Saturday 24 December 2022

The Most Important Christmas Custom

We conclude the series on how Mass in the Penal Era in Ireland was presented to an Irish-American audience at Christmas time with a final offering from the Boston-based newspaper The Sacred Heart Review. In 'The Most Important Christmas Custom' the writer examines why the Christmas Midnight Mass was of such importance to the people of Ireland and suggests that it was because people were forced to gather before dawn during the penal era. He then goes on to draw a parallel between Our Lady and Saint Joseph being forced to retire to 'a cavern in the rock' when there was no room at the inn and the Irish people being forced by the penal laws to retire to underground caverns to celebrate the Mass. Thus once again we see it suggested that despite the harsh physical conditions in which the Christmas Mass was celebrated in Ireland at this time, the spiritual quality of the worship was something special:



"Of the Christmas customs of Catholic Ireland in its glory," wrote O. B. M. in the Catholic Columbian, a few years ago, "we have not even the records nor the traditions. All was destroyed. We have but the English records of laws that proscribed them, that intended to destroy the faith itself, and whose authors vainly thought they had succeeded. 

"But the faith survived in Ireland and Christmas in its essence survived with it. The laws of the persecutor aimed at the destruction of all things Catholic; but it singled out for special proscription the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catholic religion was for the time banished, outlawed. The celebration of the Mass was especially penalised. For 276 years the Mass was proscribed and yet the Mass never ceased to be offered. The people retired to the hillsides, to the glens, and to underground caverns and there often before the dawn assembled around the altar whereon the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered. 

"In those years the Christmas Midnight Mass was, therefore, the great central observance; and it remains so to-day in Ireland as it does not in any other country. Some readers may remember the picture which Carleton in his 'Willy Reilly' draws of a Mass in the penal days celebrated in an underground cavern. How could a Christmas come nearer to the literal repetition of Bethlehem than a Midnight Mass in Ireland under such conditions? The central fact of Christmas is the presence of God the Saviour in the flesh. Here the people had Him present upon the altar. It was to a cavern in the rock that the Blessed Mother and Joseph retired, 'because there was no room for them in the Inn.' Here the Catholic people retired because they were hunted from the towns and even from the face of the earth but they had the Saviour present with them all, visible to the eyes of faith. The shepherds did not see the Godhead but believed the word that was given them from heaven and adored Him present on the Altar. 

"It is not strange, therefore, that in Ireland the early Mass on Christmas day is the great central fact of the celebration. Three hundred years during which it was their only consolation have trained the people to this. In the country districts it is now celebrated not at midnight but in the very early morning. But to the young, especially in this northern latitude, five o'clock on Dec. 25 is equivalent to midnight."

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 54, Number 26, 11 December 1915.

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Friday 23 December 2022

Mass in the Penal Days

We turn away today from accounts in the popular religious press on the theme of Christmas Mass in Penal Era Ireland to a sermon given by Archbishop John Joseph Glennon (1862–1946), a native of County Westmeath who served as Archbishop of St. Louis from 1903 until his death in 1946. Below is an extract from a 1910 sermon he delivered in Saint Patrick's Church in Montreal during the Eucharistic Congress. Although the Archbishop is not directly addressing the specifically seasonal aspects of Mass at the Penal Rock, nevertheless he alludes to many of the features we associate with it, from the 'sad-visaged' priest to the necessity for lookouts and the potentially dire consequences of discovery. Indeed, it is because both celebrant and congregation are so intently focused on the most solemn part of the liturgy that the authorities are able to close in. I note too that like other commentators Archbishop Glennon favourably compares the natural outdoor setting of Mass in the Penal Days with anything a gilded cathedral had to offer:

Mass in the Penal Days
From Sermon of His Grace, Archbishop Glennon at Montreal.
September 10th, 1910 

Extract from Sermon delivered by His Grace, Archbishop Glennon, of St. Louis, in St. Patrick's Church, Montreal, on September 10th, 1910, during the Eucharistic Congress

