Don’t lose our Penal Times heritage, warns scholar

Don’t lose our Penal Times heritage, warns scholar A Mass rock near Keem Bay, Achill Island

Precious symbols of Catholic faith are being lost to Irish heritage as awareness of Mass rocks disappears from living memory, a leading academic has warned.

University of Liverpool-based human geographer Dr Hilary Bishop, who has extensively researched Mass rocks, discovered that in Co. Cork alone there are at least 300 more Mass rocks than are recorded on the Archaelogical Survey database.

She is dismayed that the rocks that “kept Catholicism alive” during the penal era are being lost.

“They are the symbol of Catholic heritage. They are what kept the Faith alive. If Gaelic communities hadn’t gone to the Mass rocks, the Faith would have died out,” she told The Irish Catholic.

Information about Mass rocks was passed down orally, because to have included them on 17th- and 18th-Century maps would have legitimated the Catholic Faith.

“I suppose there comes a point where certain generations are less interested in the sites and less interested in their religion and their heritage partly because a lot of them are not physically recorded anywhere so if somebody knows of one and doesn’t pass that information on, then the knowledge of that Mass rock is lost,” she said.

While in Cork only a quarter of the sites were recorded, with three quarters potentially lost to popular knowledge, Dr Bishop does not know if this figure is replicated in other counties.

“In my opinion, based on my research in Cork, Mayo and Galway and the Diocese of Clogher, there are many more sites. The number recorded on the archaeological record is nowhere near the amount of potential sites in any of those counties,” she said.

Mass rocks tend to share a number of features, she explained. They would be near water, which could be ritually important for the saying of the Mass, and as a means of covering the footprints of the congregation; they would be “a special rock – something unique within the landscape”;  they could have an engraved cross, a ledge and a reredos, for placing sacred objects.

Dr Bishop is appealing to the public to communicate any information they might have about the locations of Mass rocks to her via her website:

Full interview with Dr Bishop in The Irish Catholic next week.