‘It is the Mass that matters’
by Thomas J. McGovern
Church history is in part a record of the response of Christians to God’s revelation in Christ. Clearly it also implies the sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit down through the centuries. But the effectiveness of this grace depends largely on the free engagement of individuals with God’s plans. The Church at any particular time carries forward the memory of this response and is often rejuvenated and inspired by reflection on the heroic lives of Christians in previous generations. Such, John Paul II reminds us, was the reason for commemorating, during the Jubilee year, the witness of thousands of twentieth century martyrs who died under the tyranny of communist and nazi regimes. ‘This’, he said, ‘is a heritage which must not be lost; we should always be thankful for it and we should renew our resolve to imitate it.’ 
A characteristic of these twentieth century martyrs, as well as of previous generations of Catholics who suffered for the faith, was a deep love for the Eucharistic sacrifice. Consequently, at a time when Sunday Mass attendance is dwindling in many places, it is instructive to recall the sacrifices which, in other times and places, priests and people were ready to make, to maintain their loyalty to this central mystery of the faith. From this perspective I would like to review some episodes in the heroic struggle for the Mass in Ireland which unfolded over a period of two hundred years, an endeavour which surely has lessons for us today.
Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 by Henry VIII. He had already spent some time in Germany where he was deeply influenced by Reformation ideas, especially in relation to the sacrifice of the Mass. Although Henry had broken with Rome, he still retained faith in the Mass, and Cranmer realized that during the king’s life-time he would not be able to introduce any substantial changes in the liturgy. Thus it was only after Henry’s death in 1547 that he showed his true theological colours and set about revising the liturgical books. In 1551, reviewing what had so far been achieved to protestantize the liturgy in England, he would complain that the two chief roots of ‘popery’ had still to be pulled up, that is, the ‘doctrine of transubstantiation, of the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the sacrament of the altar (as they call it), and of the sacrifice and oblation of Christ made by the priest for the salvation of the quick and the dead’. 
The Mass had to go and thus, in the revised Edwardine ordinal (1552), Cranmer replaced the concept of the priest as mediator by the Lutheran notion of the priest as minister of the word. There was no further reference to the priest as sacrificer; Mass altars were torn down and replaced by communion tables.  In the revised code of canon law, which Cranmer tried to force on the English church, belief in Transubstantiation was to be regarded as a heresy punishable by death.  Cranmer’s hatred of the Eucharistic sacrifice provided the theological underpinning for laws passed by parliament in London to eradicate the Mass from England, and also from Ireland, then under English rule. It was this same theological vision which would inspire the relentless war against the Mass in Ireland, and the persecution of priests during Elizabethan times and the Cromwellian terror, culminating in the bitter decades of the Penal laws during the eighteenth century.
During Elizabeth’s reign (1557-1603) the Acts of Supremacy (establishing the queen as head of the church) and Uniformity (abolishing the Mass), already law in England, were recycled by the Dublin parliament in 1560. Thus the Pope’s claim to spiritual jurisdiction was declared treasonable, and any priest caught saying Mass was liable to severe fines and punishment. Those who refused to use the Book of Common Prayer were imprisoned for life after a third offence. Any faithful who refused to attend the new Protestant service incurred a severe financial fine. Bishops loyal to Rome were deposed and replaced by others with more pliable principles. However, outside the area of English political influence around Dublin, this policy could only be implemented sporadically and unevenly. Masses still continued to be offered in many churches and people generally ignored the law about attending Protestant services.
