Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column highlights the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
This semester while teaching a University-required class on literature and poetry, I often found myself combating what, at best, could be characterised as disinterest amongst many of my students. However, in a world in which reality television is a favourite pastime of many within my target audience, any poem with a bit of drama or romance was immediately looked upon with at least some degree of curiosity. Such was the case after reading a piece which has its roots in the tumultuous times of the 17th-century:
An raibh tú ag an gcarraig?
Nó an bhfaca tú féin mo ghrá?
Nó an bhfaca tú gile agus finne
Agus scéimh na mná?
(Were you at the rock?)
(Or did you see my love?)
(Or did you see the brightness, the fairness)
(And the beauty of the woman?)
Where was the rock? Who was this beautiful woman that appears to be object of the poet’s desire? Had she she met another man at the rock? The scandal of it all…at least in the minds of these first-year University students. Much to their bewilderment, they soon discovered that the poem wasn’t a romantic piece at all, but rather a thinly veiled message from one Catholic congregant to another, asking if he had been to the secret celebration of the Mass during the time of the Penal Laws. However, despite the student disappointment at the failed love-plot, one of their early questions had provided the perfect backdrop for a bit of context. What, or where, was the rock?
Within the Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service for Ireland, Mass Rocks are classified as ‘a rock or earthfast boulder used as an altar or a stone built altar used when Mass was being celebrated during Penal times (1690s to 1750s AD), though there are some examples which appear to have been used during the Cromwellian period (1650s AD).” The locations of such landmarks can still be found tucked away in secluded pockets of the countryside, where parishioners once practiced their faith, unbeknownst to the prying eyes of the authorities. In societal memory, the Mass Rock became synonymous with past persecution and resilience. So widespread is this notion that Pope John Paul II spoke of the “hunted priests” who had celebrated the Eucharist in Ireland’s “glens and forests” during his 1979 visit to the country. West Cork certainly isn’t short of such holy, historic sites. However, one of the region’s most intriguing connections to the Mass Rock lies far across the Atlantic, in the woods of the northeastern United States.
In 1780, about three decades after the secret celebration of the Eucharist was considered commonplace in the countryside, Jeremiah O’Callaghan was born near Macroom. Seeking to serve the spiritual needs of those in his community, he entered the priesthood, and was ordained by Bishop William Coppinger in 1805. An accomplished gaeilgeoir, he was first sent to tend to the needs of the island parish of Cape Clear, before being rotated to various parishes throughout County Cork, ‘from Skibbereen to Charleville’. His career took an unexpected turn in the autumn of 1819, when he was called in to deliver the Sacrament of Last Rites to a dying local merchant in Roscarberry. To the dying man’s astonishment, O’Callaghan refused to administer the Rite. Attempting to make sense of such a denial in his last moments, the man pleaded with the priest that he wasn’t guilty of murder, adultery, lying, theft, or any other capital offence. However, long before O’Callaghan stood at the merchant’s deathbed, stories of his business practices had come to his attention. As the priest later recalled, the merchant had “retailed his goods, that is, flax seed, worth not more than nine shillings, to the poor, in the spring, for sowing, and obliged them to pay in Autumn twelve shillings and sixpence; gaining therefore three shillings and sixpence, upon every nine shillings, for six months; or more than seventy-seven per cent per annum. Though that seed would be certainly of less value at the time of making the payment: for it would not sell at all in the autumn.” Deeming such a business practice as exploitation and extortion, O’Callaghan noted that he would not provide the man with the Last Rites until the additional money that he had made from interests was returned to his customers. Not only did the man comply with this condition, but pleaded with the outspoken priest to announce to his congregation that the returned funds were his last will and testament. Word of the incident spread quickly throughout the parish and beyond, and soon reached the ears of Bishop Coppinger, who promptly suspended O’Callaghan. In the months that followed, the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland continued to denounce his outspoken views on economic and social reform, and blocked his return to parish life. Without a flock to tend to, O’Callaghan set his sights further afield, relocating first to the Continent, and later to North America. It was in the latter region that he would cement his legacy. After brief stints in New York, Baltimore, and Montreal, during which he published a well-received book that reinforced his continued views on practices of economic exploitation, he settled in the archdiocese of Boston. It was there that O’Callaghan made his return to parish life. In 1830, Bishop Benedict Joseph Fenwick assigned him to Burlington, Vermont to establish the state’s first Catholic church. Making the most of the opportunity, O’Callaghan nurtured his own fledgling parish, known as St. Mary’s, while also traversing the wooded landscape to set up new parish communities all around the rugged region. However, at a time when sectarianism ran rampant in New England, not everyone approved of the missionary work that he was carrying out. St. Mary’s church was burnt to the ground by anti-Irish, anti-Catholic ‘nativist’ rioters in 1838. Undeterred, O’Callaghan painstakingly rebuilt it, and, perhaps invoking the gospel in which Jesus noted that his disciple Peter was the rock on which the church would grow even through moments of strife, renamed the parish St Peter’s. Under O’Callaghan’s guidance, the parish made a full recovery, and by 1840, he contentedly noted that the number of Catholics in Vermont had swelled to 5,000.
During the 1840s and 1850s, Father O’Callaghan lived out his days preaching to diverse congregations of settlers, Indian tribes, and famine immigrants in Vermont and Western Massachusetts. The original St. Peter’s parish that he rebuilt no longer stands. Yet, deep in the Vermont woods, hidden amongst the shrubs and shadows lies a Mass rock, inscribed with the words ‘In Memory of Rev. Father O’Callaghan who said mass on this stone in 1853’. In celebrating mass on the rock, maybe O’Callaghan was harkening back to the practice that was historically all too common during the tumultuous Penal times in his native West Cork. Regardless, it serves as a fitting monument today, as it can be said that despite many odds, O’Callaghan, who came to be referred to as the ‘Apostle of Vermont’, was the rock upon which the faith grew and flourished in the wilderness of a foreign land.