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The bullet that stopped an illicit Irish Mass


Pile of spent .303 calibre cartridges, with one live cartridge in the foregroundOne night I was sitting with a friend whose people had fled County Donegal many years ago. More properly we were asked to leave, said my friend; or, more properly still, we were made to leave, by the bailiffs; most properly, if we are using exact words, we were evicted, and had to live in the wet lanes and fields, and the few of my people who did not starve to death, or die of the fever, made their way onto boats, hiding in the stench of scuppers and holds, and those who did not die at sea survived in the new lands, and eventually produced me.

But we remember, we remember. For example, he said, here is a story you should know.

One morning in Donegal, during the time when the penal laws forbade Catholics to assemble for Mass, a farmer herds his four black cows into a corral, along with one white one. This is a sign to his fellow Catholics as to where Mass will be held at noon; this sign of four and one means in a particular hedge under a hill. The people casually drift away from their work before noon and assemble silently around a rock where the Mass will be celebrated.

The priest is a fellow age 40. He gets halfway through the Mass, but just as he elevates the host, just as he lifts it to accept and accomplish the miracle, he is drilled between the eyes with a bullet from a British soldier on the hill. The priest falls down dead and the host flutters into the mud. The usual uproar then ensues and several men are arrested and the priest is buried in a pauper's grave.

The soldier was a man age 40 also, with a son about age ten. He finishes his year of duty in Ireland and goes home to Bristol. His son is a scholarly lad and goes to university and then into the ministry. At age 30 the boy is a curate, with all his future smiling before him, and there were many who thought he would be bishop before long.

But something happens and the boy grows more and more interested in how Anglicanism grew from Catholicism. This is a dangerous road and his superiors frown upon his inquiries, but he persists. When he is 35 he makes the break, and converts to Catholicism. Five years later he is a Catholic priest, to the immense dismay of his father.

One night the father, terribly frustrated and angry, loses his temper, and tells his son something he has never confessed to a soul, not even to his late wife, the boy's mother: that he shot and killed a priest just as the priest was about to celebrate the instant when Catholics believe the very essence of the Creator incomprehensibly enters a scrap of bread held high in the air.

The son covers his face with his hands as the father, shouting, says he never regretted that shot for an instant, and that he never made such a fine shot before or since, and that the priest and his fellow conspirators got what they deserved, just that, only that, exactly that.

A month later the son, having researched the annals of the constabulary for the incident, and visited the village, and asked its oldsters where hedge Masses were held in the dark days, finds the rock under the hill, and gathers the villagers one morning, and finishes the Mass that was interrupted 30 years before by a bullet. When Mass is over he and the villagers bury an unconsecrated host and a bullet in the earth by the rock, and then they all trail along back to the village.

Now that is a story you should know, said my friend, and you tell it yourself, when you can, and the more people who know it the fewer bullets there will be, perhaps. 

Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Bullet image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, Catholicism, Anglicanism, piléir



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Existing comments

And then God said, 'Let there be peace' . . and there was.

glen avard | 04 September 2013  

Thanks for this poignant story of injustice, courage, and grace. I can only imagine the fury of the ex-soldier as he thrust this horror story at his son, and the deep sadness and confusion of the son as he confronted the horror. What encourages me enormously is that the younger man did not allow his grief and sadness to paralyse him. Instead he was moved to an act of reconciliation (almost a vicarious one) and solidarity. You shared it in fine style, Brian.

Kim Baird | 04 September 2013  

I would have to ask whether this story is genuinely historically authenticated or one of those horrific urban legends which litter the history of religious warfare in Western Europe. Knowing and in no way excusing the cruelties; injustices; wars and persecutions against the native Irish, this is one that sticks in my craw. It's too pat; too well polished; every little piece fits so well together to make a point. Perhaps there was some hint of original factual basis to it. Perhaps, once long ago, a British soldier shot a hedge priest and it grew from there. That I can understand. This needs to be questioned before it is accepted.

Edward F | 04 September 2013  

Well, Edward, it was told to me by a priest I trust. If he told it to me, I believe it.

