Shrines of our penal past

‘Were You at the Rock’: the History of Mass Rocks in Ireland by Tony Nugent (The Liffey Press, €10.95)

The Mass Rocks of Killybegs: Ten Pilgrimages to Sacred Places in Killybegs Summer 2013 by the Killybegs Mass Rocks Committee (Killybegs Parish Office, €15.00 + p&p;  tel.:  00353 (0)74 9731013)

It is by one of those curious coincidences to which we might give another name, that in the first month of the new year two quite different books on the Mass rocks of Ireland should arrive for review.

Reading these two books the image of Jacob on his journey to Haran came to mind. Arriving at Bethel he laid his head on a rock to sleep, dreaming of that stairway to Heaven, the angels moving up and down, and God speaking to him from above.

“The Lord is in this place and I knew not,” he exclaimed on waking. “This is none other than the house of God and the gate of Heaven”.  He set up his stone pillow for a pillar and poured oil on it, dedicating the place to ritual use. (Genesis, 28)

Though some liturgists are disturbed at the idea of saying Mass anywhere but in a church, there is something very moving, not only about Jacob’s experience at Bethel, but in the stories of the multitude of Mass rocks in Ireland too.

Patriarchal era

They too for past generations were “the house of God and the gateways to Heaven” and they evoke in the imagination not only an Irish past of pain and suffering, but echoes of the patriarchal era when God seemed very close indeed to humanity.

Tony Nugent is a retired civil servant who has returned to college to study folklore and history.  In his book he provides an historical account of why the Mass rocks came into existence due to the religious intolerance in penal times (roughly 1640-1750), as well as an epilogue on  how Catholic Emancipation in 1829 put a final end to all that.

But the heart of the book is a county by county gazetteer of the Mass rocks and their locations and history complete with maps, so far has he has been able to recover them on his many walks. This is an excellent book, filled with hard won details, but one which might have received a more attractive design from the publishers. 

Local pilgrims

In his account of Donegal Tom Nugent refers to Carraig a’ tSagairt, now Carrickataggart, near Killybegs, but says nothing of its actual history. Turning, however, to the other book, produced in the parish by PP Fr Colm O’Gallchoir and his team, we learn all about it. Some eight pages are devoted to the local pilgrims visit to the site on June 2013.

But they then go on to provide a records of another nine sites in the parish, which Tom Nugent does not notice. This suggests that across Ireland there must still be many more sites which need to be recorded, least in the passage of time and failure of memory they are forgotten by all.

Both books are of great interest, though the local information which the Killybegs team have uncovered (as well as the many photos of the pilgrims enjoying themselves on their visits) gives their book a special value. Much of the detail is due to the devotion over decades of local man Charlie Boyle.

Their maps are better too, with actual coordinates for all ten sites that can be fed into a satnav, rather than vaguer Ordnance Survey references Nugent occasionally provides. 


Tom Nugent as an historian aims at a popular book, with details about the sufferings of both priests and people, but the people of Killybegs have demonstrated just how the recovery of the past in the present can be an enriching experience. Here perhaps is a premonition of a future kind of parish church, one in which such sites, rather than a church, may play a renewed role.