Dr Patrick Donnelly - The Bard of Armagh (4)

Hugh A Murphy describes the difficulties of celebrating mass in the C18th

In the year 1709 an act was passed requiring all priests to take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, in the person of Queen Ann, and renounce all support for the deposed Stuart line.

To take such an oath was completely against the conscience of virtually all Irish clergy, as it was in the case of Patrick Donnelly. Not only was it opposed to official Vatican policy but it would be seen as an endorsement by the Irish clergy of all the anti-catholic laws passed in the name of the Crown, by which they would now be bound by the spirit of the oath.

This they could not do. The final day for the swearing of the oath was given as March 25, 1710, a date referred to as 'the fatal day'. All priests who had not taken the oath by that day were to be hunted down and would be subject to the severest penalties. Substantial rewards were offered to anyone informing on such a priest.

In addition, the act provided that from that day forth anyone over the age of 16 could be forced to give evidence under oath of when and where he had last attended mass and who the celebrant had been.

This put priests in a very perilous position as their names and abodes were already known to the authorities from the registration of 1704, including Bishop Donnelly. It was no longer safe for any of them to celebrate mass in their normal places. Neither was it safe to say mass in public view of their parishioners, lest any of them would be forced to divulge under oath secrets which would be totally against their conscience.

For a period of time, priests had to resort to other practices. It became common for mass to be celebrated in private houses with the congregation outside in the yard where they could hear mass through the open window but not see the celebrant.

Alternatively mass was often celebrated at mass rocks with the parishioners stationed at a distance, or in a position, from which the celebrant could not be seen.

It is well known that Patrick Donnelly had a small mass house, close to his dwelling. Oral tradition indicates that it was in the area behind his house in the vicinity of the well. It is most likely that during this period he would have had to abandon this place for a time and say mass elsewhere.

The obvious place would have been the mass rock used by his predecessor Oliver Plunkett in the secluded hollow to the north of his house. This place was ideally situated being completely out of view from the main road, which at that time ran behind Doctor Donnelly’s dwelling from Mullaghbawn, down the present laneway and across the valley towards Ballard. In this regard there is an interesting, and significant, feature associated with the mass rock in question.

During the childhood of the Murphy family, James Stephen and Lilly, whose house is adjacent to this mass rock, there was a dry trench, approximately six feet wide and quite deep, running behind the ditch which forms the perimeter of the mass rock site. Their mother, always referred to this trench, the outline of which is still visible, as 'the hiding place'.

Given its open nature and its length it would not appear to have been the hiding place for a priest, but rather for a group of people. It would have been an ideal position for parishioners to place themselves when mass was being celebrated at the nearby mass rock. They would be close enough to hear the mass but the celebrant would be completely obscured from their view. If this is the case there is little doubt that the celebrant during those troubled years would have been Bishop Donnelly.

Doctor Patrick Donnelly died sometime in the year 1719, not 1716 as has been generally accepted in most publications. The last letter written by him to the Irish College in Paris, thanking the Paris clergy for an annual stipend granted to him to assist with his upkeep, is dated clearly in the body of the letter as May 1719. This letter was lodged in the Stipendiary’s office, close to the college, on June 10 1719.

The enormous esteem in which Patrick Donnelly was held is shown by the fact that the parishioners carried his body by night, each parish group handing him on to the next, the whole way back to his native parish of Desertcreat where his body now rests. His memory was later to be enshrined in the song The Bard of Armagh, still popular to the present day.

In the following year, March 27, 1720, Patrick Donnelly’s brother, Terence Donnelly, was appointed Bishop of Derry, the first Bishop to be appointed there for 119 years, since the assassination of the last Bishop in 1601.

There is an oral tradition in parts of South Armagh which holds that Terence Donnelly was actually consecrated Bishop of Derry in the small chapel, or mass house, of his brother Patrick Donnelly here in Doctor’s Quarters.

Hugh A Murphy, reproduced with kind permission of RoSA. All rights reserved.When I first heard this some years ago I was at first surprised. On reflection, knowing how close these men had been, it struck me that there was a distinct possibility that this could be true. It would be quite likely that Terence Donnelly knew this spot well and would have visited it, perhaps on many occasions, during the long tenure by his brother Patrick, especially during the latter years of his life. What more likely place could have been chosen, either by choice or necessity, than the place where his brother had laboured for twenty two years as Bishop of Dromore.

In relatively recent times, documents assembled in Rome by Fr Cathaldus Giblin pertaining to Irish matters, which provide considerable information on the last years of Doctor Donnelly’s life, verify this oral tradition. In these documents it states that the consecration of Terence Donnelly as Bishop of Derry took place 'in the little chapel situated in the hiding place of the most illustrious Patrick, Bishop of Dromore.'

And, so, the baton was handed on here to another member of the illustrious Donnelly Clan of Tyrone, as it was to continue to be for the rest of the 18th century, a century in which the Church history of the Donaghmore area is dominated by the Donnelly name.

Patrick Donnelly had managed during one of the worst periods in Ireland’s history to spend in all 46 years of his life as an ecclesiastic, moving through all the ranks of the Church from curate to Vice-Primate and Bishop, and still managed to die in his bed of old age. A remarkable achievement by a remarkable man whose importance in the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland is of great significance.

Down history’s tortured path he walked
By lanes of mountain stone,
Where moss now covers rocks once bared
To quick of flesh and bone.

And in these peasant fields he wrought,
His spade God’s spoken word
Dug deep in soil of love and pain
Where seeds of faith were sown.

These hillsides were his pillared Church,
These lanes his aisle and nave,
His life both word and naked deed,
His faith this altar laid.
Supported by the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation