A Well-Trodden Path: The History and Heritage of Mass Paths in Ireland
“Some of these journeys remain forever in one’s memory. Such as seeing the flashlights moving slowly through the fields on the dark evenings of a Mission or going to 7.30 a.m. Mass on a Christmas morning as the frosty grass shone in the light of the moon at the break of day” (Murphy 1990).
In 2018 I was awarded a British Academy Leverhulme Small Research Grant that enabled me to digitally map and record a cluster of Mass paths in the parish of Lackagh in Co. Galway, Ireland. The project would not have been possible if it had not been for the help of members of Lackagh Heritage Committee and the people of Lackagh who so wholeheartedly gave their time, generosity and knowledge in making the project a success. Special thanks go to Michael Hurley, Frank Kearney and Gerry McDonagh.
For a range of publications by Michael Hurley please visit: https://www.lackaghmuseum.ie/museum-publications.html
I worked alongside award-winning photographer Caitriona Dunnett who photographed traces of the Mass paths and used them to create and tone cyanotypes with a leading type of Irish tea, a favourite with those who walked the paths.
To see the full range of cyanotypes produced please visit: http://www.caitrionadunnett.com/a-well-trodden-path/
To purchase a copy of the prints in booklet form:
Background to Ireland’s Mass Paths
The Penal Laws were a series of laws passed against Catholics and dissenters between 1695 and 1756. The degrading and dividing influence of the Penal Laws extended to every field of Catholic political, professional, social, intellectual and domestic life (Lecky 1892, 52). Whilst the Penal Laws managed to limit the public expression of Catholicism, they did not ensure the elimination of Catholicism or result in the mass conversion of Catholics (Bartlett 1990, 2). Despite chapels being appropriated by Protestant authorities, Mass continued to be celebrated in secret at a number of locations including barns, out-buildings and private homes. It was frequently celebrated in ditches or under trees and bushes as well as at open-air altars known as Mass Rocks. The Mass Rocks were located in fields and glens or on mountainsides and the majority are primarily known today at a local level with information being passed down orally from generation to generation (Bishop 2018). Known in Irish as Slí an Aifrin (Mass way) or Cosán an Aifrinn (Mass footpath) routes taken to celebrate Mass were called Mass paths. Initially these paths would have remained secret in order to avoid detection by authorities keen to arrest officiating priests. Often the location of Mass would have been passed by word of mouth and Mass goers would have walked along the beds of streams to hide their footprints (McGarvey 1956, 184). When land eventually became available to build new churches, the tradition of using Mass paths continued. Most people could not afford transport and so they continued to travel on foot to Mass.
Mass paths typically crossed fields and bog land and were often situated close to boundary walls, fences and hedgerows to afford some shelter along the way. Eventually the Mass paths converged near the local parish church. Where the people had to cross from field to field, stone stiles were erected (Hurley 2019, 26) or walls were ‘knocked’ to ease their passage (Commins Interview 2019). Stepping stones would be placed in streams (Slattery Interview 2019) and planks provided across ditches (Meath Chronicle 2007, 18).
Mass paths were not just used for going to Mass, they were also used by children as a route to school (Fallon Interview 2019) and some, such as such as Ballybrit in county Galway, remain in use today. The path runs from Monivea Road beside the racecourse gate and through the racecourse joining up with the path from Cúil Each-Cahir behind the racecourse grandstands, and from there down to the back of Castlegar church. It is used by racegoers on race days and other occasions (Ó Laoi, 1998) but, in general, the use of Mass paths in Ireland has waned in recent decades and many have fallen out of use. As locations of a distinctively Catholic faith, Mass paths remain important historic pathways within the rural landscape that present a tangible link to Ireland’s rich history and heritage but, despite this, the changing nature of the Irish countryside means that a large number of Mass paths have been destroyed through agricultural change, infrastructural advancements or building developments.
There is no available database that identifies and records Mass paths meaning that they have no official recognition, definition, status or protection despite many having become established rights of way. Many are under physical threat from agricultural practices, planning and infrastructural development such as those at Parkmore and Coolagh, both in Co. Galway (Hynes Interview 2019).