"IT is not inopportune that in this Eucharistic Congress, this litany of nations in the praise of their King, that I should speak a word, that I should strike a chord, though it be in a minor key,  for the nation whose apostle is patron of this sacred edifice, and whose exiled sons have made possible its building. I would pass by the days of the schoolmen, and come to those latter days, namely the penal times in Ireland, the long weary years when the Catholic Church was persecuted, when a price was set on every 'Mass priest', when the churches were alienated, desecrated, burned; and the entire country pillaged and its people driven to the mountains or into the sea. And this dread visitation, unlike the storm that passes, unlike the plague that eats its lethal way, not for a season, but for over three hundred years, brooded over the land, its darkness lighted only by the ascending fires of burning homes, or the gleaming swords of the brutal soldiers. It is easy to serve in fair weather: the test of devotion comes when human life is the forfeit. The Irish people stood the test, their land to-day is hallowed by the ashes of a hundred thousand martyrs of the Blessed Sacrament, while the survivors, praying their 'De profundis' for the dead, cling still to the 'Mass priest', and their fealty tried by fire is all the truer to their King. 

It was during the burning days that the 'Mass priest', sad-visaged and hunted, gathered his flock out in the mountain fastness, or in the shaded valleys. Knowing that the enemy was near, outposts were set so as to guard the approach, and give the signal of threatening danger. The candles were lighted, the priest puts on the sacred vestments. It is not a scene to attract the eye of the worldling; there are no marble columns, no tabernacle of gold, no fretted roof, no dim visted aisle, no organ pealing, no glorious chant, no censer swinging. But for people such as these around, love crowns all, love transforms all. For them the censor swings, for, is there not the perfume of the wild flowers that bloom there, of purple heath, of fragment hawthorn; vistas, there are, too, just as nature made them in rich nature's temple, for down the valley are the dim aisles of the forest trees. And for a sacrificial chant, they have the song of birds, and the murmur of their own heart's love, the love of Irish hearts for their faith and their Lord; of all others on this earth that we know of, the tenderest, the truest, the best.

Yet little time have they now to think of those things. The Mass is commenced. The priest has invoked the mercy of God— 'Lord have mercy on us'; he prays for the living and the dead. He reaches the solemn act that brings the Saviour down to His poor people. With bowed heads and reverent, the people murmur words of welcome, satisfied that, though by all the world forgotten, yet will He not forget them.

But why the alarm? Alas, these moments absorbed in worship are taken advantage of; the enemy, the soldiers of the King, are around them. The cry, repeated in the long ago, is heard again, We have no king but Caesar.' 'Down with the Mass'— 'Death to the Mass priest'— it is the tragedy of Calvary again, only to the tragedy is added the desecration. The blood of the Saviour and his priest flow together, and the dying lips of the priest whisper their last words on earth, 'Go, the sacrifice is over.' Quite true it is that the penal days in Ireland have ended long ago, and if the memory of them remain, it is not in bitterness nor revenge. No, they are thinking now, not of their persecutors, but how best they may honor and serve in the days of their religious freedom the King they followed during the long night of their persecution. Now they will restore him to the churches they build, churches to take the place of their older temples, from which He has been driven, and they have been despoiled. They will cross the seas bearing the standard of their King."


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Thursday 22 December 2022

The Sweet Christmas Bells

We are staying with the Boston-based newspaper The Sacred Heart Review for yet another illustration of how the image of Mass at Christmas time in Penal Era Ireland was presented to a late nineteenth-century Irish-American audience. The paper's 'Our Irish Letter' column offered its readers a romantic and sentimental vision of the old country where Irish exceptionalism is reflected in the claim that 'nowhere is the festive season more religiously observed than in this Catholic isle' because no other country has suffered quite as much as we have in order to do so. The focus of this 1894 piece, 'The Sweet Christmas Bells', by M.J. Roche, is therefore not so much on the image of the Mass Rock but rather on the history of the persecution that lay behind it. The reader is invited not to weep the penal days but instead to hail the courage, endurance and determination on the part of the Irish people and their heroic priests which allowed the faith to survive. Most interestingly of all is that the article concludes with a roll-call of Irish clerical martyrs which the author imagines being read out 'at many an Irish fireside on Christmas night' recalling a time 'when the history of the Irish struggle was written in the best, the purest, the holiest blood of Ireland':


