A Royal Commission in 1622 reported that, “in the diocese of Down and Connor, only 16 churches were fit for the celebration of Divine ordnance, while 150 churches and chapels were decayed or in ruins”.
In this short article, I am confining my survey to the modern Catholic parishes of Glenariffe, Cushendall, Cushendun and Glenravel. The Commission, giving some detail about the condition of the churches of this area mentioned, “Ardclinis (decayed), Layde (ruinous)”. There was no church standing in Glenravel, nor, as far as we can find, in Cushendun.
With the coming of the Penal Laws and consequent troubles at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Catholic Church went underground, celebrating the liturgy in secret or in quiet obscure places. There was very little active persecution of the Church in the area in question and stories of red-coats dragging priests from the altars can largely be discounted. This was true in many other parts of the country, but we must bear in mind that the Earl of Antrim was a Catholic until 1721. Provided the clergy and people gave no trouble, the garrison at Carrickfergus were, no doubt, happy to let them perform their rather strange services in peace.
They were strange to those who inhabited the new towns of the land, because they were very often held in the open, in hidden places, far from the haunts of men. Sometimes they were in places where people congregated – in the “booleying” places of Glenravel etc. but more of that later. When the late Canon O’Laverty was compiling his history of the Diocese, he gave the traditions which he found in these parishes as held about the end of the last century. Seventy or eighty years later, I have covered the same ground and examined these traditions again in the light of some documents which have since come to light. First of all I would like to enumerate certain conclusions to which I have come, and then detail the sites where it is generally believed Mass was said in penal days.
- There is evidence to suggest that the same place was not used regularly. In the open air a hollow in a field might be ideal under certain weather conditions. At other times, a more open place might suit.
- Very often the site was near a river not just for water for the cruet, but for a meal afterwards, or for washing.
- The “Mass-rock”, so called, is often a misnomer. There are flat table-like rocks which would approximate to an altar, but quite often a table would be produced from a farm-house and covered with a white cloth.
- Eighteenth century rural life here centred around the “baile” (the home place) and the “booley” (The shieling) where the cattle were brought during the summer months and where the young folk would often live, keeping an eye on their animals, milking them, churning etc. This was very common in the hills around the Glenravel area. Naturally the peripatetic priest would go to these places to hear confessions, say Mass, etc.
Let us now take the modern parishes and see the ancient Mass sites within their confines.
The Galboly Mass Rock: Fallowvee is on the Coast Road between The White Lady and Ardclinis. The White Lane runs up the slope from there, and a ten minute walk brings one to Craigvan (the White Rock). Opposite the first house, which is on the left, you will see a huge white limestone crag on the right. At its foot are ruins of a farmhouse and built into the bottom of a gable is a bench of limestone which formed the altar.
Red Bay: Mass was said under an up-turned boat as the Mass-station moved north, closer to the population around Cushendall. As late as 1785 Mass was said at Fallowvee. Mass was also said at Waterfoot until a chapel was erected in Bellisk. When it was complete, the station at Waterfoot moved there, and the Fallowvee station moved a mile northward to Red Bay.
Laney: It is a pleasant walk up the hill out of Cushendall through Tavnaghowen and Ballybrack. One passes over two bridges and on the left is a lane going down to Gore’s. The first field to the right going down this lane has a hollow in the far corner. In this sheltered hollow (lag) Mass was often said.
Liganiffrin in Gruig: This is not mentioned in O’Laverty, but the name, “the Mass-hollow” is found all over Ireland and is backed by a strong tradition. The big field near it is called “Brannan’s” – after Fr. Brennan, it is said. Perhaps the family owned it, and at this time priests often lived with their families. Fr. Brennan was P.P. Culfeightrin. If one goes down the lane to McAuley’s and parks at the new bungalow, the hollow is found on the left-hand side of the little burn. It is very like the site in Gortin, Cushendun.
Clegnagh: Coming from Cushendall you arrive at one end of the “Big Bridge” – the Viaduct. At the Cushendall end, there is a small gate opening on a lane, “the old road”, which leads down, sharp up left, and eventually away up to the top of Glendun. On the left is a field sloping down to this lane, in the top corner being some bushes and a stream. This was “the ould’ altar”. Also called “Alt”. The land belongs to MacAllister’s of Clegnagh.
Cloghy West: In a big field adjoining the river there is a triangular stone in the middle. Robert McMullan, who once owned this land, always heard that all the other stones were taken out of this “holm” but this one, as Mass had once been said there.
Gortin: After crossing Knocknacrow bridge on the road to Ballycastle there is a lane which turns down the side of Craigagh Wood. If one goes up the lane on the opposite side of the road and follows this for a couple of hundred yards, then gets through some wire into a field on the left, a burn is crossed. One then goes back to where this burn meets the Clady river. There is an old house here where the priest may have stayed. There is a young birch tree and what looks like a gravestone before it. This was a Mass station for Inispollan and the site was known until recently as Sgeach Lag an Aifrinn – The Thorn of the Mass hollow.
Craigagh: This well-known altar, marked on O.S. maps, backed by a slab carving of Our Saviour and an angel with some ornamentation. It came from some ruined church in Scotland or the Isles via a man called O’Neill whose vessel traded with the other side. Mass was not said every Sunday here, but when convenient for the P.P. of Culfeightrin. Fr. Brennan said Mass there once a month, but began to erect a church at Cushendun in 1804.
Knockanaffrin: (The Mass-hill) is the name of the round hummock in Knockanully. It is in a field adjoining the road.
Dungonnell: If you go up the new lane which was widened to lead to the new water-works you stop just before going to McIlroy’s house. On the opposite side of the road, just between the road and the burn is, “the last place where Mass was said before the chapel was built”. A parishioner told me that her mother once said she knew someone who had been to Mass there.
The Forth: This is a place of breathtaking beauty, very inaccessible but now being opened up. Before going as far as the end house in “Dungonnell Loanin”, go into the field on the right, down past the mine workings and up to the high rock. On a nook on the far side overlooking the river is the Mass site. A local farmer used to put flowers there. When Fr. Mullen was P.P. he visited it with a party from the parish and said prayers there.
Cregagh Knogs: This is a very remote corner of Belsillagh. You go up behind McCann’s and follow the fencing to a summit, some rocks and a hollow. This, almost certainly, was a booley.
Carrycowan: This is the best-known site in the parish. The “Wee Wood” by the Ravel water is now only a few hazels. A stone is pointed out, and the grassy holm between it and the river. It is in the third field along the river below the church recently bombed. Fr. Macauley built a humble thatched church here about 1758. There is a spring in the field where people coming to Mass across the fields and mosses could wash their feet before putting on their shoes to enter the house of God.
Glenleslie: O’Laverty mentioned that a standing stone (The Butterstone) stood a mile east of Clough. It was 8ft high and in 1825 some men in a drunken frolic overturned and broke it. It would appear it was in the field on the upper side of Glenleslie Orange Hall (built 1937) or perhaps where the Hall itself was sited. Butterstone once again suggests booley, people, and hence, congregation.
Carncormick: The Butterstone or Carncormick is on the pasture of Mr. McDonnell who lives near the parochial house. It is most easily approached by the “Brae Road” and then over to the long stone fence, “built for half a crown a perch” and you see a green patch under a brow with a large squarish stone at the back. There is a story of a hidden chalice which simply tells us that people met here, talked about the past and imagined things. It was again connected with the practice of booleying.
-An Raibh tu ag an charraig,
no an bhfaca tu fein mo ghra?
-Were you at the rock,
and did you see there my Love?