Irish Grid Reference: D 2308 3219. At the far south-eastern side of Craigagh Woods, Knockna-carry, near Cushendun, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, is the mysterious ‘Altar in the Woods’ which has a carved, oval-shaped stone with Christ crucified and an angel; there is also a faint inscription. This was probably brought to Ireland from a Scottish Island, possibly from Iona Abbey? Local Roman Catholics secretly held masses in Craigagh Woods during the troubled Penal Laws of the 17th and 18th centuries; these masses being held on a monthly basis, rather than every Sunday. But for Catholics the woods were a sacred meeting place much further back into time. About ¼ of a mile to the east is another religious site: St Patrick’s Church and the Gloonan Stone. From Cushendun for 2 miles take the Knocknacarry road over the river, then shortly after turn right, then left onto Glendun Road until you see Craigagh Wood on your right. Go through iron gate by the cottage and follow footpath north at the edge of the wood to the Altar Stone.
Rosemary Garrett (1956) writes that: “If you go through this gate and up the little path towards the trees and stone walled enclosure, at the end of Craigagh Wood, you will see the well-known “Altar in the Woods”. This is a very ancient stone, the carving on it is now weather worn, but it is said to represent a Crucifix with a winged cherub above, there is also an inscription which is now almost illegible. This stone was brought from Scotland to be used as an altar, for worship by the Catholics in the days of the Penal Laws. So much is certain, but there is also a story, which appears to be correct, that the place was used for worship for many years before the stone was brought to it, because it was well hidden and easy for a number of Glensfolk to reach. They had no Altar, and simply worshipped among the trees using the old oak behind the present Altar, as a meeting place. There was a great wish for some-thing to mark the place as sacred, and the people had heard of a “good stone” in one of the islands — some say Iona — but the risk in obtaining this stone must have been great, for it was doubtless greatly treasured by its owners. Nevertheless, some men of the glens set off in a boat to get it, probably fearful too of the power that such a Holy thing might have. They got it, and it stands there now with its simple stone altar, a monument to their courage as well as to the persistence of the faith of the people. There is a lovely little Chapel near by now, built on the site of an ancient one, but still, every year in June crowds of people come to pray at the old Altar.”
Sources / References and related websites:
Garrett, Rosemary, Cushendun, and the Glens of Antrim, J. S. Scarlett & Son, Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, April 1956.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.