Introduction and Context

In Ireland, the period 1530–1750 witnessed major changes in the organisation of Irish society (Smyth 2006, p.346). Rather than being simply an inert backdrop to the momentous events that accompanied the advent of Protestantism in Ireland and the energetic attempts of the Roman Catholic faith to resist annihilation, the landscape provided a powerful arena for future devotion that shaped the profound theological, liturgical, and cultural transformations that mark this crucial period (Walsham 2011, p.3).

The Penal Laws were passed between 1695 and 1756, although it may be argued that Ireland’s Roman Catholics had remained in a state of suppression from Tudor and Stuart times. The degrading and dividing influence of the Penal Laws, enacted in defiance of a Treaty guaranteeing Catholics freedom from oppression on account of their religion, and without the provocation of rebellion, extended to every field of Catholic political, professional, social, intellectual and domestic life (Lecky 1891, p.52).

The introduction of the Banishment Act of 1697 required all regular clergy, bishops and those exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction to leave Ireland and their expulsion was carried out in a highly efficient manner. Those regulars such as the Jesuits and Franciscans that remained, or filtered back into the country, found refuge amongst wealthy Catholic families or remained under the guise of secular clergy, eventually registering under the Registration Act (2 Anne (1703) c.7 Section 1). All registered priests were required to take an oath of abjuration, accepting Queen Anne as lawful and rightful Queen, and denying the right of James III to the throne (2 Anne (1703) c.6 Section 15). Few priests came forward to take the oath and the remainder forfeited any legal status which the Registration Act had afforded them resulting in a disruption to religious services. Priests went into hiding and Catholic Mass Houses closed their doors (Connolly 1992, p.276).

Whilst the Penal Laws managed to limit the public expression of Catholicism, they did not ensure the elimination of Catholicism nor did they result in the mass conversion of Catholics (Bartlett 1990, p.2). Despite Mass Houses being closed and chapels appropriated by Protestant authorities, Mass continued to be celebrated secretively at a number of venues including barns and out-houses and in private homes. It was frequently celebrated under trees and bushes, in ditches and in the open air at altars known as Mass Rocks situated in fields and glens or on mountain sides. The majority of these Mass Rocks are known primarily at a local level with information passed down orally from generation to generation.

Emphasising care in the creation and choice of space, the Mass Rock site had to create a space that held meaning and importance for the different aspects of the Eucharistic celebration. The size and proportions of the space had to be sufficient to support the celebration of Mass in all its component parts and, whilst sites needed to either possess the relevant attributes for the celebration of Mass or be adapted accordingly, many sites appear to have been chosen because they were already perceived as ‘sacred’ in some way. This sacredness may have resulted from a certain topographical feature such as a ‘special’ rock or the presence of a sacred water source or tree. Other sites may have been chosen because they had already been made sacred by repeated ritual use in the past. This appears to resonate with research undertaken by a number of authors (Crombie 1988; Finlay 2000; Ní Cheallaigh 2006; Nugent 2008; O’Sullivan and Sheehan 1996) who demonstrate that a number of non-ecclesiastical settings remained a focus for Catholic communities upto the nineteenth century, choosing to bury their unbaptised infants at sites such as ringforts. This suggests that a range of memories and interactions with these sites have diffused from earlier times (Ní Cheallaigh 2006, p.107) and they clearly remained a strong focus for the Gaelic Irish (Nugent 2008, p.89) during Penal times as reflected in the location and nature of Mass Rock sites.

Mass Rock sites are prolific across the whole island of Ireland yet there has been little serious investigation of such sites by archaeologists or historians. Whilst recent authors (Bartley 2012; Murphy 2013; Nugent 2013; O’Sullivan and Downey 2014) have begun to address a gap in published literature, few go beyond traditional assumptions. My research has analysed both existing documentary and material records whilst simultaneously focussing on the material evidence that remains visible within the Irish landscape through extensive field research undertaken in county Cork. Sites were selected from a number of parishes within both dioceses to provide a broad overview of the types of sites that exist.

County Cork, which consists of both the diocese of Cork and Ross and the diocese of Cloyne, has enjoyed something of an extensive and systematic study of its archaeological and historical sites by the Cork Archaeological Survey team based in University College Cork (Murphy 1993, p.11). It also benefits from a wealth of local knowledge located within the records of the Folklore Archives held at University College Dublin. The Archaeological Survey of Ireland (ASI) lists a total of 101 Mass Rock sites for county Cork, although my research suggests that the potential number of Mass Rock sites in the county could be as high as 400. This figure must be treated with some caution as Mass Rocks were both temporally and spatially mutable. Further, Walsham (2011) argues that the emergence of new hallowed places can often be closely linked to the presence of charismatic priests who were accorded enhanced respect by laity as a result of the extreme danger they faced (Walsham 2011, p.221). Whilst she discusses pilgrimage sites in Ireland, her arguments may equally be applied to Mass Rock sites. Despite such cautions, the research provides one of the most thorough syntheses of available sources made to date for this county and has identified a number of Mass Rock sites that remain unrecorded in the Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

By their very nature, many Mass Rock sites are in remote or inaccessible places, on private land or simply overgrown and impossible to locate or access. A number have been removed or buried further exacerbating field research. Whilst Ordnance Survey Manuscripts and Memoirs, Ordnance Survey Maps and historical maps and charts can prove useful in the identification of archaeological sites, early cartographers had no cause to publicise Catholic chapels or other places of worship, by putting them on maps, for fear that this might have been misunderstood as a gesture of legitimisation. As a result many Government Officials paid little attention to them (Andrews 1997, p.19). Even with updated sources available from Ordnance Survey Ireland many sites remain absent from cartographic sources.

The Record of Monuments and Places, which forms the foundation of the list of all historical sites in the Republic of Ireland, predominantly consists of built structures which pre-date 1700 AD (Cooney et al. 2000, p.26). Subsequent legislation, in the form of the 1987 amendment to the National Monuments Act, grants discretion where post-1700 AD sites of national importance are concerned (Rynne 2000, p.53). Given that many historians believe that Mass Rock sites were used predominantly as a result of Penal legislation passed between 1695 and 1756, the potential for many sites to be excluded from this record is great. Research, therefore, is of vital importance for both the identification and subsequent exploration and documentation of Mass Rock sites across Ireland.

Structurally, the paper begins by exploring how the choice of Mass Rock site was shaped by the symbolism found within the landscape, reflecting a strand of Irish Catholicism imbued with much older pre-Christian traditions. My central argument revolves around the need to expand the current archaeological definition of Mass Rocks to acknowledge their much wider temporal use and to better reflect the similarities and variations between ‘types’ of sites. I propose the introduction of new classifications and recommend an innovative set of criteria to enable a more robust verification of potential Mass Rock sites. A full list of the Cork Mass Rock sites discussed within this paper is provided in appendix 1.

The Symbolism of Landscape at Mass Rock Sites

Landscapes are an important expression of the relationship that exists between people and place and they encompass an ensemble of ordinary features which constitute an extra-ordinarily rich exhibition of both the course and character of any given society (Meinig 1979). The Irish landscape became an arena for open air piety, devotion and worship during the Penal era as persecution and proscription compelled Irish Catholics to embrace familiar settings that were framed with deeper cultural meaning. Previous research in county Cork indicates that the spatial distribution of Mass Rock sites is reflective of a more traditional or Gaelic strand of Irish Catholicism (Bishop 2014, p.40) and this is further supported by the location and nature of Mass Rocks.

