With the destruction of buildings used for Catholic public worship during the sixteenth century Mass had to be celebrated in strange places, in private homes and huts, in sheds and stables or in the open air. Lest the situation should become unseemly, a Synod of the province of Armagh, which included North Antrim, decreed as follows.
“Let nobody dare to celebrate Mass in any place that is not above reproach, that is smoky 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 (‘sub dio’) unless the number of the congregation demands it or persecutions compel it. Then care must be taken that the altar is safe from the 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 nor too narrow”. That was in February 1614.
The field-altar was thus at first regarded as an emergency place of worship but through necessity this became the rule. As the penal days drew to a close we find Mass-sites selected in less out-of-the-way spots, sometimes at the very road sides. By the 1750s a temporary – and later permanent roof was erected over the field altar. Some of these (called a scalan or bóthog) are still standing e.g. Carn graveyard near Lough Derg. The bóthog later grew into the thatched Mass-house and the post-penal day chapel, some of which still exist in Ireland.
Let us take a closer look at some of our North Antrim parishes.
(1) Ballyknock: Mass was said on the Ballyknock-Pharis road on land now owned by Mrs. Ellen Watt. The large stone has a hole on the top of it and it has been backed by bushes at one time. Earth dumped from the road has altered the contours of the original terrain. It is still quite obvious that this was a sheltered hollow.
(2) Ligganiffrin in Middle Corkey: The name (Mass-hollow) here seems to have disappeared and the location seems to have been up near Corkey Quarry. There is a field to the right where sheep are dipped and a stream, and an obvious location for Mass. The field is owned by Mr. Jim Forsythe.
(3) Mass House Hill. This is clearly marked on the O.S. map covered with trees and lying within Lissanoure Castle. This “Mass-house” was used right up until about 1786.
An interesting addendum to this came to light in 1969 with the publication of Aspects of Irish Social History 1750-1800 (HMSO). A letter is quoted from Richard Jackson of Coleraine to Lord Macartney complaining about the refusal of the tenants of the area to pay tithes and commenting on the virtual collapse of the Established Church in Loughguile in contrast to “the success of the Roman Catholic Church” …
“I went into your church which is just upon the brink of ruin; the timbers and roof are rotten and must soon fall in, the windows and most of the seats are broken to pieces. There can be no service there, it is even dangerous to go into it, and I think the whole or most of the church will be down this winter (1789)” …
“There is a large handsome mass house now roofing near Lissanoure and will be soon fit to receive a great congregation. Many of the Church people of the parish go now to that worship – the remainder to Kilraughts and Clough meeting houses. And all the children are baptised by the priest for there is no other minister to do it … There is one school-house, I am told, in Ballyweely (Ballyweeny); the children are taught to read and write but the master is a Roman Catholic. I hear there are some others beside through the country, but all are kept by Papists”.
DUNLOY AND CLOUGHMILLS
(1) Ballymacaldrack: There are a couple of longish fields between the old Dunloy National Schools (later used for woodwork) and the Parochial House. The field next the school was used as a garden and the next one to it, towards the parochial house, held the old chapel of Ballymacaldrack built by Rev. Patrick McKeefry and his people about 1746. It was a wretched construction and lasted until about 1840. O’Laverty, the diocesan historian, says the Parochial House was erected by Fr. Curoe on the grounds of the old chapel, “which are held by prescription.”
(2) Glenbuck: A long lane from the Glenbuck Road into the Long Mountain ends at a house on a height. If you head off into the mountain behind that for about half a mile, you come to Rabbit Hill where there is a very well formed grotto of stones with a thorn bush above. It is on the far side coming from the house and on the O.S. map it is marked as, “old altar”. In O’Laverty’s time it belonged to Mr. Alex Catherwood.
(3) Grannagh: This is nearer the road and is not so far up the road from the “five road ends”. It is still well known as the ‘Mess’ (sic) Hill. There is a thorn tree and a secluded place also. It was Read’s farm. It lies in to the mountain and is only about 100 yards from the road.
(4) The Broad Stone: This is a remarkable cromlech in Lower Craigs. I understand it had fallen some years ago and the owner had it set up again in this region which abounds in megalithic remains. It is a fairly sheltered spot and very much off the beaten path, but obviously an easily found meeting place. I would imagine that it and Glenbuck would be the most ancient penal sites in the parish.
(5) The Square Fort: If you go up past McKeever’s in The Craigs, you come to a T bend. Just facing you is the Square Fort where there was a Mass station. Indeed old men in O’Laverty’s time (at the end of the last century) remembered the bishop at the end of the eighteenth century administering confirmation there even though the old chapel at Dunloy was then built. This would be either Bishop Hugh or Patrick McMullan. Incidentally the old school of Dunloy was at this T bend where stones now lie and the slates on the middle house round to the right (“Bangor blues”) are of this old school.
(1) The Old Mill at Doonan’s: For 30 years Mass was said here. The corn mill was owned by the local landlord. Major Smyth owned it and later George Craig, Basil Craig and Patrick McAuley. The mill of course, ceased to function years ago and is now a hay store. There are two buildings, the low one housing machinery and the other used for Mass.
(2) The Mass-hollow: This is on a field belonging to Mr. Francis O’Kane in a very sheltered spot along the river of Altnamuck in Turreagh. The land drops away down to the river and the place abounds in oak trees.
(3) The Station Road, Armoy: If you leave Armoy village by the Station Road (the “Bek Toon”) and travel about quarter of a mile you come to a gate on the left opposite new cottages. This gate and the lane adjoining lead to a sewage disposal place. As you go through the gate turn to the left. Many stones here are the ruin of an old house (“Paddy McLarnon lived there”). Behind this is a big stone which Mr. John McCambridge said his father or grandfather “refused to break”. This is probably where the Yew tree mentioned by O’Laverty was.
(4 )Liganiffrin: In Breen townland there is a river Alt More dividing in the past two estates, Captain Smyth’s and McCalmont’s. There is a field near here known as “McCreelish’s Brae”, now owned by Mr. Charles Close of Breen. At the top right-hand corner, hidden from the road, is a huge hollow with a flat bottom and a big oak tree. There was (is?) a local name Liganafrick which is probably a corruption for “The Mass-hollow.”
One would expect a lot of traditions about local Mass-sites to survive. This is not so, and one feels that there was a practice of secrecy about such locations – we only have to think of the early Christians in the catacombs and the Iron Curtain Catholics of today. The Gaelic poets are uncharacteristically quiet too. I have great doubts about “an raibh tu ag an gcarraig?” being about the Mass-rock; I think it was a simple love-song. The priests, too, for whom these altars were their churches seem almost anonymous shadows, nameless heroes unhonoured and unknown. They seem to have lived with their own families a great deal and to have fitted into the rural background of the eighteenth century to be undistinguishable to the stranger, and yet unmistakable to their flocks.