The Irish bishops’ response to the Act of Supremacy was to send a declaration of their loyalty to the Pope, asking for help to carry on a religious war for the recovery of their cathedrals and churches and for freedom of public worship. This resulted in an expedition of 800 Spanish and Italian troops which arrived in Smerwick Bay in Kerry in 1579. They took over the ancient castle of Dún-an-óir which was put under siege by the Elizabethan soldiers. When the resistance collapsed the foreigners were pitilessly massacred. The three survivors, who included a priest, Fr Lawrence Moore, were handed over to the Lord Deputy Grey. The usual inducements were offered to them if only they would recognise the queen as head of the church. The overtures were rejected and the survivors affirmed repeatedly that they were Catholics and, if necessary, were prepared to die in defence of that faith. Since all efforts to change the minds of the captives failed, they were led off to the forge of an iron-smith where their arms and legs were broken in three different places. The priest, however, was subjected to special treatment. His thumbs and forefingers were cut off because, as his executioner said, they had so often been employed in the consecration of the Eucharist and had touched it. All that night and the following day the three men bore their sufferings with great patience before they were hanged and afterwards cut to pieces on 12 November 1580. 
About this time the priest Dermot O’Hurley, who had been for twenty five years professor of philosophy in the university of Louvain, was teaching canon and civil law at Rheims (France). He was called to Rome where he learned that he had been appointed to the see of Cashel by Pope Gregory XIII. He was consecrated archbishop on 11 September 1581. The government in Dublin was well aware that many priests and bishops ordained abroad were willing to risk their lives returning to look after the spiritual needs of their people. Consequently government spies were constantly on the look-out at every port, since ‘Rome-runners’ were a precious capture and papal bulls brought a rich reward. Any bishop caught with the bull of his appointment was declared guilty of high treason and the penalty was imprisonment and death.
The newly consecrated Hurley was well aware of the risks involved in returning to Ireland. Disguised as a seaman he landed north of Dublin. He entrusted a box containing the papal bull of his appointment, Mass vestments and a chalice to the care of a captain of a merchant ship, arranging to rendevous with him later in Waterford. Unfortunately the merchant ship was captured and the episcopal belongings confiscated. O’Hurley himself was subsequently apprehended on 7 October 1583 and incarcerated in the dungeons of Dublin Castle. He was kept there until the following Holy Thursday when he was brought before the Lord Justices and promised pardon if he would deny the spiritual authority of the Pope and take the oath of supremacy. This he firmly refused to do. Early in March 1584 he was taken out of prison into the Castle Yard. His head, arms and legs were shackled in stocks. The legs were then immersed up to the knees in a mixture of oil and tallow in raw leather great-boots. A fire was lit under the legs, and the oil heated by the flames so penetrated his legs that the flesh came away leaving the bones bare. O’Hurley still refused to conform. He was flung back into prison, and so as not to be robbed of the pleasure of seeing him die the way the authorities intended, restoratives were applied, and after a few weeks he was again able to appear before the judges.
Blandishments were now tried, including promises of ecclesiastical promotion and the gracious favour of the queen. The defection of O’Hurley, the most revered prelate of the Catholic Church in Ireland, would be a powerful weapon to use against the faith of the Irish. But it was all to no avail. Fearing the likely outcry that would result from a public trial, the justices now had the brilliant idea of proceeding against Hurley by martial law. Elizabeth gave her sanction to this unusual process and the archbishop was sentenced to be hanged outside the city walls. So before dawn on a summer morning, O’Hurley was bundled into a cart in Dublin Castle Yard and brought to Gallows Green, close to the present site of Government Buildings, where he was hanged on 20 June 1584, repeating the words, ‘I am a priest anointed and also a bishop’.  He was beatified by John Paul II in 1992.
The surest way to eradicate the Mass was to eliminate the priests. But though hunted like wild beasts, imprisoned and starved, tortured and executed, they could not be so easily exterminated. By careful hiding they were able to say Mass now and then, in private houses and outhouses. The people were previously notified of the meeting place, where they could come to confess, hear Mass and receive the Eucharist. Many brave men and women of stature befriended these priests, hid them in their homes and cared for their material needs. Many prominent lay people suffered under the Elizabethan anti-Catholic legislation. All judges, justices, mayors and other officials were compelled to take the oath of supremacy before entering office. From the legal records we know that many suffered heavy fines and long spells of imprisonment for their adherence to the Catholic faith. Because of the difficult situation, Mass had often to be celebrated in the open air, on a mountain side, or in a remote rocky glen to avoid the attention of the priest hunters.
