The Mass Rock at Tremone Bay, Inishowen, is a typical example of a hidden gem of our heritage that the tourist never sees. This was a sacred place for our ancestors: they came here to worship in secret and to bury their dead unbaptised children in the Reiligi on the headland above (reilig – a cemetery). Situated 200 m west of Boat Port, it is encased by a weather-beaten, gaunt arch, which has a close resemblance to the entrance of a Gothic cathedral. The stone steps leading to the site are still visible, worn by the feet of past generations. The priest had his back to the ocean as he celebrated Mass, while a lookout stood on the hillside above to warn of danger. The site is called locally the hAltoras (altóir – altar). It overlooks Port na hAltoras which served as a small port for fishermen but in times of danger offered a safe getaway. To the left is a beautiful natural arch, adorned with wild flowers. Looking seawards from the V of the bend on the Corkscrew Corner, the site is marked by a recently planted fir tree situated on the green pasture above.
In May, there was usually an abundance of seaweed, which in earlier times was harvested as kelp to be used in the manufacture of iodine and also produced acids. It was called the “May Fleeece” and was an important source of income. It was the job of the womenfolk to carry the seaweed in creels to the drying-walls for collection later. Each family in Ballyharry had access to their own strip of the beach, marked out by the rundale system of land ownership. The land strips are clearly visible today, some fenced off, others marked with odd stones. There are no cross markings on the rock, but I did find a memorial card belonging to John Canavan, who died in 2019. The Mass Rock still holds a place in the memory of local people, especially those who lived around Tremone Bay.
The hAltoras was a hidden refuge where Mass was said in penal times dating from the 1700s. Under the Penal Code, priests had to register. Those who refused went on the run, outside the law, with a price on their heads. The site was hidden from public view and also had an escape route seawards, possibly to Inishtrahull island if necessary. The graves of registered priests can be seen opposite McGrorys in Culdaff and in Cloncha churchyard.
Sadly, some of the most infamous priest hunters were native Irish, desperate to obtain their reward.
The present pandemic has succeeded in emptying our places of worship – something which the notorious Penal Laws failed to achieve.
Seán Beattie. Please share if you wish.