DONEGAL MASS ROCKS ~ "Carraig an Aifrinn" in Gaelic
Mass Rock at Croaghlin, Killybegs
Dotted around the county, in places hidden from general view, there are old Mass Rocks. Mass Rocks are around 400 years old and are places where Catholics gathered to practice their faith during Penal Times (under Penal Laws brought in and enforced in Ireland from 1695 by the British) when such activity was banned in Ireland. Indeed, if they were caught celebrating Mass, the priest there would more than likely have been killed.
As they were illegal and because of the danger, they had to be hidden and so you will find them in out of the way places which have some high ground from which some of the congregation could keep a look-out in case of danger approaching. To further guarantee secrecy, the masses would not have taken place at set times but rather a time decided and the information passed amongst the people of the area.
The last Mass Rock in Ireland was in Donegal, the Ardaghey Mass Rock which was used right up until 1895.
Some of the Mass Rocks are still in use today. Not of course for regular masses but for special occasion or commemorative masses or maybe just an annual mass.
If you wish to visit any of these places listed below, ask directions in the town or village indicated below and you will get directions ~ it is a lot easier than us trying to describe here how to find them as some are in out of the way places.
Here we have gathered photographs of some of those we have come across on our travels around Donegal. More will be added as they become available.
ARDARA ~ Barkillew
BALLYSHANNON ~ CATSBY CAVE MASS ROCK
Catsby Cave, Ballyshannon
Just outside the town of Ballyshannon there is the sacred site of Abbey Asseroe with it's Holy Well, the Abbey Well, ancient graveyard, the remains of Assaroe Cistercian monastery and Catsby Cave Mass Rock. A short walk along the (very noisy) river takes you to a clearing where you will find Catsby Cave on your left and a smaller cave to you right.
From the information board: "Any description of Abbey Asseroe would be incomplete without some notice of the curious cave on the bank of the stream, which is known locally as “Catsby” but which we have referred to as “St. Patrick’s Oratory”. It is, unquestionably, of great age. A ledge or seat runs round it; and on the eastern side is a sort of altar, containing two cullauns, or hollows, perhaps for Baptism: the larger one for water, and the smaller, about the size of a hand, for salt."
From BuildingsOfIreland.ie: "This former altar/mass rock represents an interesting historical feature in the landscape to the north-west of Ballyshannon. Mass was celebrated at sites such as this during Penal times (c. 1695 to c 1750) as Catholics were forced to hold secret services in isolated and secluded locations as ‘non conformists’ were not permitted to practice their religions (it was an offence punishable by death for a priest to practice Catholic mass). Although located relatively close to the town of Ballyshannon, ‘Catsby Cave’ is well-hidden and protected on three sides by sheer rock walls, and would have been a perfect site for secret services. It is likely that the priest stood in the small natural cave with his congregation arranged around the hollow outside. This site was probably associated with the now ruinous former Asseroe Cistercian Abbey, the site of which is located immediately adjacent to the north/north-west. The natural cave also has a bullaun stone with two carved basins, which suggests that this site was used for religious service since at least early medieval times, and possibly a lot longer considerably longer. Located in a highly attractive riverside location and surrounded by nature trees, this site is an interesting addition to the social history of the local area."
CARNDONAGH MASS ROCK
From VisitCarndonagh.com: " On the Ballyliffin Road, a short distance from the Donagh Cross, the old Mass rock can be found. A Mass rock is a rock used as an altar in mid-17th century Ireland. Mass was said in this woodland setting during Penal times, when observing mass was both difficult and dangerous. Times of Mass were not scheduled and word of mouth was used to communicate when they were to happen. The white cross on top of the altar stone came from the old church in Carndonagh."
DUNLEWEY MASS ROCK
Hidden in the valley of Dunlewey beneath the towering mountain, Errigal, is where this Mass Rock sits. The Mass Rock is on private land so you must ask permission from the owner to view it. You can enquire locally.
On the road between Kerrykeel and St. Mary's Church, Glenvar sits this Mass Rock complete with standing Cross and Grotto to our Lady. The Grotto is down from the Cross and is approached by a small set of steps. Seating when we visited was old church pews which we thought apt.
MASS ROCK, CROAGHLIN, KILLYBEGS (Click on any photo to enlarge)
MASS ROCK, KINCASSLAGH (Click on any photo to enlarge)
MASS ROCK, LETTERKENNY
The Mass Rock in Letterkenny is situated in the Glencar area of the town. Photographs of Letterkenny Mass Rock were very kindly supplied to We Love Donegal by Brian Drein.
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