Mass Rocks are often located within townlands that display a rich archaeological heritage. In Ardrah townland the monuments identified within the ASI include a wedge tomb, ringfort and stone row whilst in Caherkeen townland the record identifies an abundance of enclosures as well as ringforts and a standing stone. Various classifications of standing stones and ringforts are also recorded within the townlands of Cappaboy Beg, Coomleigh East, Cullomane West (Plate 1), Kinneigh and Loughane East whilst at Shehy Beg there are a plethora hut sites and enclosures present (for details please see Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details at Occasionally, these archaeological features are used as Mass Rocks themselves, as in the case of Cooldaniel (Plate 2) and Derrynafinchin (Plate 3), or may stand adjacent to the Mass Rock as at Foherlagh.

Plate 1
figure 1

Cullomane West Mass Rock

Plate 2
figure 2

Cooldaniel Mass Rock

Plate 3
figure 3

Derrynafinchin Mass Rock

Seventy five percent of the sites listed in the ASI for county Cork are located in the Diocese of Cork and Ross which comprises a large swathe of land in west Cork. By the time of the Penal Laws Smyth describes the Catholic political culture of west Cork as predominantly Irish speaking ‘with rich traditions and practitioners of bardic poetry, genealogical, historical and legal scholarship, dinshenchas and the keeping of annals’ which fostered strong cultural unity. Catholics in these heartlands knew the lands of their ancestors intimately and nurtured a potent belief in ‘the spiritual world and ‘older’ faiths’ (Smyth 2006, p.61).

Research by Carroll suggests that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such heartland Catholics were embracing a Tridentine Catholicism imported from the Continent whilst simultaneously flocking to nearby pilgrimage sites (Carroll 1999, p.113). From its inception in the fifth century A.D., Christian pilgrimage in Ireland differed significantly from traditions established elsewhere on the continent. The early Irish church was such a unique institution and was far more open to the syncretism of old and new religious traditions than many other parts of Europe. Often in remote areas and characterised by sacred site features such as heights, insularity, or the presence of holy water sources, trees or stones, old holy places became ‘baptised’ into the new religion or were given new meaning through their historical and legendary associations with Irish saints (Nolan 1983, p.422). Today, individuals continue to make pilgrimages in an effort to bridge the gap between the present and the past just as their predecessors did in medieval times (Adair 1978, p.15). Mass Rocks are often similarly located in remote areas and characterised by sacred site features.

Sacred Water

Nolan emphasises the high prevalence of holy-water features and sacred stones at Irish pilgrimage sites (Nolan 1983, p.431) and my research demonstrates a similar correlation between Mass Rock sites with a preponderance of sites visited located besides lakes, rivers, streams, fords, wells and Holy wells as well as by the sea.

The symbolism reflected by the element of water occupies a most important place amongst the sacred spaces of many nations (Radimilahy 2008, p.86) and Ireland is no exception. The power and regenerative force of water is acknowledged as an important aspect of Irish mythology as it played a central role as a creative force in the cosmic religiousness of pre-Christian communities; individuals drank from it, were immersed within it or carried out specific rituals at it (Brenneman and Brenneman 1995, p.22). In early Gaelic culture sacred springs were strongly linked to the healing cult of gods and goddesses with the veneration of water gods and the ritual deposition of valuables evident among the pre-Christian Irish (hÓgáin 1999, p.214).

The Glenville Mass Rock, in the townland of Chimneyfield, site sits at the water’s edge of the River Bride (Plate 4) and local knowledge places the Ballymah Mass Rock directly at the junction of two rivers. The Mishells Mass Rock is situated within a short walk of a ford, this being a place where battles were frequently staged and a place often identified with crossing and transformation in pre-Christian times (Brenneman and Brenneman 1995, p.22). The National Folklore Collection, Schools’ Manuscript Collection, here-in after referred to as [NFCS], also identifies a Mass Rock located ‘in Goulanes near the River Maelach’ known as Cnocán an Áltórach or ‘little hill of the altar’ (NFCS 1937a, 282, p.66).

Plate 4
figure 4

Glenville Mass Rock Beside River Bride

Coastal sites include the Toormore Mass Rock in Schull and that in Drombeg, Clonakilty, which overlooks the bay. At Councambeg at least three routes can be identified leading to the Mass Rock site. These include a worn path coming up to the site from the entrance of a ravine a few meters away and accessed from the nearby coast. A further Mass site was located in a cave on the Strand at East Ferry, in Cork, and would have been accessible at certain stages of the tide only. Here, during Penal times, the people used to assemble at the opposite side of the strand at a point nearest to where the Mass was being said. It was customary for people to take a dry stone from above the high water mark down to the water’s edge and kneel on it during Mass, moving it closer as the tide receded (NFCS 1937t, 385, p.374–375).

The Beach Mass Rock is found in a spectacular location with commanding views across the Bay at Bantry (Plate 5). Adjacent to a Holy well, this close association with sacred water appears to be a feature at a number of other sites including Calloras Oughter, Coolnaclehy, Enniskeane, Foherlagh, Kinneigh in the diocese of Cork and Ross and Bealnamorrive and Curraghrour East in the diocese of Cloyne. In addition to the house-hold based ‘stations’ which were themselves a response to the restrictions of the Penal laws and chapel-based activities, the practice of visiting Holy wells was one of the main expressions of Catholic devotion in pre-Famine Ireland (Giolláin 2005, p.35–40 cited in O’Sullivan and Downey 2006, p.35). In Analeentha townland, the Holy well of St John the Baptist was itself used as a place for open air Mass in Penal days (site notice).

Plate 5
figure 5

Beach Mass Rock and Lady’s Well

In Ireland, Holy wells or toibreacha naofe are sites of religious devotion (Ray 2014, p.1) that are most often formed from springs. Whilst Holy wells have frequently been dismissed as ‘the fetish of the folklorist’, they regularly have sacred stones associated with them (Ray 2014, p.5). There appears to be little consensus concerning the origin of Holy wells in Ireland and, whilst the popular paradigm is that they are derived from the Christianisation of pre-existing sacred places (Ray 2014, p.58) some authors refute their Celtic origins (Carroll 1999; Rattue 1995 and Mallery 2011). Ray believes that there are certain springs in Ireland which will undoubtedly have been special across prehistory but yet others that will have acquired significance over time, as evidenced by the discovery of newer wells in the last few centuries and often dedicated to ‘healing priests’ (Ray 2014, p.58) who were repeatedly accorded enhanced respect by their laity as a result of the extreme dangers they faced (Walsham 2011, p.221).