Christmas is again with us, and "Our Irish Letter" of today extends to its thousands of readers the compliments of the season — A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, with many joyous returns. No need to remind our readers that "Our Irish Letter" columns, week after week, year after year, occupy Old Ireland's corner of the Sacred Heart Review. Scarcely a noteworthy incident has transpired in the Old Land since "Our Irish Letter" made its initial bow to our readers that has not been recorded in its columns. It's aim has been to edify and instruct while it faithfully depicts the Irish news, and strives to infuse into the minds of its readers an ardent and undying love for the faith and land of St. Patrick. Ever ready to raise its voice in behalf of Old Grannuale it has never been found wanting to spring to the aid of any patriotic movement. It has done good and enduring work for the Home Rule cause, and that its services are recognized and appreciated may be judged from the fact that it is invariably one of the first to be called upon for assistance when any project for the advancement of the Irish cause is launched forth by the Irish patriots of Massachusetts. But it is not our purpose to dwell upon politics while the merry Christmas bells are ringing forth their glad message of 'Peace on earth and good will towards men.' Accordingly we shift a slide, and, lo, a wondrous transformation is effected and we find ourselves transported by some invisible power to the Old Sod of the Isle of Saints. 

What a happiness it is for us to be privileged to pass Christmas-tide in dear old Ireland, for nowhere is the festive season more religiously observed than in this Catholic isle. Despite the cruel and oppressive laws of tyrants enacted for centuries, religion flourishes there as vigorously today, thank God, as it did before the penal laws. The blood of our forefathers shed copiously in streams for the faith, the sacrifices they were ever ready and willing to make for the sake of religion, have borne good fruit. Ireland's history is the glorious story of heroic and saintly lives, it brings before us the deeds of her devoted and patriotic sons, and depicts the bright picture of her martyrs and confessors and her gifted students. It tells us how they kept alive in dark and dismal caverns and on the mountain tops the torches of science and sanctity. It points out to us the glorious deeds of the Irish priesthood and shows us what they suffered for love of their country and religion. It incites us to purity of life and nobility of action and teaches us to prize and cherish the holy faith handed down to us at the cost of toil and blood and tears. It also teaches us that — 

We must not weep the penal days 
That sanctified our hills and plains; 
We must not shudder when we gaze 
At men that feared not death nor chains; 
In blood and tears 'neath penal laws 
Saint Erin's heart was purified; 
For holy Faith and Freedom's cause, 
Our martyred nation grandly died. 
When peaceful bloomed our garden land 
The hermit and the monk arose 
And every vale heard virgin-band 
Sing love of God, at evening's close; 
But when our air with war was red, 
From cells and caves Truth's soldiers came 
And every rock a glory shed, 
Around some Irish martyr's name. 
We will not weep the penal days, the days of the ruin of the dear old convents of the Irish Franciscans and Dominicans, when the inmates were driven forth at the point of the sword and scattered like sheep over the land. We will not weep the penal days which sorely tried Ireland's faith and Ireland's religion. Five pounds was set as a price upon the head of the friar or priest —the same price that was set upon the head of a wolf. They were hunted throughout the land, and when they fled for their lives from their convent homes, the Irish people opened their hospitable doors and said, "Come to us, saggarth aroon." Scattered with no shelter but the canopy of heaven; with no Sunday sacrifice to remind the people of God; no Mass celebrated in public and no Gospel preached; and yet they succeeded for three hundred years in preserving the glorious Catholic faith. The venerable ruins of the Irish abbeys and monasteries tell to this day the tale of Ireland's woe, of Ireland's sorrow. The persecution of the Irish friar, the Irish monk, the Irish priest brought sorrow and affliction to everybody in Ireland. There were upwards of eighty convents of religious —Franciscans and Dominicans —in Ireland before the penal days, and about a thousand priests of each order. Henry began his persecution and was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth and at the close of the latter's reign, how many of the thousand Dominicans were there left in Ireland, do you think? There were a thousand before and only four of them left— only four. And all the rest of these Irish friars had stained their white habits with their hearts' blood shed for God and for their country. It took Queen Bess twenty years to try to plant the seedling of Protestantism on Irish soil. The ground was dug as for a grave, the blood of the nation was poured in to warm the seed and bring it forth. It never grew; it never raised its tiny head above the soil, it never bloomed. Protestantism could not find root on Irish soil and Ireland was as Catholic the day that Bess breathed her last at Hampton Court, gnawing the flesh off her hands in despair, and blaspheming God — Ireland was as Catholic that day as she was the day Henry the Eighth vainly commanded her first to become Protestant. 

