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Priest saying Mass outdoorsPriest saying Mass outdoorsPenal Times in Ireland

The first of the Penal Laws was passed in 1697. It ordered all bishops, priests, monks and nuns to leave the country. As a result hundreds of clergy were transported to France.  Only one priest could remain in each parish, and he had to put his name on a special register. As no priests could come into Ireland from abroad, and with no bishops to ordain new priests, it was hoped that in time the priesthood would die out.  

The Penal Laws were not really intended to destroy the Catholic religion, but rather to keep Catholics powerless and uneducated. Very little effort was made to try to make Catholics become Protestants. The Ascendancy realised that their power would be in danger if huge numbers of Catholics did change religion.


In the beginning Laws against practice of religion, were strictly enforced. Many older priests however refused to leave the country. They wore lay clothes, took up lay employment often as farm labourers, and ministered in secret to their people. On many occasions Mass was offered out in the open air. A large flat rock, in a sheltered part of a field, served as an altar, and the people of God knelt on the grass during Mass.  In some instances a stone would be taken from a church ruin, and relocated to a rural area, with a simple cross carved on its top. Because the activity was illegal, the services were not scheduled and their occurrence was communicated verbally between parishioners.

A lookout was posted to keep watch for the dreaded Red Coats who were always on the alert for Catholics who were breaking the law.

Spying was encouraged. There were severe penalties for Catholic bishops and priests who remained in Ireland without permission. A reward of £20.00 was offered for infor­mation leading to the capture of an order priest, and £50.00 for a bishop, substantial amounts of money at this time . This led to the arrival of the “priest hunters”.

 Priest hunters were effectively bounty hunters, and despite some opportunists, in most cases the men were criminals who were arrested and forced into the position by their police force. The work was dangerous, and some priests killed in defence. The men were outcast from their communities, and were viewed as the most despised class. Often when a gentleman informed on a priest, locals would affect revenge by burning his house and farmyard.

One of the most notorious priest hunters was a John Moloney from close to Ballintubber in Mayo. To escape hanging for horse stealing he was coerced into the position as “priest hunter”. Such was his rate of success he was given the name “Sean an tSagairt and had the protection of the Redcoats wherever he went. Eventually he himself felt the blade of the dagger and is reputed to have been killed by the very priest he was hunting. Locals threw his body into the lake but on the insistence of a merciful priest he was interred in the graveyard at Ballintubber Abbey. His remains however were buried facing north where the sun never rises. Over time an ash tree took root in his grave and now dominates the last resting place of “Seán an tSagairt. Most bishops left the country at this time and eventually only two remained and worked incognito as parish priests.

In 1702 the British passed another law, which allowed one priest for each parish if they registered their names with the government.  As a result of this, 1,089 registered priests remained in Ireland to minister to the people. A few priests were executed at this time for disobeying the Penal Laws but most were allowed to work quietly as long as they did not encourage people to disobey the law.

In many places, Catholics had their own chapels – only Protestants were permitted to use the word 'church' , but these chapels were not allowed to have a spire or a bell. 

Many of these simple chapels were situated in the back lanes of the towns and cities or in cabins in the countryside. Very often the people were so poor that they had no church of their own.

The custom of celebrating mass in the house continued into modern times and the ”stations” were a popular custom along the counties of the western seaboard.

On occasions Mass was said in the open air at Mass rocks and portable altar . We are reminded of these Mass rocks to-day, in place names such as Carraiganafrinn and Clashanafrinn and in field names such as “Cloch an tSagairt” and “Leac an Aifrinn. 

In the village of Quinaltagh, on the farm of Robert Abraham a field name, ”Massrock Field” indicated that it may have been the site of the celebration of Mass in earlier times. 
Mass Rock on the farm of Robert Abraham, QuinaltaghMass Rock on the farm of Robert Abraham, Quinaltagh Miraculously while carrying out reclamation work in 2009 Robert unearthed a large “leac” or flat stone. On closer examination a symbol of a cross was clearly visible, etched into the flagstone. This surely confirms that the find was authentic. Since that time Robert has carefully re erected the stone and the monument is a reminder of the sacrifices our forefathers made in holding on to the faith they treasured some deeply. 

Patterns and pilgrimages were popular in penal times and wooden crosses on which the date of the event was inscribed were brought home as a memento of the occasion Similar narrow penal crosses with short arms were popular with the Priests of this era as they could easily be concealed up their sleeve. The custom of placing a lighted candle on the window at Christmas is also said to come from Penal times. It was a signal to the wandering priest that it was a safe house to visit and that the family wanted to receive the sacraments. After the Penal Laws the custom continued but the candle was now used to show the Holy Family the road to Bethlehem and as a welcome to Baby Jesus into the home. The custom is still carried on in many parts of Ireland to this day at Christmas.