Midnight Mass is a traditional Mass widely observed on Christmas Eve. It is a time of celebration in the Christian calendar when the world prepares to celebrate the birth of Jesus. As such people gather from far and wide to ensure that they are there.
As a tour guide you read so many facts that sometimes you detach yourself from the humanity of the people in the stories. It was only when I was guiding international visitors with a translator that I recalled the horrible sensation when I learned this story as a child.
On a hill outside of Ardglass is a picturesque, ruined church – Ardtole is its name. The tranquillity deceives today’s visitor of how the church came to be the way it is. Established from the time of Saint Patrick, this church was rebuilt in the 1300s. The reason being religious restructuring undertaken by the Normans. The bishop at that time lived outside of Downpatrick and this was one of six churches that lined the route to his palace.
The congregation served by this church was a largely rural community engaged in agriculture. A dispute arose with the chief of the McCartan clan over the price of cattle. Cattle at the time were used as currency and had from time immemorial been treated as such. The burgesses of Ardglass found him drunk one evening, sleeping, and tied him to the briars by the wisps of his long beard. When he awoke, he had to cut himself free thereby losing his beard, the symbol of his social standing. Much like Samson when his hair was cut, he had to regain his authority. Thoroughly infuriated, he incited his clan to avenge the insult. They picked the one night when the people of Ardglass would be in one location, together in celebration.
They surrounded the church and nailed the door shut. They set fire to the roof and let it fall in around the assembled crowd. Hundreds perished in the flames and the site has remained abandoned ever since.
The first proper investigation into the ruins took place in 1914 under the guidance of Francis Joseph Bigger. Among the debris cleared of the floor he recovered the largest selection of the oldest stained glass ever found in Ireland, a carved bishop's hand, a key, and to bring home the devastating truth, a glass bead from the bracelet of one of the parishioners.