Lady Carbery’s High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, I search out medieval high crosses. They are the epitome of ancient Irish art: this link will take you to a number of earlier posts which explore the subject.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that I haven’t yet discussed Ireland’s tallest high cross, which is in West Cork, not far from where we live. At 9.2 metres tall, it outshines the West Cross at Monasterboice, which is just 7 metres. However, Lady Carbery’s High Cross is not medieval – it was built on a hilltop with sweeping views over Long Strand, distant Galley Head and as far west as the Fastnet in 1902, in memory of her husband.

. . . Windswept Croachna Hill, just over the rise from Castle Freke, faces out towards the Atlantic and the sunset, as well as the mystic isle of Moy Mell, and a dangerous submerged rock of the same name. Here, in 1901, in view of the countless sailors who would pass and re-pass through the years, Grandmother had caused to be erected a huge cross as a monument to her first husband Algy, the last Carbery to spend his life in these parts and to make his home in County Cork. Fourteen tons of white limestone rise thirty feet into the sky. There are seven panels, each with sculptured designs from the Bible. The inscription on the east face reads: “To the greater glory of God, and in loving memory of Algernon William George, 9th Baron Carbery, who was born 9th September 1868 and who died 12th June 1898. This Cross has been erected by Mary, his wife, 1901. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, they are in peace” . . .

Lady Mary Carbery wrote a journal following her husband’s death. It remained private until a century later, when her grandson Jeremy Sandford published much of it, together with his own commentary – the paragraph above is his. Recently widowed and sole mistress of the vast neo-medieval Castle Freke overlooking a remote headland in West Cork, Mary raised her young family in the company of servants, dependants and occasional visitors. Reflective and sensitive, Mary Carbery was deeply attuned to the spirit of place and to the people she lived amongst in Rosscarbery, studying Irish and taking note of local speech, folklife and customs. It’s no wonder that the memorial cross she commissioned from white limestone should have been such a tribute to the flowering of Irish art in the medieval period.


Algernon was the 9th Baron of Carbery. After his death, Mary stayed at Castle Freke long enough to see through a significant restoration following a fire in 1910, then met and married Professor Arthur Wellesley Sandford of Frankfield House, County Cork. She was evidently quite a character, a prolific writer and traveller: she spent some years travelling across Europe in Creeping Jenny, a caravan drawn by white oxen, and is credited with being the first person to install a bath in a mobile home. Meanwhile, the castle was taken over by her son John – the 10th Baron, an early aviator, who sold it in 1919 and took off for Kenya, where he joined the hedonistic Happy Valley community, infamous during the 20s and 30s for its decadent lifestyles, drug use and sexual promiscuity. During the latter part of the 20th century the castle fell into disrepair.

Changing fortunes: Lord Carbery’s monoplane in 1914; Castle Freke in reasonable condition, pre 1950, and the Castle in the present day undergoing renovation by Stephen Evans-Freke, son of the 11th Baron Carbery

We are fortunate that some parts of the former estate at Castle Freke are maintained by Coillte, the State-owned forestry business, and are publicly accessible. This includes the high cross, accessed by a footpath from the Long Strand.

The Coillte path up to the cross, leading from the car park at Long Strand. In the lower picture Gill and I give an idea of the scale of the monument

Take the opportunity to have a look at the old parish church of Rathbarry, also in the Castle Freke demense. Built in 1825, it closed in 1927, and is now an atmospheric ruin. Algernon, the 9th Baron, and Lady Mary commissioned some of the striking mosaic work which can still be seen.

I found a number of entries in the Duchas Folklore Collection centred on the  Long Strand, Red Strand and Castlefreke areas. They could make a good future post, but to finish off for now, here is just one: recounted by Denis Collins, aged 60, from Castlefreke, Duchas Collection, 1937 – “The Hidden Treasure of Castlefreke”:

. . . Two children from Rosscarbery wandered away from their home one day. They did not return to dinner nor to tea so their mother got very anxious about them because it was the time that the fairies were supposed to be about. She searched everywhere but in vain and it was said that they were spirited by the fairies. Many years afterwards a young man and woman came into the town of Ross. When the people of the town saw them they were afraid of them, but found to their surprise that they were the two children. When asked where they were all that time they said that they were taken away by fairies to a certain fort in Castlefreke where there was a treasure hidden. No one ever looked for the treasure as it is said to be guarded by a fairy . . .

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