Holy wells are usually dedicated to saints, mostly Irish saints of local or national importance, with the two most prevalent dedications to St Brigid and St Patrick (Giolláin 2005, p.14). Other common dedications are to the Blessed Virgin Mary (O’Sullivan and Downey 2006, p.35). Although Mass Rocks are often found adjacent to Holy wells, there appears to be no pattern in respect to the dedication of the well. Mass Rocks at Beach (Plate 5) and Ballycurrany West are located next to wells dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary whereas, in Kilmichael, the Mass Rock is close to St Patrick’s Holy well. In 1889 the Braganza Chalice, dating to 1595, was found buried in St Fiorcheirn’s Holy well in Killoughternane, in county Carlow, the well having been reportedly filled in to protect it during Penal times (Ray 2014, p.62).

At the site of the Beach Mass Rock (Plate 5), a small hollowed out boulder known as a bullaun stone was found beside the Holy well and others are found associated with Glenbower Wood and Shehy Beg Mass Rock sites. Research has also revealed that one of two bullaun stones at an ancient forge in the townland of Knockaganny, county Mayo, was believed to have been re-used as a Mass Rock. Bullaun stones are natural boulders that contain one or more man-made depressions and, whilst various explanations have been offered for their use, their exact purpose continues to be the subject of much speculation (Harbison 1991, p.86). A tradition of bullaun stones being used for cursing is known at Clocha Breacha on Innishmurray (Harbison 1991, p.226) and at the Pass of Keinmaneigh near the pilgrimage site of Gougane Barra in Cork (Harbison 1991, p.227). They are found in many contexts including but not limited to Holy wells (Crozier and Rea 1940, p.105) often occurring at places which may have been connected with pilgrimage (Harbison 1991, p.86). In folk tradition, bullauns are frequently associated with the healing properties of the water that gathers in their basins, fitting into the framework of small local pilgrimages or patterns which are held on specific days at hallowed local sites. Bullaun stones are also found in ecclesiastical settings (Corlett 2013a, p.14) and occasionally pilgrims inscribe crosses on these stones, as occurs at Adrigole in County Cork (Harbison 1991, p.224).

Inscribed crosses are a feature at many pilgrimage sites. At the Holy well near Sheen Bridge, Kenmare, county Kerry, the top of a slab covering the well has been marked with crosses by worshippers using a pebble (Bigger 1898:, p.23) and this is also part of the pilgrimage ritual at the site of a standing stone at the ancient monastic settlement at Kilabuonia, county Kerry (Logan 1980, p.32). Pilgrims registering for the Tóchar Phádraig, at Ballintubber Abbey in county Mayo, are offered a pebble painted with a cross to take with them on their journey to the sacred mountain of Croagh Patrick. Ritual ‘tagging’ is not restricted to bullauns and Holy Wells. It is also evident at a number of Mass Rock sites.

The presence of an inscribed cross is one of the features that is highlighted within the official definition of a Mass Rock and supporting evidence is found at a number of sites both within county Cork and further afield. At a Mass Rock high up in the mountains in Loughisle, Kilcommon there is an incised cross cut into the stone (K Holohan 2000, p.34) whilst the Killesk Mass Rock has a cross carved onto its flat surface (Scoíl Mhuíre New 2011). The Kilnadur Mass Rock (Plate 6) has a small Latin cross inscribed onto its outer face as do the Mass Rocks at Ballycurrany West and Liscroneen. The Mass Rocks at Boleynanoultagh (CO009-005002- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 14 January 2009), Farlistown (CO097-081---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 22 December 2009) and Tawnies Lower (CO097-081---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 22 December 2009) are also reported to be cross-inscribed.

Plate 6
figure 6

Kilnadur Mass Rock

Numerous crosses had been etched across the rock face at the Glenville Mass Rock (Plate 4) possibly using pebbles from the river bed and, at the Curraheen Mass Rock, a small cross has been etched into the lower slab. At the time of the visit, a Penal cross had been placed in the box cavity at Curraheen (Plate 7). The veneration for crucifixes, particularly Penal crosses, has remained a feature of Catholic tradition at pilgrimage sites such as Lough Derg and Lady’s Island (Broin 1925, p.110). Ó Duinn argues that these small wooden crucifixes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century must have played a singularly important part in the religious life of the people during the Penal era (Duinn 2000, p.119). A number of other votive offerings had been left at the Curraheen site including a metal crucifix, a number of large quartzite pebbles and flowers contained within a vase. An extensive array of votive offerings had been left on the Beach Mass Rock altar including rosary beads, vases, plant pots and flowers and statues of the Virgin Mary as well, the Sacred Heart and St. Jude (Plate 5). Offerings were also found at Glenville (Plate 4) and at Calloras Oughter. Such offerings represent one of the best known examples of religious ritual and a number of authors (Brenneman and Brenneman 1995; Duinn 2000) believe this reflects a continuation of the ancient ritual of votive offerings evident during the pre-historic period.

Plate 7
figure 7

Curraheen Mass Rock

It is possible that water sources such as streams and rivers may have been used as a way to guide the congregation to the Mass Rock site or, alternatively, to mask footprints that would otherwise have been identified by authorities eager to curtail the celebration of Mass (Scoíl Mhuíre New 2011). Mass Rock sites close to the shoreline would have facilitated the arrival and departure of massing priests and such activities were acknowledged by the authorities in Cork and recorded in historical records such as the Report on the State of Popery 1731 (Catholic Historical Society of Ireland 1913). Indeed Schull, where Toormore Mass Rock is located, was one of the sites along the coast where authorities had already identified priest landing by 1708 (Burke 1914, p.176).

The practicality of choosing a Mass Rock site close to a water source may also be reflected in its use within the celebration of Mass. Water has a special place in the ritual of every Catholic Mass and, in the past, there has always been a general custom of providing water, or wine and water, for the communicants to drink as ‘purification’ after Communion (Catholic 2012a). McKavanagh suggests that sites may have been situated near rivers in order to provide water for a meal after communion or for washing (McKavanagh 1973, p.7). The importance of water for the purpose of celebrating Mass is discussed by Father Henchy who believes that three wells close to the Coolnaclehy Mass Rock may have been used in Penal times as Holy Water or Baptismal fonts (Henchy cited in Carey 1957, p.110).

Sacred Trees

A number of trees are recorded throughout the history of religions, including trees of life, immortality and knowledge. Such trees have ‘come to express everything that religious man regards as pre-eminently real and sacred’ (Eliade 1959, p.149). At Loughane East, a large oak tree stands beside the Mass Rock. Ancient rites connected with the verification of the spirit of the oak tree are recorded in Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of Invasions, a core text in the Irish mythological cycles (Low 1996, p.81). At Ardrah, a crab apple tree is almost woven into the Mass Rock (Plate 8). This ancient tree was used as a food source in Ireland and can be traced as far back as the Neolithic period with crab apple seeds recovered from a pre-historic house at Tankardstown, county Limerick (Waddell 2005, p.30). Known for its healing properties both physically and mentally, the crab apple tree is often associated with the Otherworld. Many Irish customs performed at Samhain (a Gaelic festival which heralds the coming of winter and the end of the harvest) are associated with the crab apple tree because of this connection (Kindred 1997). In Irish mythology, the hazel tree was believed to be the god of Mac Cuill son of Cermait and, in a number of medieval texts, the hazel has frequent saintly, angelic or Otherworld associations along with the yew and ash (Low 1996, p.81). Other trees with magical properties often feature in Irish tales of voyages or journeys to the Otherworld (Cusack 2011, p.83) and Cusack identifies the Oak of Moone or Eo Mugna in county Kildare, the Yew of Ross and the Bile Tortan ash tree as amongst the most sacred trees in Ireland (Cusack 2011, p.78).