With Elizabeth's death came a little breathing time, and in fifty years there were 600 Irish Dominican priests in Ireland again. They studied in Spain, in France and in Italy. These were the youth, the children of Irish fathers and mothers, who cheerfully gave them up, although they knew almost to a certainty that they were giving them to a martyr's death; but they gave them up for God. Smuggled out of Ireland, they studied in these foreign lands; and they came back again by night, and by stealth, and they landed upon the shores of Ireland; and when Cromwell came he found six hundred Irish Dominicans upon the Irish land. Ten years after — only a decade of years had passed — and again the Dominican friars assembled to count their numbers, and to tell how many survived, and how many had fallen. Only one hundred and fifty were left out of the six hundred; four hundred and fifty had perished — had shed their blood for their country or had been shipped to the Barbadoes as slaves. These are the thoughts recurring to us as we tread the soil of holy Ireland at Christmastide. Small wonder then that the Irish people are so proud of their faith. Do not the very moss-grown stones of the Irish ruins speak of their noble martyrs? As we trudge o'er hills and fields to the midnight Mass on Christmas eve, the grey walls of the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries, glistening in the moonlight, remind us how the Irish people gave up everything they had for years and years, as wave after wave of persecution rolled over them, rather than renounce their glorious faith or their glorious priesthood.

At many an Irish fireside on Christmas night is told the story of Dominick Collins, the faithful son of St. Ignatius, taken by the heretics in the fort at Berehaven and hanged by order of the cruel Mountjoy at Cork; of Maurice Eustace, young, generous and brave, executed at Dublin on pretense of treason against Elizabeth; of Father James Boyton, slain by the followers of Inchiequin at the sieege of Cashel of the Kings, while he administered the Sacrament to the dying defenders of the Holy Rock — Collins, Eustace, Boyton — these and hundreds of others of their order remind us of what the Jesuits did and suffered for Ireland in the penal days. The fate of Thaddeus O'Connell recalls the heroism of the Augustinians; Mulcahy of Clonmel, O'Kelly of Connaught, Fitzpatrick of Ossory vividly recall the patriotism and self-sacrifice of the secular clergy. The members of religious orders and the secular clergy were faithful to Ireland and freely poured out their blood for the cause of religion and freedom, and the Irish people suffered and fought and died like true martyrs, but faithful above all were the noble prelates of the Irish Church. Bishop after bishop, archbishop after archbishop in all the sees of Ireland died gloriously for the faith and the liberty of the Church of St Patrick. And it is to this old Catholic land that "Our Irish Letter" is devoted, to this old Catholic land it has taken its readers in spirit to the midnight Mass in the Irish chapel, to the Irish firesides where the turf blazes so brightly, and the joyous greeting of "God save all here" is heard every time a new-comer crosses the threshold to listen to the glorious tales of Irish faith and patriotism when the history of the Irish struggle was written in the best, the purest, the holiest blood of Ireland. 

M. J. Roche.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 13, Number 5, 22 December 1894.

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Wednesday 21 December 2022

The Midnight Mass: A Christmas Incident of the Penal Days in Ireland

Yesterday we looked at the nineteenth-century lithograph 'A Christmas Mass in the Penal Days - The Alarm! containing all of the iconic elements of the people huddled together in the snow while the lookouts rush to warn the priest to flee from the approaching soldiers. Over the next few days we will look at some further examples of how this symbol of the Penal era appeared in the popular religious press, especially that aimed at Irish expatriate communities. We begin with a piece by the Irish-American poet Denis Aloysius McCarthy (1871-1931), who was based in Boston and a regular contributor to its Sacred Heart Review.  The Irish saints and martyrs were a favourite subject of McCarthy's poems, selections from which were often quoted by other writers in an age which enjoyed epic poetry.  In the article below, published in the December 25, 1897, edition of the Sacred Heart Review,  the writer begins with a poem telling of a hunted priest battling the winter wind and trying to evade the authorities to reach his lonely altar beneath the hill. Alas, in this case the warning to flee comes too late and the unfortunate soggarth will say the Midnight Mass no more. It is interesting to see that the poet suggests that despite the makeshift outdoor setting, the quality of the worship at the Mass Rock surpasses anything found at a cathedral. He then goes on to offer a sentimental reflection on what it is to be away from the old country at this time of the year. He seems keen to point out though that such nostalgia is not a denial of all the benefits which America has to offer and stresses the loyalty of the Irish to its banner of liberty. Indeed, McCarthy dedicated his 1906 anthology Voices from Erin 'To all who in their love for the new land have not forgotten the old':