After Elizabeth died in 1603, it was assumed that under James I, son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, there would be freedom to exercise the old religion. However, the Irish were soon undeceived in this. In a proclamation of 4 July 1605 the king ordered all priests to leave Ireland by the following 10 December, and if they were to return they were to be subjected to the usual penalties. From many contemporary sources there are full and vivid descriptions of a regime of raids, ruinous fines, and arbitrary imprisonment. To avoid the soldiers sent in search of them, many priests went round in all sorts of disguises – as grooms, servants, even as strolling players. A Relatio of Archbishop David Kearney of Cashel to Rome in 1618 captures the atmosphere of the time:
Young men who wanted to train for the priesthood now started to attend seminaries abroad in Louvain, Rome, Douai, Salamanca, Rheims, and Alcalá. Over the next two hundred years the great bulk of Irish priests would be trained in these and other European seminaries, set up specifically to provide for the needs of the persecuted Irish Catholics. With great courage these men returned to their native country in full knowledge that their lives were at serious risk.
By the end of the sixteenth century, Protestantism had become the religion of England. However, in Ireland, by that time, it was clear that the programme to impose a new belief system was a failure, largely because local political resistance made it unworkable. What was involved was not only a clash of religious belief, but also a clash of politics and culture which fuelled the dynamic of religious resistance.
In 1607 the Lord Deputy of Ireland reported to the Privy Council how ineffective the king’s 1605 proclamation banishing all priests had been:
Clearly the protestantization of Ireland was making little progress and the authorities realized that the exceptional courage and pastoral zeal of priests was the key to the Catholic resistance. The Lord Deputy, anticipating that he would have difficulty getting more penal legislation passed through parliament in Dublin, decided to soften the resolve of the Catholic majority by instituting acts of terror. In 1611 he got permission from London to impose exemplary punishment on the only two Catholic bishops remaining in the country at the time – Kearney of Cashel and the eighty year-old Cornelius O’Devany of Down and Conor. O’Devany and a priest, Patrick O’Loughran, chaplain to Hugh O’Neill, were arrested on 28 January 1612 and stood trial on the trumped up charge of treason. A verdict of guilty was quickly arrived at and sentence of death pronounced. The execution was fixed for 1 February. The two men were bound face upwards on carts and drawn from Dublin Castle to Georges Hill for execution. By the time they reached the scaffold the accompanying crowd of sympathizers had swelled to several thousand. Both men endured bravely the horrors of execution for treason – hanging, drawing and quartering, affirming from the scaffold that the real reason for their death was the Catholic faith. 
It is not that Ireland was an island of saints in the sixteenth century. The older clergy were poorly formed and the general level of religious instruction of the people was minimal. Some accepted the royal supremacy but rejected the new church service. Nevertheless, resistance to the new religious settlement drew much from the pastoral zeal of the Franciscans and Dominicans who had several houses in the country at the time. The Catholic counter-Reformation mission, spearheaded by Irishmen ordained in the seminaries of Spain, France and Belgium was gathering momentum by the end of the sixteenth century.
After the Irish victory over the crown forces at the battle of Benburb in 1641, a window opened temporarily on religious freedom. Buildings for Catholic worship were tolerated, usually called chapels or, more disparagingly, ‘Mass-houses’ (the word ‘church’ was reserved for Protestant places of worship). From 1641 to 1653 there was a resurgence of Catholic resistance and a war was fought for freedom of religious exercise under the aegis of the Confederation of Kilkenny. The bishops assembled at Kilkenny in May 1642 to invoke God’s blessing on the campaign. Among other things they ordered a three day fast followed by confession and Communion. For a whole year, during Mass on feastdays, priests were asked to recite the litany of the saints and the laity to say the Rosary to obtain divine help in the difficult enterprise. Arrangements were made for saying Mass in the recovered churches which had been alienated by the Protestants. Where Catholics had recovered power, cathedrals and churches were taken over, reconsecrated by solemn rite, and restored for celebration of the Mass and reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. Many of the Irish bishops of the period had spent long periods in exile in Spain, France or Rome where they experienced the full splendour of Catholic ritual as celebrated in these places. Now, on their return to their own country, it was not surprising that everything was done to enhance the celebration of the liturgy after so many decades of denial of the Mass. During the short triumph of the Confederate cause the ceremonies in Waterford cathedral were performed with such decorum and splendour that the nuncio, Cardinal Rinuccini, testified that he had never seen the liturgical praxis of Rome more faithfully followed. 
After negotiation with the government in Dublin, a compromise was reached which allowed Catholics to retain the churches they still held. However, the arrival of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, on 15 August 1649, put an end to any hopes of religious freedom. In the name of God he brutally massacred thousands of men, women and children at Drogheda and Wexford. From his camp laying siege to New Ross he declared war on the Mass and all Papists. In January 1651 General Edward Ludlow arrived in Ireland after Cromwell’s return to England. Like his master he was distinguished by his cruelty to Catholics whom he hunted down relentlessly. Marching one day from Dundalk to Castleblaney, he discovered that a number of locals had concealed themselves deep in a cave. Having failed to get them to come out he decided to smother them. Fires were lit at the mouth of the cave and late in the evening, feeling fairly certain that the refugees were all dead, a small party of soldiers entered the cave. Immediately a pistol shot from within, which wounded one of the soldiers, made it clear that there was still life in the cave. All the crevices of the cave were then closed and on the following morning, to use Ludlow’s own language, ‘another smother’ was made. In the evening, heavily armed, the soldiers made a second entry. Near the entrance they found the only armed man lying dead, but were surprised to find the rest of the group still alive. With faces bent over a little stream that ran through the cave the group of fifteen men and women had managed to stay alive, but were at once massacred by the soldiers. A crucifix, chalice and vestments were found, pointing to the fact that one of the devoted little group was a priest whose Mass the others had hoped to attend. 
After the fall of Galway in 1652, all Catholic lands, except in Connaught, were confiscated and settled on Cromwell’s army officers and other adventurers. This resulted in a massive transplanting of Catholics to the poorer western province. Catholic priests were hunted relentlessly. By a proclamation of 1653, a priest was made guilty of treason by the very fact of his presence in the country. To be caught saying Mass was a crime punishable by death. While the Cromwellian wars lasted as many as three hundred priests were murdered or executed, but as things settled down the government saw that it would be more politic to deport them. Great numbers left the country, perhaps as many as a thousand.  Those who remained necessarily led a very furtive existence. Wealthy Catholics who had protected them in the past were uprooted, and they could not ask the people for any protection. In the records of these difficult times, there are many striking examples showing how people were subjected to imprisonment and banishment, and how their property was confiscated for supporting priests. Others had their ears cut off or suffered death for merely harbouring a cleric. Yet despite all the efforts made to exterminate them, in 1698 there were still 892 secular clergy and 495 religious in Ireland. 
Treaty of Limerick
The Treaty of Limerick in 1691 guaranteed freedom of exercise for the Catholic religion. However, the Protestant ascendancy cynically disregarded the conditions of the treaty and in 1697 passed an act of parliament banishing all ‘popish archbishops, bishops, vicar generals, deans, Jesuits, monks, friars, and all other regular popish clergy and all Papists exercising any ecclesiastical jurisdiction’. The great majority left, and for any of them to return was an offence punishable by death. The parochial clergy, however, found some shelter under the provisions of the Registration Act of 1704 which ordered them to register with the civil authorities – 1089 of them did.  With all the bishops banished there was a comfortable prospect for the Protestant overlords that the supply of new priests would soon be exhausted, and that the Catholic church in Ireland would die out.