Plate 8
figure 8

Ardrah Mass Rock

Trees and woodlands remained integral elements of Irish culture up to the mid-seventeenth century. From this point onwards, aggressive English expansion resulted in a transformation of the Irish landscape, denuding it of its trees and forests so that they became simply ‘a memory and a metaphor for the Irish’ (Smyth 2006, p.88). By 1720/1730 the woodland culture that had existed for centuries in Ireland had been shattered (Smyth 2006, p.102) but, despite this, folklore repeatedly speaks of sacred trees and bushes where Mass was often celebrated during Penal times. In Garrda na Sgeac, Longueville, Mallow, there is a whitethorn tree known as Callaghan’s Bush where it is believed Mass was said (NFCS 1937o, 364, p.226) and, in Stannard’s Glen near Lismire, Mass was celebrated under the branches of a large oak tree located at the source of a stream which flowed through the wood (NFCS 1937l, 353, p.170). In Upper Scarteen, Newmarket, there is a glen known as Gleann an Aifrinn or the ‘Glen of the Mass’ (NFCS 1937k, 351, p.221) where a tree, known locally as the Chalice Tree, is believed to mark the spot where the chalice was hidden in Penal times (National Folklore Collection, Schools’ Manuscript Collection [NFCS] 1937l, 353, p.169). When the tree blooms each year the blossoms are of a rich red colour and its trunk is long and straight giving the tree its name (NFCS 1937k, 351, p.332). Mass continued to be celebrated under this tree until about 40 years ago (field interview).

In Irish lore, the power of a tree can be enhanced through other elements within the natural landscape. For example a single thorn tree growing in the middle of a stony field or on a hillside is made especially sacred if it grows close to a large boulder or Holy Well (Pennick 1996, p.32). A thorn tree has grown beside the Cooldaniel Mass Rock, in the parish of Kilmichael (Plate 2) and, in 1905, White recorded a Mass Rock at Marybrook and noted the great age of the lichen covered blackthorn trees that grew close to the altar (White 1905, p.90). It is impossible to say whether these trees were contemporary with the use of the Mass Rocks but their presence does emphasise the relationship between sacred wood and sacred stone.

Sacred Stone

Irish folklore continues to emphasise the sacredness of stone as well as the idea that stone is a container of supernatural power. It is thought that the erection of standing-stones by pre-historic communities served as a way of marking or ‘socialising’ the environment but such stones would also have held a religious significance of their own and would have increased the sacredness of such sites. In Ireland, there was a common custom of swearing on stones and a belief that stones could move about and speak oracles on certain occasions (hÓgáin 1999, p.22). The stone cairn known as Taumore or Bocaura, on the boundary of the parish of Newmarket in Cork, was believed to be an important burial place and its sacred rock a place of worship in ancient times (Allen 1973, p.8).

There remains an emphasis upon stone in Irish Catholicism with stones, stone circles and piles of small stones routinely encountered at sites associated with Holy wells. Such stones are often the focus of the rounding rituals performed at these sites (Carroll 1999, p.185). Sacred stones, particularly megalithic monuments and natural rock formations are certainly more common in Irish pilgrimage contexts than elsewhere in Europe (Nolan 1983, p.431). The sacredness of stone is also clearly apparent in its use as the Mass altar, this having always been the preferred material for altar use, although there is some evidence for the use of wooden altars during the later middle-ages. As early as 1186, legislation prohibited priests from celebrating Mass on a wooden table and advised that altars should be made from stone of a sufficient size to cover the whole altar. If this was not possible then legislation dictated ‘a square and polished stone be fixed in the middle of the altar where Christ’s body is consecrated, of a compass broad enough to contain five crosses and also to bear the foot of the largest chalice’ (Moss 2006, p.81). Wooden altars were only permitted in chapels, chantries and oratories but, even then, a plate of stone had to be ‘firmly fixed’ into the wood (Gwynn cited in Moss 2006, p.81).

A sense of respect for the altar has always been intimately connected with the celebration of Mass within the Catholic faith (Bolster 1972, p.305). In Penal times the priest would have carried a station box. Having unhinged the sides and the front of the station box, the priest would have rested the station box on the flat surface provided by the Mass Rock. The station-box would have contained the altar-stone, linens, crucifix, candles and charts and its compactness and portability would have allowed for a speedy departure should the need have arisen (Ryan 1957, p.24). The chosen rock would only have been transformed into a Holy altar once the required flat square stone tablet had been placed upon it and been duly consecrated by the priest, translating an otherwise ‘sacred’ but ‘unholy’ space into a Holy altar for the celebration of the Catholic Mass.

Mass Rock Classifications

Within the Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland Mass Rocks are classified as ‘a rock or earthfast boulder used as an altar or a stone built altar used when Mass was being celebrated during Penal times (1690s to 1750s AD), though there are some examples which appear to have been used during the Cromwellian period (1650s AD). Some of these rocks/boulders may bear an inscribed cross’ (ASI 2010).

The archaeological record is a dynamic resource with new sites and information constantly being discovered and new methodologies, as well as theoretical perspectives, regularly challenging traditional interpretations of the past (Cooney et al. 2000, p.19). The ASI operates a flat or simplified hierarchical ‘Class list’ for classification purposes and provides a ‘scope note’ for each term which may also include guidance on its use (ASI 2015). In its simplest form, a classification is defined as the ordering of entities into groups or classes on the basis of their similarity (Bailey 1994, p.1) but Davison and McConville (1991) highlight the need for bureaucratic consistency within classifications balanced alongside the requirements for popular participation (cited in Cooke 2003, p.53). Thus classifications need to be consistent, in order to help in the identification of monuments, but also accessible so that they can be used by a wide ranging and diverse audience.

The records of many monuments including megalithic tombs and ringforts are represented through a range of classifications; there are four classifications of megalithic tomb within the ASI which include portal tombs, wedge tombs, court tombs and portal tombs. The ASI acknowledges that the classifications used have evolved over time and cannot be considered exhaustive or comprehensive, reflecting ‘the incremental and organic manner in which material has been added over many years’. They add that this is of specific significance for monuments dating from the post-AD 1700 period (ASI 2015). This is particularly relevant to the study of Mass Rocks given that this one general classification appears inadequate. It is argued that an approach similar to that taken in respect to other archaeological monuments, such as megalithic tombs, should be adopted for Mass Rocks and that four separate classifications, that better reflect the diversity of the monuments, be introduced; Earthfast Boulder, Archaeological Monument, Natural Geological Rock Formation and Man-made Stone Built.

A useful archaeological ‘type’ is composed of a group of objects plus an individual’s ideas about those objects together with the words and pictures in which such ideas can be expressed (Adams and Adams 1991, p.34). Individual ‘types’ may exhibit a certain amount of internal variability (Adams and Adams 1991, p.72) and are, therefore, generated by differentiation rather than definition. Most archaeological classifications are bounded by both internal and external criteria (Adams and Adams 1991, p.76). In the case of Mass Rocks the external criteria relate to their temporal and spatial use whilst the internal criteria relate to the specific physical appearance of the monument. It is, therefore, suggested that common characteristics identified be used as a set of innovative criteria for the robust identification of potential Mass Rock sites. The existing classification also fails to acknowledge historical and anecdotal evidence that the use of outdoor altars was already a feature during the Elizabethan Reformation, potentially dating some Mass Rocks to a much earlier period that that of Cromwellian times or the Penal era.

Dating Mass Rocks

In July 1564, concerned with adherence to newly introduced enactments aimed at a general re-organisation of current church practice, the legatine commission issued instructions jointly to Archbishop Creagh of Armagh and David Wolfe. As nuncio in Cork, David Wolfe was to ‘authorise the use of portable altars on which mass could be celebrated with due solemnity and reverence in suitable places outside the churches’. With reference to David Wolfe alone, he was ‘to consider and report as to the transfer …. Of cathedrals oppressed by heretics or otherwise deserted by Catholics, to neighbouring towns or other places where mass and other divine offices may be more conveniently celebrated’ (Bolster 1982, p.62). By apostolic brief dated 3rd April 1581, faculties to use such portable altars were extended to reliable and trustworthy priests in the diocese of Cork and Cloyne (Bolster 1982, p.92) allowing them to administer all the sacraments except orders and confirmation. These faculties were restated in a second brief issued by Sixtus V in July 1589 (Bolster 1982, p.93).

Surviving seventeenth century records of the English administration describe the activities of Catholic preachers and their role in encouraging the laity to disobey secular authority. On 11th October 1613, a Franciscan friar named Turlogh McCrodyn is reported to have delivered a sermon in the woods in county Londonderry to more than 1000 people including 14 other priests (Cunningham 2001, p.125). In 1614 there was further evidence of Mass in the open air. The Synod of Kilkenny confirmed that, due to there being few chapels available to Catholic congregations, Sunday Mass was celebrated not only in private houses, generally those of the landed gentry or merchants, but also in barns or outhouses as well as in the open air (Ó Fearghail 1990). Whilst the celebration of Mass in profane places appears to have been justified by ‘the calamity’ of the times (Moran (1864) and Forrestal (1998) cited in Walsham 2011, p.178) the Synod was clearly concerned and called for a canopy to be placed over the altar to ensure the dignified celebration of the Eucharist (Fearghail 1990, p.206). Clearly echoing the concerns of this 1614 Synod, the Synod of the province of Armagh decreed in February the same year:

‘Let nobody dare to celebrate Mass in any place that is not above reproach, that is smokey or fetid, that contains the stalls of animals or is otherwise dirty; nor in places that are too dark and without enough light; but not in the open unless the number of the congregation demands it or persecutions compel it. Then care must be taken that the altar is safe from wind and rain, and from any dirt that is liable to fall on it….Moreover it must be secure, firm, large enough, not tilting, unsteady or too narrow’ (quoted in McKavanagh 1974, p.15–18).

The use of a canopy continued into more recent times. The Fermoyle Mass Rock, adjacent to Sunday’s Well, was covered by a large canopy in Penal times to protect the priest and the altar from the bad weather (National Folklore Collection, Schools’ Manuscript Collection [NFCS] 1937m, 361, p.240) and, a photograph held within the National Folklore Collection shows the celebration of Mass during the nineteenth century at a scáthlán; an open thatched shelter that was built over the Mass Rock at Milford in county Donegal (National Folklore Collection 2014).

Mass Rock - Earthfast Boulder

As glaciers move they transport and deposit a range of debris including large boulders. These are known as glacial erratics or earthfast boulders and would have been moved and deposited during the last Ice Age in Ireland. There has been a long standing convention that much of southern Ireland, including county Cork, remained unglaciated during the last ice age which might explain why this classification is not the most representative in terms of volume for this county. However, recent research including studies at Courtmacsherry Raised Beach, demonstrates that this was not the case (Cofaigh et al. 2012, p.160) so, whilst this classification most closely resembles the description of a Mass Rock provided within the Archaeological Survey database, it is not the most representative in terms of numbers. As earthfast boulders can be transported over large distances, their geological composition often differs significantly to the bedrock on which they are deposited, appearing as unique features within the local landscape that are usually well-known. The special significance of these boulders is demonstrated by their use in pre-historic monuments and, subsequently, as Mass Rocks.

Mass Rocks within this classification vary significantly in size and shape but they all share one common characteristic and that is their uniqueness. This is particularly evident at Cum an tSagairt or ‘Hollow of the Priest’ in Ballingeary where the Mass Rock is shaped like the prow of a ship and stands in solitary isolation in a hollow depression. The majority of boulders are small and regular in shape, such as those found at Cullomane West (Plate 1), Carherkeen, Drombeg and Gortanimill but the boulder can also be more irregular in shape, as found at Dromaclarig and Kilgilky North.

Mass Rock altars are generally between 0.5 and 1 m in height. This would have been a practical necessity given that the altar would have held the sacred tablet and other ritual ornaments of the sacrament. This is a characteristic that is omitted from the accepted definition. Many Mass Rocks provide a naturally flat surface for the altar, including those found at Carker Middle, Fermoyle and Longueville. Those that do not, such as Shehy Beg, Gortnahoughtee (Plate 9) and Derrynafinchin (Plate 3), appear to have had a separately mounted and dressed altar stone which often remains present at the site.

Plate 9
figure 9

Gortnahoughtee Mass Rock

A number of Mass Rocks within this classification appear to have natural hollows or depressions within the rock or holes that appear to have been deliberately cut, another feature omitted from the accepted definition. At the Dromore Mass Rock, the water which collects in the natural hollow of the rock is reported to have special qualities as it is of an unaccountable brown colour, the natural cavity remaining full even in the height of summer (Carey 1957, p.110). The Kilgilky North Mass Rock is an irregular limestone block with a flat weathered upper surface and a cavity on the western side, near its base (CO024-074---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 14 January 2009). At Ballycurrany West, the Mass Rock has depressions which were used to hold the chalice and candles during Mass and, in the Mass Rock at Cum an tSagairt, Ballingeary, there are large natural depressions either side of the boulder which were believed to house the Mass candles. A similar feature is found at Coomleigh East where there are six candle holes (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Precise location for this record is unknown). Blessed candles represent an important feature of older traditions within the Catholic faith. When lit they are believed to provide protection for the dying and from harmful thunder storms and are alleged to counteract the activities of fairies (Súilleabháin 1970, p.403).

The irregular shape of the Dromaclarig Mass Rock boulder forms two natural horizontal ledges suitable for holding the various ornaments required for the celebration of Mass whilst the Mass Rock at Cullomane West has a ledge which appears to have been deliberately cut out on the north-east side of the rock (Plate 1). It was proposed by the landowner that the ledge was used by the priest to rest his book during Mass and it is possible that the same was true at other sites such as Drombeg. The existence of shelf-like features is not recorded within the archaeological record, yet is a feature at a number of Mass Rock sites.

