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A Mass Rock in Barleyfield, Kilbrittain

One of the most fascinating sites in the area is the mass rock located in Barleyfield townland. Even though it was probably used only for a short time, perhaps 50 years or less, it speaks of an infamous period of Irish history- the Penal Laws.

In the aftermath of the Williamite victory in 1691, a series of laws were enacted to ensure a Protestant ascendancy by the suppression of Catholics. The religious aspect was by no means the main feature of these measures. The early laws were designed to protect a fearful Protestant minority from further war against supporters of James II. Later laws were enacted to keep Catholics out of positions of influence such as the army, judiciary, etc. and of course to keep the land out of Catholic hands.

However it was the specifically religious aspects of the laws which have continued to capture the popular imagination. Many nationalist groupings and indeed the Catholic hierarchy made good use of the laws for propaganda purposes long after they were obsolete. In fact most of the strictly religious laws had waned long before the political and economic laws were removed. However it must be said that for a time the Catholic religion was actively suppressed, with special emphasis on removing the clergy. Mass and other practices had to be performed in secrecy and often in isolated areas.

The mass rock in Barleyfield perfectly captures the mood of this time. It has the ideal location for a secret meeting. Being set against a sheer rock face protects and shelters it on two sides, to the east and south. Meanwhile to the north, the priest and laity were protected by a deep valley through which still flows a rushing mountain stream. Across this valley a sentry could keep watch for the threat of approaching soldiers. He would have a clear view over the rolling hills for several miles to the North and East.

Behind the mass rock to the South there is higher ground and this would have made it vulnerable. However a watchman could also take up his post here and with advance warning of any danger, the congregation could swiftly disperse back down the valley to the East.

Nowadays the mass rock is surrounded by a mixture of evergreen and deciduous trees. However, at the time it was used, it was undoubtedly covered in heath and bush. Indeed, for well into this century the area consisted of scrubland with interlinking paths. Standing at the site today, it is easy to picture the local people wending their way through the heath. Men and women, old and young converging to meet with their priest at this secluded location. The mass rock was surrounded by the rock face on two sides, partially enclosing the low altar. With the valley beneath it was a perfect amphitheatre, the priestís voice carrying through the valley as he intoned the Latin.

The overall picture of the mass rock at Barleyfield, gives a fascinating insight into what conditions were like for Catholics in this area in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.

It is no surprise that this period of Irish history is one which has taken on such drama and even a degree of romance.

The mass rock is now surrounded by forestry on all sides. The altar is still intact, if a little overgrown with ferns and grasses. It is of dry stone construction being about 8 ft. in length, 4 ft wide and 1 ft high. While not the oldest or most elaborate monument in the area, this site is a rare one and thankfully is still in a good state of preservation.


Brendan Shiels, Jan-2003.


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