In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Catholics in Ireland were forbidden to openly practice their religion and had to resort to open-air ceremonies where guards could be posted to look out for approaching Redcoats. There was a bounty on priests and especially on Bishops. But the ordinary Catholic practitioner was also at risk.
Eventually the harsh penal laws were slowly relaxed but it was well into the nineteenth century before Catholic Emancipation was granted.
Over the next hundred years – as Catholic chapels sprang up over the country – the sites of the original Mass Rocks were abandoned and lost.
Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1909 Edward McAteer, a poulterer from North Street in Newry came upon the Mass Rock at Ballyholland. In the nature of his business Edward had call to be in that area where fowl – hens, ducks and even turkeys – had the run of the land. Mr McAteer, along with one of the girls of the house there, set off to gather up the fowl. When sufficient birds had been collected the pair made their way back to the house.
The girl’s mother quizzed them as to exactly where they found the mass of hens to which the girl replied "Craig na Halt".
These words registered on Edward McAteer’s brain and on the way back to town in his pony-and-cart he played the words around in his mind. He was a member of the recently formed Gaelic League and he concluded that the words meant ‘Rock of the Altar’.
Edward approached his friend John Francis Small who was a solicitor and Member of Parliament and explained what had occurred. The pair approached Father McGrath, spiritual director of the Pioneer Council. The threesome went to Ballyholland the following Sunday and examined the site. The nature of the secluded site, with the appropriate shelfed rock and a commanding view of the surrounding countryside convinced them all that this was indeed the site of an original Mass Rock.
The first pilgrimage was under the auspices of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. Officials of Ballyholland Irish National Foresters agreed to have the spot marked with a roughly-hewn granite Cross. During the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 Mass was celebrated at the site for the first time in hundreds of years.
Many of us today recall summer pilgrimages to Ballyholland Mass Rock from Newry Town, complete with bands and a great social and religious festival atmosphere. There is still the occasional (lightly-attended) pilgrimage. The Civil Unrest from the late 60s onwards put an end to this venerated tradition.
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