Esker’s Penal Law Monuments

Tradition has it that Mass was celebrated clandestinely in Esker (Eskeromullacaun) during Penal Law times. A Mass rock was said to have been strategically located in a secluded nook in the Esker hills. The spot was known locally as Gleann an Aifrinn (The Mass Valley) or Gleann an tSagairt (The Priest’s Valley). The precise location of the Mass site isn’t currently known. It is believed that it was in an area which has since been excavated. There is no trace of the Mass rock now and Mass is not celebrated there. In Penal Law times strict security precautions had to be observed to prevent priests from being apprehended by the occupying forces known as Red Coats. Sentries were posted on hilltops to scan the horizon for approaching soldiers. Priests travelled in disguise to avoid capture. With a bounty on their heads they were prone to betrayal by unscrupulous informers. It was not unusual for a priest to wear a veil or for a curtain to be erected between the celebrant and the congregation so that worshippers would not feel compromised when asked by the authorities if they had witnessed a priest celebrate Mass. It appears that on one occasion the authorities were informed in advance of the priest’s schedule. As a result, soldiers were able to infiltrate the congregation disguised as worshippers and arrest the celebrant and some members of the congregation. Those apprehended were escorted under armed guard to an adjacent field called Gort an Bhreithiúnais (The Judgement Field) where on a protruding rock known as Cloch an Bhreithiúnais (The Judgement Stone) a mock trial was conducted and the mandatory sentence of death by hanging imposed. The stone slab, referred to as Cloch an Bhreitiúnais on which judgement was passed, is still visible in the landscape though the layout of the field in which it stands has changed over time due to evolving farming practices. The ownership of the field has also changed down through the years. A tree, long since decayed, said to have been located in a corner of the same field and referred to as Sceach na gCloigeann (The Whitethorn Tree of the Heads) served as an improvised gallows.

Author: Pat Keaveny