So I provided, I think calmly, a three minute summary of Anglo-Irish relations since Henry II in the 12th century. When I stopped, she said with some indignation, “Well!” But my sister-in-law, God bless her, said, “But, mother, you asked.”

    The astonishing thing is that Catholics in England in the 20th century evidently were told nothing about the depredations of the English Protestants on the Irish Catholics. I suppose it wouldn’t have been thought polite. I am all in favor of telling it like it is for this kind of oppression and if someone doesn’t like it, let him deal with the facts. Thanks to Caitriona Dunnet for this kind of research to tell us where we have been. And thanks to my Italian genes for sparing me the Irish Jansenism ?.

  12. Kevin says:

    The Little Ark
    Little Ark is a great Irish tourist attraction
    In the 19th century, the landlords of Loop Head refused to give over a site for the building of a church for Roman Catholic worship in Kilbaha.

    The local priest at the time, Fr Michael Meehan, came up with the idea of celebrating mass on the foreshore, which is no man’s land. In 1852, he oversaw the building of a Little Ark – a wooden box on wheels, containing an altar – which could be rolled onto the beach at low tide.

    For five years, mass was celebrated, couples were married and children were baptised there by the sea in Kilbaha. Eventually, a site for a church was granted, and in 1857, the first stone was turned on Kilbaha’s present church. It was dedicated to Our Lady, Star of the Sea, but nowadays is better known as the Church of the Little Ark.

    The Little Ark has been preserved and can be seen today in an annexe to the church.

  13. PostCatholic says:

    Derrynane House is my ancestral home–I’m a descendant of Daniel O’Connell. My maternal grandmother, in fact, was baptized in Derrynane House’s chapel.

  14. jaykay says:

    “The astonishing thing is that Catholics in England in the 20th century evidently were told nothing about the depredations of the English Protestants on the Irish Catholics.”

    Not really, to anyone who had really studied history. But the repression was pretty much the same for English Catholics anyway, as in the Gordon riots in London in the 1780s.

    In any event, bad as the Penal Laws were, in actual fact by the mid-18th century in a lot of places in Ireland, Catholic worship was more or less permitted, as long as it was out of sight. Hence, “Mass Houses” down back lanes were tolerated, by and large. There was a very practical economic reason for that.

    By the end of the 18th century, in 1798, the Government even funded the building of the national seminary in Maynooth. Because they realised they were fighting a lost cause, and they wanted lots of big, healthy, Paddies to join the Army and Navy and fight Napoleon, rather than join the French army, which we had traditionally done – and formed some of the best fighting Regiments in the same. Look at the history of the “Wild Geese” for examples. But not only France, Austria and Spain as well. Catholic countries, as they then were.

    So the whole “repression” thing can be a lot over done. It was a very complex story. Still is.

  15. oooh interesting post.
    Catholic repression is a very interesting history. Back in the 70s with the changes to the Church so fresh, many of the original trads then studied the English Reformation and found parallels with the current crisis astonishing.

    The Irish story is extremely complicated, and much of the real story is obfuscated by sentimental history. There was also the huge Irish slavery problem – Irish slaves were more numerous and cheaper than African slaves. Enslavement would certainly dampen any efforts for art and architecture – nothing to compare to Italian, French, German, Eastern European, etc. civilization. One theory is that the Celts were Syrians too.

    In addition the comments about the Mass rocks make me wonder about the origins of Jefferson Rock in Harper’s Ferry WV. Right below that rock is the old St. Peter’s, a historic old Catholic Church rare for that area. Although at a tilt now, it sure looks like an altar! Search on it and see the images. hmmmm. wondering…

  16. jaykay says:

    Tina in Ashburn: Well, the Irish slavery thing (and it certainly did happen) was really a product of the mid-17th century Cromwellian period, of horrible memory. It had ceased by the Restoration, which was a period of relative toleration, albeit short. The Penal Laws were really only enforced in full severity in Ireland just after the “Glorious Revolution”, in 1689/90. But, let’s not forget, English Catholics were subject to the same. I don’t like the victimisation thing that’s so common.

    And, thousands of Irish Catholic soldiers were actually permitted to emigrate to France by the victors, who knew exactly that they were going to (and did) join the army of Louis XIV, and the King of Spain. However, they surrendered their land and were taken off the scene, as it were. In the long run, as the policy-makers probably took into account, that would ruin Catholic Ireland. And it did. But at least they didn’t immediately slaughter them, or enslave them, as in the “Commonwealth” period. They were allowed to go under treaty terms.

    Sed, vae victis. Et vere victi eramus.

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