The Priest’s Chair

by Madeline McCully
Audio version recorded by Madeline McCully

            The Priest’s Chair known also as the Glenshane Mass Rock, is just north of the peak of Bohilbreaga near Glenshane forest. The mountain is part of the Sperrins, a range of mountains that stretch from Strabane in County Tyrone in the south, northwards to Limavady and beyond in County Londonderry. One of the hills was named Bohilbreaga Hill which has its origins in a legend of the Penal Times of Ireland.

            These turbulent times of the 17th and 18th centuries had a terrible effect on the Catholic population. The Penal Laws enforced by the Crown, banned Catholics from holding any position in armies, in law courts or in town corporations and they were forbidden to carry arms. They were not allowed to have schools nor own land and were forced to pay dues to the established Anglican Church.

            In the darkness of the Penal Days, as these times were called, they were forbidden to attend Mass so it was said in secret, in the mountains, houses, sheds and even caves. The priests faced persecution if they violated the law and soldiers, called Priest Hunters, searched the hills and valleys looking for them. If they caught a priest he was usually sentenced to death by hanging. Often, he would be offered mercy if he named the people who sheltered him but most would rather die for their faith than betray any family.

            The local people would often ask young boys to stand guard as lookouts when the Mass was being offered. The reason for this was, if several people were seen moving to or from an area it was a tell-tale sign that a priest had sneaked in to serve his willing but persecuted congregation. Another sign that was used to let people know that a priest was present was a lit candle in the window. Under the cover of darkness, the local people could congregate with less chance of being caught.

            The tale behind the legend began when Redcoats, based in the vicinity of Limavady, were dispatched to hunt down a priest who travelled the countryside saying Mass and who had eluded capture on several occasions. They were pointed in the direction of Craig-na-shoke, known locally as the Eagle’s Rock, a steep cliff face overlooking the valley. It was a difficult climb and the soldiers’ footwear was not suitable for mountain terrain. When they came across a young boy who had been posted on top of the mountain as a lookout they questioned him, demanding to know where the priest was saying Mass. Threatened by a bayonet at his throat he pointed the way to them, but in a different direction from the priest’s Mass Rock thus protecting the priest from capture and saving his life and essentially the lives of those who were attending the Mass.

            The mountain immortalises a boy’s brave decision to lie to the Redcoat soldiers and its name translated from the Irish is the Hill of the Lying Boy (Buachaill Bréige.)

Madeline McCully