Sunday, November 2, 2014

Mass Rocks and Hedge Schools

During the years of the penal laws, the Irish would meet for Mass either in private homes or in country places at a "Mass Rock."
The mass rock field is away from the roads and well sheltered with trees. Lookouts were posted in case the soldiers or Red Coats were coming. Mass was held in secret and the priest arrived in disguise to say mass. Mass rocks were often placed near streams so it is possible that people walked on the bed of the Pill so that they would not leave any footprints behind...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.
It was forbidden to educate Irish Catholic children as well, hence the "hedge schools." To quote:
 Ye Hedge School is named after the clandestine schools run by the Irish during the time of the Penal laws which not only forbade the teaching of Catholic catechism, but indeed forbade all education for Catholics. Despite these laws, however, when my great-great-grandfather arrived in the United States from Ireland, he was well educated, knowing arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, history and geography, spelling and writing, and, of course, catechism. It is simply extraordinary that while the Penal laws prevented the Catholic Irish from voting or holding office, from owning or purchasing land, from engaging in commerce, and forbade them to educate their children in by any means, at home or abroad, education continued. Priests were banned and hunted with bloodhounds and the faithful Irish had nothing but the barest living in their countryside, on lands that had not (yet) been confiscated, yet all the while, priests and other educated Irishmen who were faithful to the Church conducted schools in inaccessible caves or tiny huts, or behind hedges.  The schools were called Hedge Schools. Seumus MacManus, in his book The Story of the Irish Race, describes them thus:
Throughout those dark days the hunted schoolmaster, with price upon his head, was hidden from house to house.  And in the summer time he gathered his little class, hungering and thirsting for knowledge, behind a hedge in remote mountain glen  where, while in turn each tattered lad kept watch from the hilltop for the British soldiers, he fed to his eager pupils the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. Latin and Greek were taught to ragged hunted ones under shelter of the hedges  whence these teachers were knows as "hedge schoolmasters."  A knowledge of Latin was a frequent enough accomplishment among poor Irish mountaineers in the seventeenth century  and was spoken by many of them on special occasions. And it is authoritatively boasted that cows were bought and sold in Greek, in mountain market-places of Kerry.
MacManus also tells of the eighteenth century Irish poet Owen Roe O'Sullivan who was a farm hand until he had the opportunity to help his master's son read a Greek passage; the son had just returned from college on the Continent. 
And he tells us that a friend's father used to hear whole conversations in Latin among the priests and schoolmasters of nineteenth century Ireland.
The hedge schools remind me a little of our contemporary home schools, which, of course, are not so rustic and not forbidden. It is amazing what determined Catholic parents can do when they place their children's faith above everything else, with God's help.



Anonymous said...

Nice post. Thanks.

Aron said...

Fascinating, Elena! I've sent a link to a Protestant friend whose great-great-grandfather came over from Ireland around the time of the Famine.
The thought of those ragged children meeting secretly and at great peril makes me faintly ashamed to think that I took so long to master Greek in school! Wow.
~Aron <><

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, gentlemen!

Brantigny said...

My grandfather born in Donegal used to tell my brother and I about the battle of the Boyne. He was not very complementary to James. I am sure some of his stories were apocryphal but interesting noe the less because they always showed the persistancy of the Faith.

The French too in the Vendee celebrated Mass in the woods the same way. The blood of martyrs truely waters the tree of faith.

Excellent post.


elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Richard!

Cathal35 said...

I found a massrock at my locality by a lake originally it was in the lake and mass was said on it only in summer when the lake tide went down it dates 1655 and was used until 1703