Feature

Stopping up a Mass Path
by Daniel Grace

 

The mass path – like many old features of rural life – has now been thrown on the dunghill of history. But for a people who had no means of travelling except by foot, the short-cut through the fields to chapel or school was a great boon. The mass path was probably not a right of way in the strict legal sense, but woe betide the landowner who tried to prevent the public using it either through ploughing it up or fencing it off. He might not suffer the rigours of the law, but the whole community would excoriate him for his despicable action. People would expect him to suffer the same type of ill-luck as would befall the man who interfered with a fairy fort.

Thoughts of the mass path were prompted recently when I came across a newspaper report of an incident that occurred some one hundred and fifty years ago at Carrig on the Tipperary side of the town of Birr. A highly indignant local correspondent informed the Tipperary Advocate newspaper of ‘the vile attempt to stop up the path to Carrig chapel’. The path in question lay through the fields of Rev. Joseph Marshall, a substantial Protestant landlord in the district. People on their way to mass on Sunday 8 June 1862 found a stile over which they normally crossed built up with stones and mortar. They also found a stout fellow standing guard, warning massgoers not to dare cross or they would be prosecuted for trespass. ‘Numbers contented themselves with leaping ditches and scrambling through hedges, but the most went round the road’, the correspondent informed readers. He also marvelled that no one had taken the fellow guarding the stile by the scruff of the neck and thrown him into the nearest dyke – a fate, he concluded, ‘very few will deny but he richly deserved’.

But it soon transpired that the decision to close off the mass path had not come from the Rev. Mr. Marshall. It had been concocted by his steward, herd and mason while he and his wife were absent from home, attending the International Exhibition in London. On his return the clergyman was angry at the affront offered to the Catholic parishioners and ordered the obstruction to be removed at once. He also severely reprimanded his underlings ‘who had sought the sanction of his name for this outrage on Catholic feelings’.

The correspondent included with his account a verse of twenty-four lines, consisting of twelve rhyming couplets. He had probably written it himself but since he did not attach his name to either letter or verse – only the letter “O’ – he must forever remain anonymous. The poem cleverly sets out what happened, ridiculing the three who tried to ‘bar the short cut to the chapel’. But it lavishes praise on ‘Parson Marshall’ who ‘has removed th’ obstruction’, praying that ‘he be blest with length of years’ and in death find no obstruction ‘to bar his passage to the sky’.

The steward, the mason, and the herd,
In conclave at the stile conferr’d;
Between the three they then agreed
To do this most outrageous deed.
We know, said they, t’will please the master
Papists to keep from path and pasture;
So with the matter we will grapple
And bar the short cut to the chapel;
Stop up the stile with stone and mortar
And send them round the road hereafter.
The stile was stopped; a sentry set,
None o’er the hedge or ditch to let;
And many did trudge round the road
To reach the holy house of God.
‘Tis well we need not have recourse
To clear the stile to main and force,
‘Tis well we’re saved from riot and ‘ruxion,
The Parson has removed th’ obstruction,
Which his official menials planned
When he sojourned to Saxon land;
For Parson Marshall give three cheers:
May he be blest with length of years;
In death may no obstruction lie
To bar his passage to the sky.

(Reference: Tipperary Advocate 14 June 1862)