Penal laws against the Catholic Church had existed in Ireland since the reign of Elizabeth I, but the most infamous laws were passed by the Irish Parliament in the 1690s into the early 1700s.
‘These Masshouses are generally mean thatched cabins; many, or most of them, open at one end, and very few of them built since the first of King George the First.‘
These words are from the official return made to the Irish government in December 1731 by Henry Maule, Bishop of Cloyne in the Established Church (Church of Ireland). The Irish House of Lords had ordered an inquiry into the ‘State of Popery’ in Ireland and each bishop was required to submit detailed returns. The House of Lords wished to know how effective the Penal Laws enacted since 1693 had been in curtailing the practice of Catholicism.There were a number of restrictions imposed by these laws. Catholics couldn’t build a place of worship that looked like a church, it couldn’t be located in sight of a church or beside a main road, and it couldn’t have a bell or belfry.
Interior of Mountjoy Presbyterian Meeting House in the Ulster American Folk Park gives an idea of the similarity to the Masshouses of the period, except for the dominant pulpit and box pews. Presbyterian marriages were not recognized by law, although Catholic marriages were actually recognized. Such were the bizarre anomalies of the Penal Laws.
Maule’s returns were published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1893. This publication proved fortuitous because the original returns were kept in the Public Record Office until until its destruction at the outset of the Irish Civil War in 1922. We owe a debt of gratitude to Rev Fr Patrick Hurley, PP Inchigeela, for publishing this document before the fire at the Public Records Office. .
In his report accompanying the returns, Maule noted that ‘It appears,then, from the Returns made by the Clergy that there are seventy Masshouses in the Diocese of Cloyne.’ He goes on to say that ‘The reputed Popish Priests officiating in these Masshouses are reckoned to be ninety-two.‘ In respect of the masshouses Bishop Maule noted that ‘Some new Masshouses have been attempted to be raised about three years ago, particularly at Cloyne and Charleville, within view of the Churches of those towns, and where no Masshouses were before. But the finishing of the same has been hitherto prevented by the care of the respective Magistrates of these places.‘ Here is clear evidence that in some locations Catholics had difficulty erecting a shelter for the altar so that they could celebrate Mass. It was a very hit and miss business – some landlords and magistrates allowed masshouses on their land, even new ones or the repair of old ones. Others simply refused to allow them – the Brodricks of Midleton were noted in this respect.
Bishop Maule also noted the absence of nunneries in the diocese, but he did record that one old Franciscan friar inhabited a thatched house adjoining the ‘Abbey of Buttevant‘ near Mallow. However, Maule noted that ‘strolling vagabond Friars‘ from Aglish in County Waterford, Kilcrea near Cork, Kinsale friary and even from Killarney in County Kerry regularly visited the diocese, to ‘do much mischief.’ This ‘mischief‘ included confirming ‘the Papists in their superstition and errors‘, marrying ‘Protestants to Papists contrary to Law‘, they haunted ‘the sick beds, even of Protestants; they endeavour to pervert them from our holy Religion‘, and finally ‘they are become greatly obnoxious even to the Papists themselves‘.
In all, Henry Maule calculated that there were 14,200 ‘Protestant souls‘ and 80,500 ‘Popish souls‘ in his diocese, reckoning at six to a family for both figures. There were 47 Protestant clergy and 92 Catholic clergy with one friar to serve these populations. The diocese could boast 44 churches in repair for use by the Established Church (compared with the 70 masshouses identified in the returns).
Tullyallen Masshouse, from near Dungannon, County Tyrone, was built in 1768 on land leased from the liberal Lord Charlemont. Here we see the west door, the plain white walls, standard sash windows, thatched roof and the chimney at the opposite end, indicating the schoolroom. The priest lived in a wing at the back. Surprisingly few masshouses survive in Ireland. Most were replaced in the early 19th century. In appearance it could be a Presbyterian chapel. The masshouses described in this post were usually open at the end. Tullyallen Masshouse is now preserved in the Ulster American Folk Park. (National Museums of Northern Ireland.)