Using archived Ordnance Survey maps as templates, 15 potential Mass path routes were identified and plotted on an Ordnance Survey poster sized map. This map was used as a basis for a community workshop, facilitated by Dr Hilary Bishop, Liverpool John Moores University, drawing together Lackagh Heritage Committee, local landowners, farmers, and residents, in an effort to verify the paths identified and to collect further data. The workshop helped to highlight Mass path locations and was especially effective for paths where there were few observable features remaining but good oral testimony and historical records. This was integrated into later fieldwork to photograph and digitally re-map the Mass paths identified on the original OS maps.
The Mass Paths of Lackagh Parish
In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Lewis described Lackagh as ‘a parish in the barony of Clare, county Galway, and province of Connaught’. He noted that it was a vicarage in the diocese of Tuam, forming part of a union of Annaghdown (Lewis 1840). By the mid-1850s Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland defined Lackagh parish church as being on the boundary of Lackaghbeg (small or lesser place of stones) and Knockdoe (The Hill of the Axes) and known locally as Carnoneen chapel. Similarly Lackagh Parish was known locally as the Parish of Carnoneen, or the Parish of the daisy cairn (Griffith 1864).
The Report on the State of Popery in Ireland, conducted in 1731, identifies a number of Friaries in county Galway; there were three friars resident in a Friary in Claregalway and about 20 in a Friary in Athenry. The Friars of Athenry were reported to have removed themselves from the Friary and were living in a house in a wood two miles from the town, indicating some level of religious persecution in the diocese during the Penal era (Catholic Historical Society of Ireland 1914). During Penal times Mass was often celebrated in the ruins of churches and religious houses that had been destroyed during the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a practice that continued in Claregalway Abbey well into the nineteenth century (Hughes 1997, 25).
In Lackagh, locals remember stories about a Mass Rock in Qualter’s field where Mass was celebrated during Penal times and Hurley reports that Mass was also in said in a barn in Liscananaun (Fort of Cananaun) (Hurley 2019, 28). During interviews undertaken in 2001 as part of a Turloughmore heritage project, Mary Glavin of Mirah spoke of the dún (fort) on Concannon’s land where priests used to hide in Penal times (Blackmore et al 2001, 12). This demonstrates that there was some level of persecution in the parish during this period and it is documented that there was a much stronger Catholic presence in Galway than in other parts of the country during Penal times, especially within the Tuam Archdiocese of which Lackagh was an integral part (Solan 1993, 44). Despite this, there is no specific information in the Report on the State of Popery concerning the parish.
The present church at Lackagh was built under the direction of Father Thomas Kearney in 1838 and, during its construction, Mass was celebrated in the ruin of the old castle which stood on the site now occupied by Flynn’s sheds. Prior to that, a small thatched chapel was built beside the ruin of Carnoneen Castle to the south-west of the present church but was reputedly destroyed by fire when flax drying on the floor of the church was accidentally ignited. (Hurley 2019, 37). The location of the Mass paths in the parish of Lackagh places them within the nineteenth century and they are likely to date from the building of the thatched chapel and subsequent church rather than to Penal times.
Research identified a total of 16 Mass paths in the parish of Lackagh (see map) and was able to identify a continuation of others beyond the routes identified within the original OS maps. Those emanating in the western and southern boundaries of the parish terminated at the church whilst some of those coming from the south, as well as those travelling from the east, joined the Lackagh Road at points between The Copper Beech pub and Lackagh Bridge (Hurley 2019).
Map of Mass Paths in the Parish of Lackagh
Mass Path 1
Mass Path number one ran from Pat Lardner’s house on Tinker’s Lane across Knockdoemore through Kearney’s and Collins’ land and out onto the main road at Collins’ water tank (Hurley 2019, 31).
Mass Path 2
Mass path number two ran from Liscananaun by Bawnmore (the big field) National School to Joyce’s house on Tuam Road, into the road by the side of Caulfield’s house, across Knockdoemore West into Knockdoemore and onto Lackagh Road through Sean Walsh’s field (Hurley 2019, 31). The stile onto the Lackagh Road was situated beside Mannion’s cottage and whilst there is still a stile present, the cottage is no longer there. The stile onto Lackagh Road was little used because Annie Mannion used to leave the back door and front door of the cottage open and Mass goers would simply walk through her kitchen to the church opposite (Walsh Interview 2019).