The Drombeg Mass Rock is located within a ringfort, a feature shared with a number of other sites and providing an important and tangible link to Ireland’s ancient past. Waddell advises that ringforts in Ireland generally date to the second half of the first millennium AD (Waddell 2005, p.319) and are among the most numerous domestic archaeological monuments in Ireland. Considered by archaeologists to be the remains of early farmsteads, ringforts are interwoven into the texts and documents of early Irish medieval history giving them an almost contiguous presence from prehistoric times to the present day (Ní Cheallaigh 2012, p.369). More than most other archaeological monuments, Ní Cheallaigh believes that ringforts have ‘lain at the intersection of diverging worlds of symbolic imaginings that encompass a wide variety of interacting social and cultural identities’ in Ireland (Ní Cheallaigh 2006, p.105).

Nugent’s research, in county Clare, demonstrates that a significant number of non-ecclesiastical sites remained the focus for the burial of non-baptised infants in the nineteenth century (Nugent 2008, p.89). Known as a cillín/Killeen, ceallúnach or lishleen (Finlay 2000, p. 409) these sites are often associated with ringforts (O’Sullivan and Sheehan 1996). In county Mayo, Aldridge identified that small plots and extensive burial grounds were located both inside and outside a number of ringforts (Aldridge 1969, p.83–85) and the tradition of a burial ground in pasture adjoining the west side of the Drombeg ringfort was highlighted by the landowner. O’Sullivan and Sheehan identify that quartz pebbles are often found associated with such burial sites. Excavation revealed that quartz pebbles were found associated with the Tormoor wedge tomb (O’Brien et al. 1989/90) which was subsequently used as a Mass Rock. Research has also identified quartzite pebbles deposited on the altars at Calloras Oughter and Curraheen Mass Rocks (Plate 7), demonstrating continuity in this ritual activity.

Other Mass Rocks which appear to be located within Ringforts include a Mass Rock in a lios in the townland of Killinga, Leap, where the field is known as Páirc a Phoill or ‘Field of the hole or souterrain’ (Daly 2005, p 40) and near a hill top in Carriglusky, Kilfaunabeg (Daly 2005, p.43). The name of the townland, Lios Aingil, where the Lisangle Mass Rock is located in Caheragh, is also suggestive of the presence of a lios in close proximity to the Mass Rock (Cork and Ross Caheragh ID 16 2011a). In Claraghmore, on the Cork and Kerry borders, people passing by the Hill Road continued to go into Lios an Aifrinn to pray until around 1883 (McCarthy 1991, p.90). The association of Mass Rocks with Ringforts is not a feature unique to Cork as demonstrated at Liskeevy townland in county Galway (Milltown Heritage group 2015). Additionally, a number of other pre-historic archaeological monuments have been re-used and re-interpreted as Mass Rocks re-inforcing the religious association of such sacred places during times of proscribed Catholic worship.

Mass Rock - Archaeological Monument

Megalithic Tombs

The Cooldaniel Mass Rock (Plate 2) is located in the modern day parish of Kilmichael, an ancient parish that dates back to at least 1493 (Kilmichael Historical Society 2010, p.7). The parish was founded as a direct consequence of both inter-clan warfare, between the O’Mahoneys and the O’Learys, as well as the ecclesiastical and political ambitions of Matthew Mahoney, vicar of Macloneigh (Kilmichael Historical Society 2010, p.45). Legend dictates, however, that the parish was founded on the site of a lios (ringfort) by a friar on pilgrimage from Rome. The lios is believed to have been Lios a Chlubhain situated within the present graveyard of Kilmichael. In the same parish, Kileanna townland, or Cill Eanna, was associated with St. Enda of Aranand indicating that Kilmichael was an important ecclesiastical area down through the centuries. Killeanna Lake remained a pilgrimage site until the early twentieth century and a cill and graveyard, for unbaptised children, lies to the north-east of the present Church at Johnstown (Cork and Ross Kilmichael ID 40 2011b).

Situated in undulating pasture, the Cooldaniel Mass Rock is a wedge tomb sheltered by higher ground to the north and commanding excellent views of the surrounding area (Plate 2). The building of wedge tombs in the final Neolithic/Early Bronze Age c. 2500–1500 BC represented the first wide-spread appearance of megalithic tombs in the Cork region. Wedge Tombs show a markedly western distribution and high densities exist in the Munster region (Shee Twohig 2004, p.53) so it is understandable that the re-use of this particular classification of Megalithic Monument prevails in this area. The construction of these monuments appears to have been followed by a broadly complimentary distribution of Stone Circles and other related monuments in the Middle-Late Bronze Age (O’Brien 2000, p.162). This is particularly significant given that another Mass Rock at Derrynafinchin (Plate 3) appears to have been incorporated into a stone circle on the southwestern slopes of the Conigar Mountain in the Shehy Mountain Range.

Research undertaken by O’Brien (1996, 2000) highlights the connection between the wedge tomb building tradition and early metallurgy in south-west Ireland (O’Brien 2000, p.170). He identifies the presence of a large concentration of copper mines on Mount Gabriel in the Mizen peninsula of west Cork as well as Boulysallagh, Callaros Outer, Carrigacat, Ballyrisode and probably Toormore. In addition, he identifies copper mines at Crumpane, Tooreen and Canashanavoe in the Beara peninsula (O’Brien 1996, p.9–10). Mass Rocks located in these areas include sites at Callaros Oughter, Tooreen and Toormoor. Already a sacred place during the Bronze Age between 1250 and 500BC, ritual use of the Toormore wedge tomb continued into the Iron Age between 124 and 224 AD. The tomb was subsequently re-used and re-interpreted by subsequent communities from pre-historic times through to the Penal era, being used as a Mass Rock during the eighteenth century by massing Priests (site notice Office of Public Works 2011).

O’Brien concludes that a wedge tomb existed primarily as a shrine associated with the ancestors through sanctification, offering and sacrifice. He argues that, at another level, the wedge tomb was an important symbol of group identity ‘contributing to the symbolic construction of their community through the physical expression of a common sense of belonging and identity’ (O’Brien 2000, p.174). Christianity in Ireland achieved a remarkable symbiosis between these native institutions and the new religious orthodoxy, permitting the complementary coexistence of the two ideologies (Mac Cana 2011, p.48). This has clearly continued down to modern times with the re-use and re-interpretation of wedge tombs as Mass Rocks and this practice is not restricted solely to county Cork. Westropp identified a number of priests celebrating Mass on ‘dolmens’ such as at Altoir Ultacht in county Clare. He identified a further site at Knockshanvo, on the hill of Knockaphunta beyond Broadford (Westropp 1900, p.89) and other examples include a re-used wedge tomb at Scrahallia in Cashel, Connemara (Cooney 1985, p.134), Altoir Ula in Cashel, county Galway (County Galway Guide 2015) and the Srahwee or Altoir Wedge Tomb in Clew Bay, county Mayo.

