“…discovery in a Catholic place of worship could result in arrest and even death…”
THE PENAL LAWS
A body of anti-Catholic legislation, known as the Penal Laws, was introduced in the late-16th and 17th centuries. These punitive measures were enacted by the English administrators in an effort to force the Irish renounce their Catholic faith. They removed Catholics’ voting rights and prohibited them from becoming members of municipal boroughs or parliament. They deprived Catholics of education, and from inheriting, buying or leasing land. They couldn’t even own a horse valued above £5! Membership to the legal profession, the army and public offices was prohibited.
From 1690 a number of discriminatory measures were introduced directed at strictly controlling the activities of the Catholic clergy and ridding the country of its religious leadership. The first two decades of the 18th century were particularly difficult. Restrictions on Catholic worship included the banning of public ceremonies involving clergy while many churches were destroyed or handed over to the Protestant faith. The 1704 Registration Act required Catholic priests to register with the authorities. Those who didn’t faced death or deportation. Many priests refused to register and went into hiding.
THE STATION MASS
Penal Mass sites still dot the Irish landscape. These include Mass houses and Mass rocks. According to Fr Kevin Bartley, Editor of “Penal Places, Artefacts and People in the Archdiocese of Dublin”, Penal Mass sites also included fields, caves and ditches in rural areas, while stables and outhouses were used in the urban areas. Mass Houses were usually located in concealed places to ensure worshippers would not be easily taken unawares by the forces of the Crown.
The venue changed in order to protect those hosting the Mass as well as the celebrant and the laity. Word was put about locally that Mass would be said in a particular house on a particular day. The neighbours would gather for what was often the only opportunity to attend Mass for a long time. The priest would come with his “Mass kit”, which included a specially designed cross with short arms for easy concealment up his sleeve. This Mass became known in Ireland as the “Station Mass” because of the random location and the need to move from place to place.
Some houses became known as regular venues for Mass and so became referred to as Mass Houses. More of these emerged as the Penal Laws were repealed, allowing Catholics to worship more freely. In 1795, the first Catholic seminary in Ireland was established at Maynooth, Co Kildare. After Catholic Emancipation in 1829, which secured Catholics the right to take their place in civil society, Mass Houses continued to provide places of worship because of the lack of churches. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, the situation began to change as a church building campaign was undertaken to cater for the Catholic population, despite the after effects of the horrific Famine years.
A MASS HOUSE IN RATHFARNHAM
Visitors to the Church of the Annunciation in the Dublin parish of Rathfarnham are often struck by a holy water font at the front door which bears the inscription: “Font used in Mass house of penal times in the parish of Rathfarnham from 1732”. The font is a link between the “new” church, which dates from 1878, and an old penal Mass House, which dates from 1730 and which parishioners attended prior to Catholic Emancipation. The remains of the Mass House are located behind the current presbytery.in penal times it was screened from the main road by thick shrubbery and was approached by the faithful via a discrete Mass path along the Owendore River. The historical record shows that there was, in fact, a Mass House on this site as early as 1697, when Fr Timothy Kelly is mentioned as the first parish priest of Rathfarnham.
POSING AS SPANISH PEOPLE WITH THE CODE NAME “PABLO”
Local historian, Tony Duffy, whose family goes back three generations in Rathfarnham, explains that in penal times networks were established to keep Catholics supplied with school teachers and priests. According to the parish newsletter, “Priests, especially, were hunted down by the Crown forces and put to death, usually by beheading. Despite it being an offence to send children abroad for education, many young men went to the seminaries of Europe – Paris, Rome, Louvain and Salamanca. There was a steady flow of young priests into Ireland with one particular route being from Salamanca to Kinsale. One story of the time refers to priests making their way through the countryside, posing as Spaniards. The code name used was “Pablo” when asked for identification, meaning in reality, “Padre”.
In his homily on Pentecost Sunday 2012, when 500 members of the parish gathered at the ancient Mass House, Fr Des Hayden praised the dedication of the volunteers who worked to recover the ruin. “Three hundred years ago, even though it was dangerous for them to do so, people gathered where we are standing now to celebrate their faith. And so strong was their faith in Christ’s presence among them and in the Eucharist that they were willing to take great risks to do so. Despite the fact that they suffered discrimination and opposition because of their Catholic faith, they kept that faith alive. Think of the courage and determination it would have taken them to be standing here where we are today. How hard it is, thank God, to quench the spirit!” He also underlined to the assembled crowd, “In every generation it always is, and always has been, the people who keep the faith alive. You are the ones who pass on the faith as a living and lived reality from generation to generation.”… A recognition of people’s brave perseverance in the faith in times of persecution – an inspiration to keep the flame of faith alight in our own times.
– The above are excerpts from an article by Sarah MacDonald published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, October 2012 issue. For subscriptions etc. Contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy