The bullet that stopped an illicit Irish Mass

The story that follows is from my friend and writer extraordinaire, Brian Doyle. It was published in Eureka Street 4 Sept 2013

One night I was sitting with a friend whose people had fled County Donegal many years ago. More properly we were asked to leave, said my friend; or, more properly still, we were made to leave, by the bailiffs; most properly, if we are using exact words, we were evicted, and had to live in the wet lanes and fields, and the few of my people who did not starve to death, or die of the fever, made their way onto boats, hiding in the stench of scuppers and holds, and those who did not die at sea survived in the new lands, and eventually produced me.

But we remember, we remember. For example, he said, here is a story you should know.

One morning in Donegal, during the time when the penal laws forbade Catholics to assemble for Mass, a farmer herds his four black cows into a corral, along with one white one. This is a sign to his fellow Catholics as to where Mass will be held at noon; this sign of four and one means in a particular hedge under a hill. The people casually drift away from their work before noon and assemble silently around a rock where the Mass will be celebrated.

The priest is a fellow age 40. He gets halfway through the Mass, but just as he elevates the host, just as he lifts it to accept and accomplish the miracle, he is drilled between the eyes with a bullet from a British soldier on the hill. The priest falls down dead and the host flutters into the mud. The usual uproar then ensues and several men are arrested and the priest is buried in a pauper’s grave.

The soldier was a man age 40 also, with a son about age ten. He finishes his year of duty in Ireland and goes home to Bristol. His son is a scholarly lad and goes to university and then into the ministry. At age 30 the boy is a curate, with all his future smiling before him, and there were many who thought he would be bishop before long.

But something happens and the boy grows more and more interested in how Anglicanism grew from Catholicism. This is a dangerous road and his superiors frown upon his inquiries, but he persists. When he is 35 he makes the break, and converts to Catholicism. Five years later he is a Catholic priest, to the immense dismay of his father.

One night the father, terribly frustrated and angry, loses his temper, and tells his son something he has never confessed to a soul, not even to his late wife, the boy’s mother: that he shot and killed a priest just as the priest was about to celebrate the instant when Catholics believe the very essence of the Creator incomprehensibly enters a scrap of bread held high in the air.

The son covers his face with his hands as the father, shouting, says he never regretted that shot for an instant, and that he never made such a fine shot before or since, and that the priest and his fellow conspirators got what they deserved, just that, only that, exactly that.

A month later the son, having researched the annals of the constabulary for the incident, and visited the village, and asked its oldsters where hedge Masses were held in the dark days, finds the rock under the hill, and gathers the villagers one morning, and finishes the Mass that was interrupted 30 years before by a bullet. When Mass is over he and the villagers bury an unconsecrated host and a bullet in the earth by the rock, and then they all trail along back to the village.

Now that is a story you should know, said my friend, and you tell it yourself, when you can, and the more people who know it the fewer bullets there will be, perhaps.

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