Cup-Marked and Other Stones

The Coorleigh South Mass Rock altar comprises a cup-marked stone with eleven possible cup-marks. The ASI (2010) describes a cup marked stone as a ‘stone or rock outcrop, found in isolation, bearing one or more, small roughly hemispherical depressions, generally created by chipping or pecking’ and dates them to the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c. 2500–1800 BC). Another Mass Rock, at Killinga, is comprised of a similar stone (CO135-077---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 14 January 2009) and an impressive cup-marked stone is located a few fields away from the Gortnahoughtee Mass Rock in Inchigeelagh (Plate 9). The tradition of using cup-marked stones, in Ireland, can be traced back to the Neolithic period when such stones were used in the construction of Newgrange passage tomb (Evans 1966, p.300). Linking the symbolism of these sacred stones with the symbolism of sacred water, the water found within the small bowl-like hollows is believed to be especially efficacious (Logan 1980, p.18). Corlett’s research further emphasises the re-use of cup-marked stones within a religious context. He has discovered a number of stones within ecclesiastical settings in county Wicklow where three cup-marked stones have been re-used as headstones in local graveyards (Corlett 2013b, p.42) and a further stone used in the architecture of the old church window (Corlett 2013a, p.13).

There is also evidence of pre-historic rock art stones being used as Mass Rocks. In county Mayo, St Patrick’s Chair, which bears marks on its upper surface believed to be fire holes associated with sun worship, is believed to have been used as a Mass Rock. Additionally, the Bohea Stone which contains a significant amount of pre-Christian rock art, the supposed footprint of St Patrick and an incised Cross was also used as a Mass Rock. Both sites are accessed along the Tóchar Phádraig, a route regularly followed by pilgrims from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick (Ballintubber Ballintubber 2006).

Stone Circles

There is a wealth of stone circles in county Cork and the Mass Rock at Derrynafinchin (CO092-001003- Compiled by Tony Miller (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 25th June 2012) forms part of a stone circle on the southwestern slope of Conigar Mountain, in the Shehy Mountain Range (Plate 3). The symbolism of water is again highlighted at the site which is located between two streams at the end of a narrow valley of the Coomhola River. Excavations carried out at the site by Ó Nualláin and published in 1984 reveal a boulder burial centrally placed within the circle (CO092-001002- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 14 January 2009) suggesting that this was already a ritual site by the Bronze Age. Another significant feature of the Derrynafinchin Mass Rock site is the presence of a bullaun stone (Plate 10).

Plate 10
figure 10

Bullaun stone at Derrynafinchin Mass Rock Site

Mass Rock - Natural Geological Rock Formations

Almost half of all Mass Rock sites visited consisted of natural geological rock formations such as outcropping rocks or cliff faces. Caves were also a feature of worship in Penal times and Bolster records that the Monks of Kilcrea celebrated Mass in the Mass Rock Chamber in the caves to the south of Ovens Bridge in the diocese of Cork and Ross (Bolster 1982, p.227). In Walterstwon, in the diocese of Cloyne, Mass took place in a natural cave overlooking the Strand where the Priest accessed the site using a rowing boat. It was also celebrated in an underground cave in Shanbally (NFCS 1937w, 390, and p.137). In Ardglass there is an underground site known as the Mass Cave where an iron cross was discovered buried in the rock (NFCS 1937p, 367, p.434).

Caves are an integral element of karstic limestone landscapes such as those found in Cork and Drew identifies a number of caves in the county notable for both their archaeological or folkloric associations (Drew 2006, p.167). Caves often became sacred through their associations with the traditions of various saints and one such example is St Patrick’s cave in Donegal (Meigs 1997, p.39). Other caves were already ‘sacred’ in pre-history, having been locations for funerary and ritual practice in Neolithic Ireland (Dowd 2008, p.305). Subsequently, through mythology and folklore, some of these caves became linked to the Otherworld, such as the cave found at Owenygat near to the royal site of Crúachan, (Hicks 2011, p.44). Already inscribed with meaning and imbued with spirit, their subsequent use for the celebration of Mass demonstrates that they remained a continuing focus for communities throughout Penal times.

Outcropping Rock

Natural rock outcrops are formed by that part of the geological feature which is above the surface of the land. This can occur as a result of glacial erosion or through natural weathering and erosion of the soil, meaning that rock outcrops can vary significantly in terms of location, size and geology. The more traditional images of Mass Rocks from mid nineteenth-century history text books and on modern day Republican Murals (Bishop 2014) depict Mass celebrated on exposed rock on hillsides and mountains. Research shows, however, that Mass Rocks can also be located in fields, glens and gallery woods reflecting the varied topography of the county.

Outcrops can vary significantly in size but, as with other classifications, the common theme is their uniqueness within the surrounding landscape. The Foherlagh Mass Rock sits within a complex ritual landscape close to a pair of standing stones (CO141-004---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Date of upload/revision: 14 January 2009) and a Holy Well known locally as the Wart Well for the healing of warts. There is also a further standing stone in the same townland (CO141-005---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Date of upload/revision: 14 January 2009) and the Ordnance Survey Map identifies two ringforts nearby. This east facing Mass Rock has two distinct natural ledges, the lower of which contains a natural hollow that may have acted as a container for water (possibly taken from the nearby Holy well).

The Gourtnahoughtee Mass Rock, also known as Carraig an tSéipeil, is described by Father Ryan as a ‘little chapel’ located on the south side of Pipe Hill (Ryan 1957, p.26). Here, the unique shape of the large rock outcrop resembles the two gable ends of a chapel building making this an easily identifiable and well-known local topographical feature (Plate 9). The sacred nature of this topography would be invisible and irrelevant to any stranger passing by the site would be unaware that this unusually shaped outcropping of rock was in fact a sacred space. For the Catholics of Uíbh Laoghaire, throughout the Penal era, this monument would have been contingent to their everyday worship and today it remains an eternal and enduring symbol of their tradition, culture and identity. The grassed area in front of the Mass Rock forms a level platform which would have provided a practical space for worship and the remains of a low wall at the west side of the site indicate that a shelter or wind break had been constructed, perhaps to shelter the priest and his congregation during Mass. Whilst it is difficult to assess whether walls or windbreaks were contemporary or later additions, these feature at a number of Mass Rock sites and yet are absent from the accepted definition.

At Cappaboy Beg (also known as Cappabui), in Bantry, the Mass Rock site, known locally as Clais an Aifreann or ‘Ravine of the Mass’ is located in a secluded hollow and surrounded by a robustly built wall and a similarly constructed wall encloses the Mass Rock at Gortnamuckla (Plate 11). The presence of a surrounding wall is not unique to the Cork area and may also be found at the Cahernacole Mass Rock in The Neale, County Mayo. In contrast, at Gortnahoughtee (Plate 9), Shehy Beg and Cullomane West, the walling appears far more rudimentary. The rectangular loose stoned wall at the Cullomane West Mass Rock would have provided welcome shelter for the congregation as well as a place to rest (Plate 1). When situated in upland areas, the possibility that these walls were a deliberate addition in order to mask the view of the site from lower down the hillside cannot be ignored.