Brian Doyle | 05 September 2013  

There is multiple historical attestation of such martyred Soggarth Aroon[Gaelic: "Beloved Priest"] "Mass rock" A Mass rock (Carraig an Aifrinn in Irish) was a stone used in mid-seventeenth century Ireland as a location for Catholic worship. Isolated locations were sought to hold religious ceremony, as observing the Catholic mass was a matter of difficulty and danger at the time as a result of both Cromwell's campaign against the Irish, and the Penal Law of 1695. Bishops were banished and priests had to register to preach under the 1704 Registration Act. Priest hunters were employed to arrest unregistered priests under an Act of 1709http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/Mayo/Towns/Clogher/MassRock.jpg[Such historical realities are as verifiable as English counterpart viz."Priest hole" "Priest hole" is the term given to hiding places for priests built into many of the principal Catholic houses of England during the period when Catholics were persecuted by law in England, from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. http://www.stashvault.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/secret-room-door-passage-priest-hole.png

Father John George | 05 September 2013  

Thank you, Brian.

Edward F | 06 September 2013  

no name on a shot dead priest, reads like fiction. Portrays nothing of the sadness that Irish people genuinely suffered during those difficult times.

Catherine , sydney | 09 September 2013  

Hi, thank you for this inspiring story. When does the bread become the Body of the Lord? When the priest says the words of consecration, when he says "this is My Body", not when he raises the consecrated Host for us to adore - it is raised for us to adore because it is already the Lord. .

Michael Casanova | 10 September 2013  

This is a very moving story; however, at least one detail is anachronistic. In the 1700s when this story would have been set, bullets did not exist. The standard weapon was a musket, which fired shot (a lead pellet). By the time rifles which fired bullets were invented, the Penal Era was long gone.

Michael | 10 September 2013  

I remember this story from when I was at school over 55 years ago.Is it true or Irish legend? My ancestors came from Tyrone. Could I have more information about the story Thanks Chris

Christopher Develin | 10 September 2013  

It is a good story, like many stories in the Bible, the message of the story is more important than historical accuracy. It resonated with me. My great-great-grandfather was transported to Australia as a convict after being convicted of "unlawful assembly" in Ireland in 1838. He probably went to Mass.

Peter McArdle | 10 September 2013  

A very powerful piece of writing. Thank you for that. Not knowing the history behind it, I'm eager to learn a bit more. Is this true and when did it happen?

claire allen | 10 September 2013  

Michael that martyrdom occurred by bullet or pellet is purely academic the result was fatal. "The word "bullet" is sometimes colloquially used to refer to ammunition in general, or to a cartridge, which is a combination of the bullet, case/shell, powder, and primer." [Babylon Word Search]

Father John George | 11 September 2013  

It is pertinent to note that St Thomas Aquinas taught in his "Simma Theologica: "If the priest be stricken by detah or grave sickness before the consecration of our Lord's body and blood, there is no need for it to be completed by another. But if this happens after the consecration is begun, for instance, when the body has been consecrated and before the consecration of the blood, or even after both have been consecrated, then the celebration of the mass ought to be finished by someone else. Hence, as is laid down (Decretal vii, q. 1), we read the following decree of the (Seventh) Council of Toledo: "We consider it to be fitting that when the sacred mysteries are consecrated by priests during the time of mass, if any sickness supervenes, in consequence of which they cannot finish the mystery begun, let it be free for the bishop or another priest to finish the consecration of the office thus begun" Thus the "son" aptly finishes the Holy Mass 30 years later. I also completed a Mass interrupted by my ill PP, taken by ambulance [after last rites] one early morning, the congregation still waiting!

Father John George | 11 September 2013  

http://youtu.be/11Inc9i5KxQ The Donegal Hedge Mass in song-follow the script if the: "In a lonely mountain valley In the hills of Donegal, Lies one of Ireland's hallowed spots, Deserted and unknown. But few who write historic tales, Or wield the poet's pen, Can say with pride - they knelt beside, The Mass Rock in the glen. Our priests like wolves were hunted down, O God 'twas surely hard. That from the right to worship Thee, Thy children were debarred. But still they proudly bore, Thy cross Those simple mountain men - Were proud to share Thy Calvary, By the Mass Rock in the glen. No more on top of Croagh Hill The sentinel stands guard. Our ancient foes, the foreign yoghs, Have gone to their reward. And he who worships God in peace, May bless the fearless men, Who held the faith for Ireland By the Mass Rock in the glen. God Bless the glens of Ireland, Every rock and mountain pass 'twas those game glens, that under God, Preserved for us, the Mass. And if the day should come again, When Ireland calls for men, She will not find them wanting," By the Mass Rock in the glen. Written by Deirdre Kearney grandfather Felix Kearney of Omagh Co Tyrone. Donegal or Donegal Town is a town in County Donegal, Ireland. Its name, which was historically written in English as Dunnagall or Dunagall, translates from Irish as "stronghold of the foreigners" (i.e. the Vikings).

Father John George | 12 September 2013  

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