An inspection of the parishes in Imokilly and Barrymore might give an idea of the conditions that Catholics faced throughout Ireland in observing their religion before 1750. The parishes are identified by their Anglican designation at the time. The words and spelling are those of Bishop Henry Maule. Here the parishes are here set out in alphabetical order.
Union of parishes of Aghada: one Masshouse with scarce a roof. Three Popish priests and two strolling Fryars haunt this and Cloyne.(Note the difficulty of maintaining the masshouse which served Whitegate, Rostellan, Aghada, Inch and Trabolgan. TH)
Ardagh: one old Masshouse. One Popish Priest. (Now part of Killeagh parish. TH.)
Ballynoe: one Masshouse lately repaired, no Popish Chappell. Two Officiating Popish Priests. (The reference to a chapel was part of the survey, presumably to discover which of the better off Catholic family was likely to be harbouring seminary priests. TH)
Bohillane: no Masshouse. No Popish Priest. (Bohillane was the medieval parish situated between Ightermurrough and Cloyne civil parishes. TH)
Carricktowel: one Masshouse, one Popish Chapel. One Popish priest, a Popish Priest Officiating in this Chappel. (It seems that either the Coppingers or the Cotters had a private chapel in their house near Carrigtohill. TH)
Castlemartyr: no open Masshouse. One reputed Popish Priest.
Cloyne: Masshouse began, but not finished. An officiating Priest, with a Coadjutor.(Maule had noted the intervention of the magistrates in preventing the completion of the Masshouse in Cloyne. TH)
Cloyne Priest: no Masshouse. The same priest with Youghal. (This is Clonpriest which had long been attached to the parish of Youghal. TH)
Dongorney: one Masshouse, One Popish Priest.
Eigthermarah: one large Masshouse. Two reputed Officating Priests. (This is the civil parish of Ightermurrough, now incorporated into Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge Parish. Presumably the large masshouse was required to serve Garryvoe and Bohillane too. TH)
Great Island: one old Masshouse. Two officiating Priests assisted by two Itinerants. (The old parishes of Templerobin and Clonmel on Great Island are given as one. It is not certain if the ‘itinerants’ were friars. TH)
Killeagh: one large Masshouse built (since King George the Second’s accession) on ye great high road. Two Officiating Popish Priests. (This was an extraordinarily daring situation since masshouses were prohibited beside main highways. This one in Killeagh had been built in the previous four years, since 1727. TH)
Killmacdonogh: one old Masshouse, One Popish Priest. (This was part of the modern parish of Ballymacoda. TH)
Kilmahon: no Masshouse. No reputed Popish Priest. (Kilmahon is Shanagarry, now part of Cloyne parish. TH)
Lisgoold:one Masshouse. One Popish Priest.
Midleton: no open Masshouse. One Popish Priest. (Clearly the Brodricks did not tolerate an open masshouse on their property – yet there was one in Midleton before the Chapel of St John was built in 1803. TH)
Rathcormack: one Masshouse. Two Popish Priests.
Youghal: one large Masshouse, without the walls of the town. One Popish Priest Officiating therein.(Youghal had quite sectarian politics at times in the eighteenth century. The Corporation and the magistrates refused to allow a masshouse within the walls of the town until St Mary’s church was built within the town walls at the end of the century. TH)
The simple interior of Tullyallen Masshouse shows the wooden altar in the middle of the back wall, open rafters and whitewashed walls. The confessional stands near the door. The building had a T-shape plan, the stem of the T being the sacristy and priest’s house. The better off parishioners paid a pew rent to sit directly opposite the altar. (NMNI)
It’s worth noting Bishop Maule’s comments about ‘reputed‘ priests and ‘no open Masshouse‘ for these refer to the need for Catholic clergy, and congregation, to be circumspect in some areas He also noted that Doneraile had ‘a kind of Shedd instead of a Masshouse,’ and Newmarket had ‘two old tattered Masshouses.‘
Source: Rev. Patrick Hurley PP, ‘The Past History of the Diocese of Cork’ in The Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Vol II a, Part III, 1893.
The reconstructed Mountjoy Presbyterian Meeting House in the Ulster American Folk Park. Note the similarity to the Tullyallen Masshouse, although the windows are smaller and higher. (NMNI)