Since no churches were tolerated, Mass could only be said in miserable little hovels called Mass-houses in side streets, and this only by the parochial clergy who were registered. But even this severely restricted freedom was soon brought to an end as legislation against secular clergy was further tightened. A new act was passed in 1709 which compelled all registered priests to take an oath of abjuration. Since none would do so all the Mass-houses and chapels were closed down, and the parochial clergy joined the bishops and the regular clergy ‘on the run’. King William of Orange was persuaded by the Protestant interest to pass a substantial body of anti-Catholic legislation which was completed under Queen Anne (1702-14), and which became known as the Penal Laws. Although the penal code contained numerous provisions which if put into effect would have extinguished the Catholic church in Ireland, its basic concern was not about religion but about property, above all with landed property since ownership of land was the key to political power. The proportion of land in Catholic hands had dropped to 60% by 1641, but this was to plummet to 5% during the eighteenth century under the penal code. By the eighteenth century, ‘popery’ was seen by the government not so much as an erroneous religion as a threat to property. 
Masses were said in secret places, lonely valleys, in the shelter of a hill, but always with someone on the look-out who could alert the congregation. These locations, consecrated by the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, are to be found all over Ireland. Many of them have given names to townlands such as Ardanaffrin, Mullachanafrin, Lugganafrin, deriving from the Irish word for the Mass – An Aifrean. Masses continued to be celebrated in these places after the relaxation of the Penal Laws because of the refusal of Protestant landlords to allow Mass-houses to be erected on their property.
In the North of Ireland, due to the radical displacement of the Catholic population by the Protestant planters, Mass rocks were especially common. The following is a story from that part of the country during the Penal days. A Fr McKenna ministered to the people of Slieve Beagh near Monaghan. The priest hunters and troops were always on the lookout for him but failed to catch him so effectively was he guarded by his people. However, on one occasion information was brought to the barracks in Monaghan that Fr McKenna was to celebrate Mass before daybreak the next morning at a particular location. A party of soldiers was dispatched early in the night and sometime before dawn they observed in the distance the flickering lights of two candles. The officer, fearing to approach too near to the place where the people were assembled lest some of the scouts on lookout might detect them, detailed a good marksman and told him to approach within gun-shot, cover one of the lights, and fire when it was darkened by the priest passing before it. The soldier carried out the command and shot the priest through the head – the opportunity arose when the priest moved in front of one of the candles to read the last gospel. The place where he fell, in Bragan, is still called Leacht an tsagairt – which translated from the Gaelic means ‘the gravestone of the priest’. 
In 1707 Dr Hugh McMahon was appointed bishop of Clogher in the north of Ireland. One of his reports to Rome, dated January 1714, gives us a very clear idea of what the life of a bishop was like during the Penal days. When he took over the diocese, his appointment was greeted with joy by the Catholics, but their rejoicing exposed him to danger from the priest hunters. To escape detection he often changed his residence, and his name as well as his dress. When he arranged a conference with his priests, it was usually in some remote private house, in the woods, or in the mountains. Masses were said on Sunday mornings shortly after midnight and, to avoid detection, was seldom said in the same place on two successive Sundays. Immediately after Mass confessions were held, children were baptized, and religious instruction given. The people were fervent, Bishop McMahon reports. Many of them, though advanced in years, would rise in the middle of the night in order to attend Mass, and those coming from a distance would start the journey the previous evening, often travelling through storms of snow and rain. It was usual for the priest when celebrating to have a veil over his face, or to celebrate alone in a room with the people outside. This was because the people were liable to be interrogated at any time about the identity of the priest who celebrated Mass, and they could then truthfully say they did not know who he was. 
The bishops had been expelled by proclamation in 1697 so that by the early years of the eighteenth century there were only two resident ordinaries. However, the legislation had such little effect in suppressing the hierarchy that in 1707 five new bishops were appointed, and by 1714 there were no less that fourteen in the country. Nevertheless, their life was one of constant danger. They had to take names that were not their own, usually Protestant sounding ones. They were often in jail, oftener still on the run. Yet they never gave in. They ordained priests, administered Confirmation to thousands, and kept in touch with the Internuncio in Brussels or with Propaganda in Rome.
