Ballinderry in the Penal Days

In his short history of the Church of Ireland in Ballinderry, published in 1984, John Baxter of Ballydonnell wrote the following –

“The Church of Ireland, after the success of the Williamite cause in 1691, was in a privileged position, being united with the Church of England as the Established Church. Those who did not belong to the Church of Ireland were subject to the Penal Laws, which placed all kinds of restrictions on Roman Catholics and, to a lesser extent, on Dissenters. These Penal Laws were abolished in 1833. Under the Penal Laws Roman Catholic priests had to be registered. Many refused, as registration involved the acceptance of some objectionable provisions, and they carried on their duties in an underground manner, posing as travellers or farmers. Open-air services were conducted, illegally of course, at “Mass Rocks”. In 1756 Father Halfpenny, an unofficial priest in Ardtrea, posing as a farmer in Ballymilligan, was discovered conducting Mass in Ballyneil, and had to flee towards the comparative safety of the woods of Killetra. On the way he entered a field at Salterstown, where Samuel McMaster was digging potatoes. Seeing his plight, McMaster made him lie down in the furrow and covered him with potato tops. When the pursuing Redcoats were safely past, Father Halfpenny emerged from his hiding place. He was profuse with his thanks for the good deed, gave McMaster his blessing, and assured him that he and his descendants would prosper and survive many generations. So the McMasters have, to the present day.”

The Kernaghans were Presbyterians who lived and farmed in Ballinderry. On their farm, in the Altar Bog in Druminard townland, there was a Mass Rock. William Kernaghan, the last of the name, sold the farm in the 1920s and emigrated to America, settling in New York. From there he wrote the following letter to a Ballinderry parishioner in in 1976 –

22 February 1976

Dear Mr Donnelly

Your letter received. I regret not answering you sooner but I was in the hospital because I am now troubled with rheumatism, so much that I have to get a friend to write this letter for me. It is no old wives’ tale about mass being said in the altar bog – for it must have been there but is since back cut or baked away, leaving the meadow. The priest was Father Hapney [Halfpenny] who is buried in Eglish. My ancestors at the time were Barney [barony] constables – what their duties were I don’t know, but I am proud to think that they were broadminded enough to allow their Catholic neighbours to worship God in their field, while they kept guard on the hill – to see that the troops weren’t approaching. Besides, there was less suspicion of mass being said on the land belonging to a Protestant – especially a Barney constable – than would have been a Catholic farm. The good priest gave my family the blessing of longevity which was certainly answered – as my great grandfather was 107, my grandfather 104, an aunt 96, a cousin 96, another 92 – my father died young for us, being only 79. If the Lord spares me until the 17th of April, I’ll be 91. Regards the altar stone, I’m not sure. I should think it was probably a portable one that could be removed quickly in case of trouble. Anyway, I’m glad the people still remember. But anyway there is absolutely no doubt that mass was held there in those bad old days. I understand there’s plenty of money in Northern Ireland now – in my time money was scarce but we had something it can’t buy – peace.


William Kernaghan

William Kernaghan’s letter of 1976

In 1976 John Wilson of Druminard decided to sell his farm – the farm which had previously belonged to William Kernaghan. On hearing this news, Father Sweeney of the Loup asked John if he could have the Mass Rock; he proposed placing in it the graveyard adjacent to Loup chapel. John readily agreed and with his Devlin and McVey neighbours he oversaw the transportation of the Mass Rock from the Altar Bog to the Loup graveyard, where it can be seen today.

Brian Devlin of the Loup, whose father assisted John Wilson in moving the Mass Rock from Druminard in 1976, pictured beside it in 2013



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