In outlying areas, the long distance meant that Mass goers often had to start out on their journey well before Mass was due to begin. Cissie Commons remembers walking the Mass path with her sister and two other girls that lived nearby, all having fasted from midnight the night before. It took around two hours to walk the Mass path and she would wear a raincoat and walk in her old shoes, carrying clothes to change into across her arm. They would cross over stiles and gaps where the walls had been ‘knocked’ and she clearly remembered a stile where they crossed the road from Billy Joyce’s out towards Caulfield’s. She was careful to record that they did not go into Caulfield’s field as indicated on the original map, but instead crossed into Billy Joyce’s field and from there walked up by the wall until they arrived at Mannion’s house. Mannion had an open shed beside the house, and they went in there to take off their old coats and shoes and put on their ‘so called good ones’ before going into Mass. After Mass they would change back and return the same way they had come (Commons Interview 2019).
Mass Path 3
Mass path number three runs from Bothar na Reilge (Graveyard or Church Road), which is also known as Knockdoe Road, through Knockdoebeg West down by Poll na Taibhse, or the Hole of the Ghosts, and down Knockdoe Hill to Carnoneen coming out at the extant stile on Lackagh Road between Walsh’s and Moran’s (Hurley 2019, 31). People coming from Munroe would also have crossed at the back of Knockdoe Hill, come up through Knockdoemore and on to the church (Lackagh Turloughmore Parish History Committee 1990, 55).
Mass Path 4
Mass path number four runs from the corner at Joe Badger’s house at Cahernahoon Road towards Turloughalín (little turlough), and there is another branch from Corbally to Turloughalín. The path goes through Knockdoebeg East, across the rock and out onto the road at ‘Eddie Donnellan’s stile’, where Joe Collins’ house now stands (Hurley 2019, 32).
PHOTO Roadside Stile, Mass Path 4
Joe Badger remarked that farmers in Lackagh never ploughed near a Mass path. The Mass path on his land was about six or seven inches higher than the land around it and about 3ft wide. In the nineteenth century it was ploughed with horses and the farmer had to lift the plough when he came to the Mass path (Badger Interview 2019). Johnny Grealish also remembers that his father hardly ever let the horses turn on the headland that was up at Grange, nor up to the Grange stile which still remains in situ. When Johnny himself installed a pen up near Grange, he was careful to leave the Mass path untouched, making sure that the wall was made at the side of the path and not on it (Grealish Interview 2019).
Mass Path 5
Mass path number five ran from Cahernahoon to the ‘new bridge’ path with a fork to the right into Lackaghmore, meeting the main road at Jarlath McDonagh’s house. On the OS map, this path also takes a fork towards the east across the fields terminating at Jackie Murray’s Public House although it is doubtful that this section was part of the Mass path (Hurley 2019, 32).
PHOTO Stile over bridge, Mass Path 5
Mass Path 6
Mass path number six, along with Mass path numbers seven and eight, all converged at the Copper Beech pub, Turloughmore. Mass path number six began from Johnny Shaughnessy’s house (Hurley 2019, 32). This would have been the route taken by Mass goers from Mirah who went to Lackagh church starting by Shaughnessy’s house, through Gurraun, Monard and Turloughmore Common, out onto the road by Cullinane’s house and on up Carnoneen Hill to the church (Lackagh Turloughmore Parish History Committee 1990, 55).
Mass Path 7
Mass path number seven ran from Fox’s house in Monard (Hurley 2019, 32).
Mass Path 8
Mass path number eight ran from Mitchell’s house (Hurley 2019, 32).
Mass Path 9
Mass path number nine skirts the western side of the Common from Puiteachán (a little pool or well) entering the road at Cullinane’s gate across from Fallon’s Public House. It is proposed that this path is more likely to have been used by customers to Fallon’s Public House rather than as a path to Mass as the roadway would have been a shorter and more direct route (Hurley 2019, 32).
Mass Path 10
Mass path number ten remains particularly well defined and runs from Tobar Suibhne (St. Suibhne’s Well) with a link, westwards, to Grange footbridge over the Clare River. A link, northwards, through Coolarne veers east coming out at Moinín Road (the road of the small bog) opposite the ‘Half Moon House’ which was the old Parochial House situated on the main road (Hurley 2019, 32).
Mass goers near to the Grange footbridge had the choice of several Mass paths (numbers ten, eleven or twelve). The OSI 6” Cassini map documents flooding on both sides of the River Clare which probably dictated the route taken. Wet winters often caused the river to expand into the turloughs and floodplains of Lackagh parish (Hurley 2017, 8). Despite a large system of drainage in the mid-1800s, which included the re-routing of the river, flooding continued throughout the early 1900s (Hurley 2017, 9) when many of the Mass paths would still have been in use.
Mass goers from the Rathfee (the heathery fort) area would also have walked up Coolarne lands near Jimmy Burke’s and across to the Moinín and on to Lackagh (Lackagh Turloughmore Parish History Committee 1990, 55).
Mass Path 11
Mass path eleven links from Grange footbridge following the eastern bank of the river up by Salmon Town entering the main road at Lackagh Bridge (Hurley 2019, 32). In reality Salmon Town was not a town but merely a specific area of the riverbank. Monica Holland used to walk this path in all kinds of weather in her bare feet. She would tie her shoes together and throw them over her shoulder bringing a rag or a towel to wipe her feet before putting on her ankle socks and her shoes. She remembered people also using the path to go to Kearney’s shop. Monica walked from the Grange footbridge and ‘climbed up a bit of a hill’ to get onto Grange’s land. She then walked along by the fields in Grange’s land, crossed the road and walked down a bothrín (small narrow lane), eventually coming out ‘at an angle’ in Burke’s land taking the corner off the field, something not identified on the original OS map. They then crossed into Egan’s land, followed by Graney’s land to come out at a stile by Kearney’s. They named the field by the stile ‘the long acre’ because it was a very big and long field. The stile was one of two very close by to one another. She remembers that there was one stile for the Mass goers from Cregmore and another for those from Grange and Cahernashelleeny (the town of the cherries). There was less than the width of a gate between the two stiles which both remain in situ but are now inaccessible (Interview Grealish 2019). Mass goers from each direction would often stand and talk at the side of the two stiles (Holland Interview 2019).
Mass Path 12
Mass path number twelve runs from the Cregmore and Grange areas where the path went down the fields from the Cregmore road past Cavanagh's, over the footbridge on the river, veering left in Cahernashelleeny and up to Lackabeg to the site of the old castle at Carnoneen and then on to Lackagh Church. The people returned by Salmon Town (Lackagh Turloughmore Parish History Committee 1990, 55). Both Mary Fallon and Monica Holland remember that the steps to the castle, which is no longer there, were shiny from regular use (Fallon Interview 2019; Holland Interview 2019).
Mass Path 13
Mass path number thirteen runs from Cahernashelleeny Road northwards to join with Mass path number twelve (Hurley 2019, 32). Mary Fallon walked this Mass path and remembered others joining the path at Moylan’s. They would then take a little road that led them on to the old churchyard. Demonstrating the diverse nature of Mass paths, people also walked the Mass path to go to confession, which they had to go to once a month, and when ‘missioners’ visited the church. This path was also used by people to go to the local shop and children used it going to school, mostly from the Cahernashelleeny area (Fallon Interview 2019).
Mass Path 14
Mass path number fourteen also runs from Cahernashelleeny northwards before joining with number fifteen (Hurley 2019, 32).
Mass Path 15
Mass path number fifteen runs from Kiltroge (Church of St Trog) village into Cahernashelleeny, Caraunkeelwy (the round hill of the narrow plain) and a corner of Knockdoemore, before entering the site of old chapel at the back of Flynn’s ‘Bull Field’ (Hurley 2019, 32).
The routes along Mass paths varied from place to place, mostly dictated by the topography of the land and the type of terrain. The route used would often be dictated by the time of year and the conditions of the ground. Some Mass paths were more established than others if there was only one way to go (Forde Interview 2019).
Mass Path 16
Mass path number sixteen runs parallel to the Lackagh Road from Keith Fahy’s house which was built in 1842 and is close by to a place known as Sceachuímhurchú which translates as Murphy’s hedge. A cobbler had his house and workshop nearby.
Link to bibliography: "A Well-Trodden Path: The History and Heritage of Mass Paths in Ireland"