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May 2019
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2005-09-20 Easkey

When a religion, practice, way of life or sport has no other option than to go underground, it only serves to sprout seeds below the surface, which end up flowering, and propagating even further afield. During Penal Times in Ireland, Catholicism was driven underground.


After the Williamite victory, Catholic church properties were confiscated and the clergy were forced into hiding. The aim was to diminish Catholic influence as much as possible, and to neutralise Catholics in the public sphere. The Penal Laws set out to anglicize Ireland and its natives.


The teaching of the Catholic faith was banned in schools, which led to the setting up of the famous `hedge schools'. A candle in a window at Christmastime during Penal Times signalled to the passing priest that the home was a safe home to enter. But even mass itself had to be celebrated in out-of-the-way places : rocks were often used as makeshift altars. Signs and signals were used to indicate that mass was taking place, anywhere from a hillside to a valley - anywhere that might facilitate an easy escape in an emergency. Mass-goers would often walk through streams to the mass location, so as not to leave footprints behind. Catholicism had been forced underground. Catholics had become the dispossessed, and yet, ironically, became even more united.


One such Penal `Mass Rock' (Carraig an Aifreann) still stands by way of a sort of `Emancipation Memorial' at Mass Hill, not far from Lough Easkey. The `Stations of the Cross' on the way to this Mass Rock resemble the ascent to Calvary. The location of this Mass Rock was, and is undeniably remote.


Lough Easkey sits about 200 metres above sea level, and is wild, barren, remote, but overwhelmingly beautiful - I had not been there for quite some time.


Shamefully, it is yet another part of Sligo I have unintentionally overlooked in the past. As I drove up from Dromore West and Temleboy, I began to notice once again that my right index finger began to take on a life of its own. With my right hand at two o'clockon the steering-wheel, every time I passed a pedestrian, or another fellow-driver, my index finger gave an involuntary salute. I have noticed this happens me on Irish country roads, perhaps especially in the West of Ireland.

Endless acres of peat bog stretched for miles, prepared for summer turf-cutting. On the edge of this alluringly empty landscape stands an old ruined hunting lodge, which would have been used by the `landed gentry', in the days when grouse were plentiful, before the heather quality disimproved. There are still grouse and snipe in this bird reserve, but they are sadly somewhat elusive.

I have spoken in the past of the perfect tranquility and breathtaking beauty of Lough Talt, and its stimulating lake-side walk, beneath the mountain on the far side of the lake. But somehow, Lough Easkey, due in part to its remoteness, redefines tranquility. Of course, Easkey village back down on the coast is another story, and, especially in the summer months, is alive and buzzing. As its name suggests, Easkey (Iascaigh) is famous for its fishing, perhaps primarily for salmon and sea-trout in the summer. Surfing of course is huge in Easkey, as are the waves. There is no real beach as such, but Easkey has nonetheless built up a well-respected international reputation as a surfing hotspot. The picturesque 15th Century Roslee Castle, on the Easkey coastline, was home to the McDonnells, who were `Gallowglasses' (Scottish mercenary soldiers) in the service of the O'Dowds of Tireragh.


Of course no visit to Easkey would be complete without passing by the `Split Rock'. Allegedly, Fionn MacCumhaill made a bet that he could throw a rock from the Ox Mountains to the sea. A brave challenge, but sadly, he missed. In my opinion it was a very good effort. Fionn didn't think so and was upset. In his anger, he split the rock in half with his sword. My guess is, however, that the boulder may have been deposited there by a retreating Ice Age glacier.

From the Hawk's Rock, to Hungry Rock, to the Mass Rock to the Split Rock, this is a part of our county I am determined to get to know better.