Plate 11
figure 11

Wall Surrounding Gortnamuckla Mass Rock

Cliff Faces

Cliffs are vertical or near vertical exposures of rock that can be found in a variety of settings. In Galntanaw, the Mass Rock is made up of a natural rock shelf located at the base of a cliff to the north-east of the summit of Glantanaw Hill (CO119-121---- (Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SMR Record Details) on Uploaded: 22 December 2009). The Ballycurreen Mass Rock, situated beside a stream just west of Cork airport in the modern parish of Ballyphehane, consists of a vertical rock face. Originally situated in the ancient parish of St Finbarr’s the area has since been subsumed in to modern day South parish. St Finbarr is believed to have been descended from the stock of Ui Briuin Ratha of Connacht, a sept that once ruled over much of the territory to the east and north east of Galway (Bolster 1972, p.1). St Finbarr, the patron saint of the Diocese of Cork, is believed to have set up a monastery in the Cork marshes out of which the city grew. Cork continued to be mentioned among the five principal monastic schools in Ireland down to the tenth century (Bolster 1972, p.18) but entries within the patent rolls and in the fiants of Elizabeth, for the period 1561–9, show that ecclesiastical lands and titles passed to members of Cork’s leading families during the Reformation (Bolster 1982, p.64). St Finbarr’s was the site of the first post-penal church, built in Dunbar Street around 1766 (Bolster 1972:23). The Report of the State of Popery 1731 confirms that there was no ‘popish Chappell’ in the area by 1731 and also records no Mass House existing in St Finbarr’s parish but does identify two priests that officiated in the parish and lived elsewhere (Catholic Historical Society of Ireland 1913, p.134).

The cliff face at Glenville overhangs the Mass Rock and would have provided some shelter for the priest during the celebration of Mass (Plate 4). Another significant feature at this particular site is three naturally occurring steps that are formed within the bedrock that lead up to the altar (Plate 12). On the mountainside at Ballyhooley, three similar rough steps lead up to the Mass Rock altar (NFCS 1937q, 377, p.172) and at Loughane East three steps are also formed within the bedrock. Whilst in the majority of cases these steps are present in the natural bedrock around the site, occasionally they have been built into the furniture of the site and the Mass Rock at Beach provides an example of this (Plate 5). At the Coolnaclehy Mass Rock the steps that lead up to the altar have been deliberately chiselled out of the rock (NFCS 1937e, 293, p.357). It is possible that these steps are intended to mimic the approach to the altar within Catholic Churches.

Plate 12
figure 12

Steps to Glenville Mass Rock

Mass Rock - Man-Made Stone Built

The final class of Mass Rock is that which has been deliberately constructed, usually out of locally available stone. Man-Made Stone Built Mass Rocks can be built into or onto an existing natural landscape feature such as a cliff face or rock outcrop, as occurs at the Beach Mass Rock (Plate 5). Alternatively, they can stand alone as an independent feature as found at Curraheen (Plate 7). There does not appear to be any one design for Mass Rocks assigned to this classification but it is clear that considerable work is likely to have gone into their construction. The Curraheen Mass Rock sits in a secluded rock hollow set back from the roadside close to the village of Inchigeelagh and this is one of the most picturesque and well maintained sites visited as well as one of the most accessible and well sign posted (Plate 7). The base of the Mass Rock is made up of individual stones which form a plinth upon which a large flat stone sits. On top of this stone, raised by two pillar stones, sits another flat slab so that a small box like structure, or reredos, is formed.

The terms altare, mensa and altarium are used to designate an altar. The reredos is a permanent structure situated behind an altar that is used for the display of paintings, sculptures or to house relics. It can rest either on the rear of the mensa or on a substructure behind the altar (Catholic 2012b). Local shrines figured prominently in late medieval devotional life in Ireland and, as such, played a key role in the access of the laity to the sacraments (Meigs 1997, p.53). During the Counter-Reformation, traditional Irish cults continued to focus on relics and pilgrimage sites (Cunningham and Gillespie 1995, p.100). A number of Mass Rock sites visited including Coolaclevane, Coolmountai and Kilnadur (Plate 6) appear to have a purpose built reredos suggesting an unbroken stream of tradition down through the ages. Whilst these reredos were empty at the time of the visit, as previously highlighted, a Penal Cross had been placed in the reredos at Curraheen (Plate 7). Despite being an important and recurrent feature at a number of Mass Rock sites, the current archaeological definition omits this potential feature.

The Mass Rock at Curraheen (Plate 7) is one of ten sites identified by father Ryan (1957) in Iveleary. This is Uí Laoghaire territory, the Gaelic clan having finally settled in the wooded and mountainous terrain of Inchigeelagh (Murchadha 1993, p.216). Ó Murchadha identifies that their territory stretched from the mountains of Guagane Barra, through Lough Allua and southwards to the Shehy mountain range. Almost coterminous with the civil and ecclesiastical parish of Inchigeelagh, the inaccessibility of the landscape provided a natural barrier between the Uí Laoghaire and their Gaelic neighbours and, equally importantly, provided isolation from the influences of English authorities (Murchadha 1993, p.217).

By the 1650s Gaelic influence in the south west regions had all but collapsed (Breen 2007, p.50) and much of the Uíbh Laoghaire territory was leased by the Crown (Murchadha 1993, p.223). Following a ‘convoluted legal process’ including a series of seven inquisitions into Uíbh Laoghaire lands (Murchadha 1993, p.225), by the late seventeenth century, those Uíbh Laoghaire who remained on the land had become tenants of the new land owner (Murchadha 1993, p.235). Yet, despite this, Smyth confirms that the Gaelic Irish still held on to ‘powerful hinge positions’ in both urban and rural social hierarchies, ensuring the relative success of the new landlord-inspired economy would both ‘depend on and be mediated by them’ (Smyth 1988, p.72). It is unusual for early tuath parishes to survive intact to modern times. However, a map identified by Bolster and given in Pacata Hibernia details the divisions of the barony of Muskerry, namely Iffanloe and Iveleary, which appear to correspond to modern parishes of the same area with Iveleary corresponding with the present day parish of Inchigeelagh (Bolster 1972, p.262). Its survival suggests that a strong Gaelic influence remained in this area.


The practice of receiving Holy Communion during Mass, the central sacrament in Catholic tradition, linked the congregation bodily to the sacred space of the Mass Rock. Mass would have been an occasion that brought the priest and parish community together on a regular basis helping to create and preserve their sense of identity during difficult times (Murphy 1991, p.174). Today, the physical expression of reverence or veneration toward the sacred is demonstrated by the continued celebration of Mass at a number of sites across Ireland. Their continued use reflects and helps reconstruct and legitimise contemporary Irish identity whilst providing a tangible and experiential connection to Irish heritage and tradition.

The history of Catholicism is an essential component in the history of modern Ireland and the Penal Laws remain an emotive and misunderstood subject. Despite the potential for Mass Rocks to help frame Irish Catholicism within a broader political, economic, cultural and social context, little research has been undertaken to date and authors remain focussed on traditional assumptions. Current research suggests that these traditional assumptions need to be re-visited and re-vised based on the evidence provided by field research in county Cork (Bishop 2014).

This localised study has allowed for a deeper understanding of Mass Rock sites in county Cork. Whilst research would benefit from expansion to a national level and a systematic county by county study, in order to contribute towards a more sound understanding of religion in Ireland from the early modern period to more contemporary times, initial research in county Mayo suggests that the classifications and recurrent features proposed are equally appropriate for this county. The definition provided in the Archaeological Record requires expansion in order to better reflect the various traits or characteristics that Mass Rocks share, whilst also acknowledging variations between sites. This can be achieved by adopting the range of new classifications proposed. The potential for some sites to belong to an earlier period also requires acknowledgement. Additionally, the inclusion of a set of criteria will aid in the future verification of potential sites.