The Penal Laws were passed from 1698 to 1715 ... they were repealed from 1783 to 1829.
The Irish Parliament sitting in Dublin, comprised almost entirely of a small group of wealthy, land owning members of the established church, passed severe far reaching penal laws applicable only to Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers and other religious denominations in Ireland.
Briefly, some of the laws stated that everyone must pay tithes to the established church, but only members of this church could vote, engage in politics or purchase land. The purpose in passing the laws was to ensure and maintain the position of power and privilege that they and their followers enjoyed.
Additional laws were passed forbidding Catholics to teach or practice their religion. These were intended to eliminate the faith from the country but the laws had the completely opposite effect.
At that time, before famine and mass emigration played havoc, Ireland's population was almost twice today's four million and a very, very large majority of these were Catholic and. determined to hold firm to the faith which they loved and cherished.
Various ways and means were adopted to defy the laws. Teachers taught the pupils in the open, at the sides of lanes and roadways. These were known as 'Hedge Schools', and many Irish scholars had their primary education at one of these 'Schools'.
Priests were outlawed and hunted and moved in secret around the country to perform their religious duties. Mass was celebrated in barns and buildings, sometimes lent by Protestant sympathisers who were also victims of the laws and very active in their opposition to them.
The most famous of all the places where Mass was celebrated were the Mass Rocks. These were located in remote valleys and on hillsides to allow worshippers to disperse quickly and avoid capture in the event of discovery by forces of the Crown.
In the artist's painting it is apparent from the priest's vestments, the holly around the cross and the seasonal weather that the Mass of the Nativity is being celebrated.
Dawn is breaking which means that the barefoot children, mothers with babes in arms, young and not so young men and women had travelled throughout the night to attend the Service.
What laws can crush faith so strong?
To the right of the picture the look-outs are warning of the approach of the soldiers or Redcoats so, even on Christmas morning, the hunt continued.
As Pope Pius XI reminded at the opening of the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932:
"We must never forget the Mass Rocks".
Note: I have been unable to trace H. Loughlin, the holder of the copyright (dated 1987) to the text above and to the painting described in it.
Any help in tracing him / her would be much appreciated. Email
I have recently received the following very helpful email:
From: Hugh M <>
Subject: Mass in Ireland's Penal Days
Date: Wednesday, 24 August, 2011, 6:46
Came across your site with he Penal Mass day pictures. (H. Loughlin).
Permission was given some years ago for 250 of these to be produced - I am fortunate enough to own one.
They were done during the "Troubles", partly fund raising for the Monastery and to remind us (Catholics) the depth of our faith.
I don't know if your still looking for Harry Loughlin or even if he is still alive (I think it's Harry) If you get in touch with the right person at the Monastery you may get a good lead on him.
Belfast, BT13 2RL
A Box of Christmas readings