With stealthy step across the wold 
The hunted soggarth swiftly goes; 
The winter wind is blowing cold 
And round him drives the winter snows; 
But little does he heed the wind, 
The blinding snow, the dark morass; 
With many an anxious glance behind 
He goes to say the midnight Mass! 
For hours, with many a devious turn. 
He's led the chase by moor and fen. 
He's seen the village tapers burn, 
But dare not seek the haunts of men, 
For close upon his track have pressed, 
(His holy Faith the only cause) 
With horrid oath and ruffian jest, 
The minions of the Penal Laws. 
And woe to him, should evil hap 
Into their hands the priest betray; 
The raven o'er his corse should flap 
Her sable wings before the day! 
But fainter now have grown their cries, 
Their shots more distant than before, 
And hopes within his heart arise 
That he has baffled them once more! 
Ah, vain the hope of baffled foes! — 
A few more crafty than the rest 
Still dog his steps as on he goes, 
Still keep the chase with eager zest; 
But, all unconscious, fares he still 
By tangled wood and torrent dread 
To where, beneath a lonely hill, 
The Mass in secret may be said. 
"Oh, failte! failtel" —round him throng 
The remnant of his scattered flock, 
And Mass with neither chant nor song
 Is offered from a fallen rock; 
And never at cathedral shrine 
Were purer spirits wrapt in prayer
Than those who worshiped the Divine 
Before that lonely altar there. 
But, hark! The rite is scarcely done 
When rings a cry upon the breeze; 
"Up, Father — for your life — and run!" 
The soggarth rises from his knees— 
Too late! One muttered prayer to God, — 
A volley shakes the mountain-pass,— 
The priest lies dead upon the sod 
He'll say no more the midnight Mass! 

At Christmas time all hearts turn homeward. The present is forgotten, the future ceases to allure, and the past is before us again in all its brightest lights and tenderest shadows. We forget the long, dreary years of separation, the vicissitudes of time, the strange scenes and faces with which we have become familiar during many a day of exile; and, once more, the old home, the family circle, unbroken yet by absence, the loving faces of parents and of brothers and sisters, are presented to our gaze; and few indeed are the hearts that do not beat faster, and few are the eyes that are not dimmed with tears at the memory of old times. 

To the Irish exile, particularly, this season of Christmas is one of remembrances that are composed of mingled joy and sorrow. For Christmas in Ireland, as in no other country, is a day sacred to family life and love. It would seem, indeed, as if upon that land, ever faithful to the Church through ages of persecution,the Holy Family had showered the richest spiritual blessings, for the affection that obtains in pious Irish households among the various members of the family is akin to that love which bound together the three principal actors in the great mysterious drama at Bethlehem. It is therefore only natural that the thoughts of the Irish exile turn back to the old scenes that he may never again see in reality, and to the old friends whose hands he may clasp again only In dreams and "tears of memory," shed at Christmas time over the past are evidence of the deep and holy feeling for home which God has implanted in the hearts of the Irish people. 

The new country, with all its broadening influences, with its atmosphere of freedom, and the possibilities of material advancement that it affords, is very dear to the sons of the Green Isle who have sought and found shelter from oppression and bitter poverty beneath its starry flag. They have increased and multiplied. Their blood courses in the veins of the best and bravest of the citizens of the great republic. In peace they have tilled the fertile lands, and reared upon the boundless prairies the homes that were denied them in the land of their birth; and in war they have been the to grapple with the foes of their adopted country, shedding their blood freely in defense of a banner that is to them the symbol of liberty for themselves, and hope for the old land over the water. 

But the hearts go backward across the leagues of the Atlantic and the years of absence, to their motherland at Christmas. They hear Mass again in the little chapel. They see the gray-haired priest at the altar. They listen to the Christmas hymn of the humble village choir, than which the grandest cathedral chorus is, to them, not more solemn and inspiring. And around them are the friends of their youth, unchanged. 

Of course it is only a dream. But who can say that this return to old times does not make the hearts of the exiles better and braver, bringing them, through home ties, more close to the Babe of Bethlehem, in Whose cause their fathers bore persecution unflinchingly, and strengthening them against the enemies of their race and creed, who would rob them of their love for faith and fatherland. 

D. A. McC.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 18, Number 26, 25 December 1897.

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Tuesday 20 December 2022

A Christmas Mass in the Penal Days


If there is one iconic image which can be said to encapsulate the Irish Catholic experience in the Penal era, then surely it must be that of the people gathering at a Mass Rock while lookouts keep watch for the authorities. The one above is called  'A Christmas Mass in the Penal Days - The Alarm! ' by Dublin cartoonist and illustrator John Dooley Reigh (1851-1914) and was first issued as a supplement to the December 20 issue of the newspaper United Ireland in 1884. [1] This late nineteenth-century lithograph has had a deep and long-lasting influence on the Irish Catholic imagination, and framed copies of it can still be found in Irish homes. In the article below, published almost thirty years later for an Irish-American audience, it is clear that the image has already resonated as a symbol of endurance and unbreakable commitment to their faith on the part of the Irish people.  Indeed, 'Midnight Mass in the Penal Days' became a staple among the articles in the popular religious press at this time of the year. One assumes that a picture of an open-air Mass on a balmy summer evening would not have achieved the same impact as this snow-covered setting.  The anonymous writer of the short piece in The Sacred Heart Review below certainly enters into the scene and almost imagines himself present as 'the bitter winter wind drives the cold sleet before it in stinging gusts' and 'the worshipers shiver in the rush of the pitiless blast'. Yet it is the willingness of the Irish people to endure these hardships in order to attend the Mass which is the reason why the faith survived and which leads the writer to conclude that there is a lesson here for us all:


When people begin to lose reverence for the Mass, they soon begin to lose their faith altogether. Be faithful to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, we repeat, and you will infallibly save your soul. If you are cold and distant and careless toward these essential things you are surely on the broad road that leads to destruction. Why was it that Ireland got the wondrous privilege of preserving the Faith through so many long and blood-stained centuries? asks the Catholic Register and Canadian Extension. It was because of the devotion of her people to the most holy sacrifice. It is a cold heart that does not thrill at the heroic apostolic piety and zeal suggested by the picture of the "Midnight Mass in the Penal Days." Under a protecting bush, in the shelter of a rock, or in a cave in the hillside, are gathered the faithful few. The bitter winter wind drives the cold sleet before it in stinging gusts. The priest is at the rude altar, which is nothing more than a rockhewn shelf. The worshipers, close about him, shiver in the rush of the pitiless blast. On the outer hills and peaks, occupying posts of observation, are the sentinels. They are listening for the tramp of armed men, and watching for the deadly glint of bayonets in the chill white moonlight. For the "priest hunter," with his murderous and blasphemous crew, is abroad, and only the mercy of God can protect his prey. The tinkle of a little bell is heard, and every head is bowed, while on the wings of the night is borne the whispered welcome of Him Who has come down into their midst to comfort them: "Cead mile failte!"— " A hundred thousands welcomes, O Christ, the Son of the Living God!" Never in the history of men did the world witness anything more touching, more devoted, more sublime, than the faith and love of the Irish peasant and his priest for the mystery of the most holy sacrifice of the Mass, that merited for Ireland her perseverance in the true faith; and it is devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament that will merit the same glorious and priceless gift for ourselves. Let us be wise in good time and take the lesson to heart.

The Sacred Heart Review, Volume 49, Number 21, 10 May 1913.

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 [1] M. O'Sullivan and L. Downey, 'Mass Rocks', Archaeology Ireland (Spring 2014), p.26

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