Despite the Penal legislation, government officials were so concerned about the growing strength of Irish Catholics that it was thought necessary to devise new measures for ‘hindering the growth of Popery’. For this purpose, committees were established by the House of Lords to enquire into the state of things. In 1731 they reported that there were 892 Mass-houses and 54 private chapels in Ireland, in addition to portable altars of which it was reckoned there were more than one hundred. Incredibly they found that there were 1445 priests and 254 friars officiating in them. In a country in which the law didn’t presume a single Catholic priest to exist, the findings must have proved very discouraging to their Lordships. 
By 1730 active persecution had tapered off and by 1750 it was clear that the laws to prevent the growth of ‘Popery’ had been a resounding failure. The last raid in Dublin of which we have record was in 1744, when Fr Nicholas English was arrested at the altar while saying Mass.  Gradually Catholics were allowed to use their poverty-stricken chapels and Mass-houses in peace. Catholic emancipation eventually came in 1829, and it was only then that priests and people could go about raising up worthy places of worship which reflected the depth of their faith and their long-tested love for the Mass.
Augustine Birrell, son of a non-conformist minister, was appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland in 1907. He was a keen observer of the religious situation in the country at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he left us his reflections on the significance of Mass for the Irish:
The battle today, however, is perhaps different from the one envisaged by Birrell. It is, above all, the challenge to recover that loyalty and love for the Mass which inspired past generations of Catholics. This will involve a sustained programme of re-evangelization to enable the Eucharistic sacrifice become once more the ‘root and centre’ of the Christian life.  The success of this enterprise will depend very much on the priest’s own love for the Mass. By his example and catechesis he will help people to appreciate more fully the transcendence of this great mystery of the faith, and to recognise ever more clearly that, when they go to church on Sundays, they are assisting at the renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary.
1. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Novo millennio ineunte, 7 (6 January 2001).
2. Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England, vol II, London, 1954, p. 85.
3. Cf. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, New Haven, 1992; Diarmaid McCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life, London, 1996.
4. Cf. Hughes, ibid., p. 279.
5. John O’Rourke, The Battle of the Faith in Ireland, Dublin, 1887, p. 26.
6. Cf. Myles V. Ronan, The Irish Martyrs of the Penal Days, London, 1935, pp 54-69; O’Rourke, op. cit, pp 28-9.
7. Cardinal Patrick Moran, History of the Catholic Archbishops of Dublin, Dublin, 1884, p. 235.
8. Lord Deputy and Council to Privy Council, 27 October 1607 (Calendar of Documents, Ireland, 1606-8, p. 310), quoted in T. Concannon, The Blessed Eucharist in Irish History, Dublin, 1932, pp 295-6.
9. Cf. Patrick J. Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience: A Historical Survey, Dublin 1985, p. 98. Bishop O’Devany and Fr Loughran were beatified in 1992.
10. Cardinal Patrick Moran, Persecutions of Irish Catholics, Dublin, 1907, p. 177.
11. Cf. Fr. Augustine, OFM Cap., Ireland’s Loyalty to the Mass, London, 1933, pp 118-9.
12. Cf. Corish, ibid., p. 112.
13. Cf. Fr Augustine, p. 157.
14. Cf. Corish, ibid., p. 125.
15. Cf. ibid, p. 123.
16. Cf. Concannon, ibid., p. 391.
17. Cf. Cardinal Patrick Moran, Spicilegium Ossoriense, vol II, Dublin, 1874, pp 470-88.
18. James McCaffrey, ‘Report on the State of Popery, Ireland, 1731’, in Archivum Hibernicum, vol I, Dublin, 1912, pp 10-31.
19. Cf. Concannon, op. cit., p.416.
20. Fr Augustine, OFM Cap., Ireland’s Loyalty to the Mass, London, 1933, pp 206, 208-9.
21. Cf. Presbyterorum ordinis, 14.
This article was first published in the July 2002 issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Copyright ©; Thomas J. McGovern 2002
This version: 27th September 2002