Esker was a venue for the secret celebration of Mass during the Penal Law days. A Mass rock was located in a sheltered recess in the Esker hills. The spot was known locally as Gleann an Aifrinn (The Mass Valley) or Gleann an tSagairt (The Priest’s Valley). Strict security precautions had to be observed to prevent the priest being apprehended by the Red Coats. Sentries were posted on hilltops to scan the horizon for approaching soldiers. Priests travelled in disguise to avoid capture as there was a bounty on their heads. It was usual 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 if asked by the authorities if they had seen a priest celebrate Mass. Tradition has it that on one occasion the authorities were informed in advance of the priest’s schedule and somehow soldiers were able to infiltrate the congregation in disguise and arrest the celebrant and worshippers. Those apprehended were escorted under guard to an adjacent field called Gort an Bhreithiúnais (The Judgement Field) where on a protruding rock known as Carraig an Bhreithiúnais (The Judgement Stone/Rock) a mock trial was conducted and the mandatory sentence of death by hanging was imposed. An adjacent tree referred to as Sceach na gCloigeann (The Whitethorn Tree of the Heads) served as an improvised gallows.
Author: Pat Keaveny