Sanctifying the Landscape: Holy Year Crosses in Ireland

In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared a Holy Year – and galvanised Ireland. It was the height of a certain time of Catholicism in Ireland – fervent, highly-organised, state-sanctioned – and the Pope’s decree was embraced with enthusiasm.*

First of all, what is a Holy Year? It’s a year of special devotion and penance, and a year in which, through following certain prescriptions, you can gain a Plenary Indulgence. Sounds a bit medieval, doesn’t it? But the concept of a Plenary Indulgence isn’t quite the same as the Cash-For-Forgiveness schemes that brought about the Reformation – you earn it, rather than buy it, and it gives you a Time Off For Good Behaviour Card to shorten your sojourn in Purgatory. As you can imagine, this is an attractive proposition for an ardent believer, steeped in all the ritual and dogma of Catholicism – and that described almost all of us in 1950s Ireland.

A wonderful short film about the 1950 Holy Year in Rome

The Holy Year itself involved many rituals. The Pope declared it open by knocking on the first of four Holy Doors in Rome and finished it by sealing up the door again at the end. Pius XII encouraged those who could to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

In response, Ireland mounted a National Pilgrimage, led by the President, Seán T O’Ceallaigh. Take a look at how British Pathé covered this event. Aer Lingus laid on specific flights: A special return fare of £54 from Dublin or Shannon to Rome, valid for 30 days will apply during the Holy Year. Passengers may travel via London, Paris or Amsterdam and may break their journey at any scheduled stopping place en route provided that the stopover is specified at the time of booking.

The Post Office issued a special Holy Year set of Stamps (above). The national radio station started its tradition of playing the Angelus every day – still going strong despite frequent calls for a more inclusive time marker. Everything about the official Government position telegraphed the statement – We are a Catholic Country.

Edwardian Bray, Co Wicklow – the famous Promenade is there but no cross yet

But how did this ultra-Catholicism manifest itself in individual communities? Besides specially organised missions, sodalities, novenas and parades, many towns and villages decided to mark the year by erecting monuments. Somehow the notion of hilltop crosses became The Idea of the day – perhaps it was suggested by John Charles McQuaid as a suitable mark of respect. And all over Ireland plans got underway to erect tall crosses on top of the local prominent landmark.

The Bray of my childhood, with the cross now in place, as it is today (Thanks to Bray – Did You Know…? Facebook Page)

Many (most?) of these 1950 crosses have survived and have become imbedded in our consciousness as a ‘natural’ (in the sense of ‘expected’) feature of our Irish landscape. Few today remember the impetus which led to their erection. At the time, there were fund-raising drives and committees and huge ceremonials attached to the actual situating of the crosses.

The Bray Head Cross: one of several routes up to it; the 1950 plinth; a popular spot

We have visited several of these crosses lately. I grew up in Bray and as anyone who has ever been there knows, the town is dominated by Bray Head, and Bray Head is dominated by its Holy Year Cross. It’s become the thing to do, to walk up to the cross – there are at least four ways up to it and they’re all spectacular. Sitting at the base of the cross enjoying a well-earned rest, we reminded ourselves that when it was erected over 5,000 people attended the blessing ceremony.

More recently, here in West Cork, we walked up to two crosses, the first at Knockaphuca on the Mizen (above and below). The Knockaphuca walk (it’s fantastic!) was the subject of Robert’s post a few weeks ago. The cross here is a replacement for the original wooden one that had rotted away, finally falling way back in 1968. The memory of the cross was still strong in the community, though, and the local GAA club conceived of a project to re-erect it in 2011 as a symbol of hope and re-assurance in these challenging times and a call to prayer in our hour of need. The challenging times was a reference to the global recession, which hit Ireland badly and ended the reign of the Celtic Tiger.

The volunteers took things a little further than they would have in 1950 and carried up with them an array of solar panels. Thus, this is a very modern re-incarnation of the traditional Holy Year Cross – a glow-in-the-dark model. They called it The Cross of Hope and as such it recalls the beacons that lighted many a weary sailor’s way into safe harbour.

This week we walked up (above) to the cross on Dromore Hill. This one is clearly visible to anyone travelling between Drimoleague and Bantry, on a hill behind the village of Dromore. (Special thanks to Oliver Farrell and Bridget Threthewey for directions.)

The cross is visible from many spots, including from this five-stone circle at Trawlebawn

It’s a lovely walk and the cross looks like it may be original, although it may also have been replaced. It is still a focus – most years the local parish of Caheragh organises a mass at the cross in August and it’s always well attended. It’s another one where lights have been added, this time in the form of fluorescent strips. We couldn’t figure out the power source though – electrical lines disappear into the ground. Very mysterious.

The cross with its 1950 Holy Year Plaque and a space for an altar for the annual mass

St Lachtan’s Holy Well is situated south of Ballyvourney and in 1950 a group of volunteers from the Ré na nDoiri branch of Muintur na Tíre decided to erect a cross on the well to mark the occasion. This one is not on a hill top – in fact it is quite hard to find, but the plaque, in Irish, confirms it as a Holy Year project.

St Lachtan’s Holy Well (the two bullaun stones below the cross) and its Holy Year Cross

Our final local cross is one we haven’t been up to yet – a future project. It stands on a hill between between Skibbereen and Lough Hyne – I’m not sure what the townland name is, it looks like its on the boundaries of Gortshancrone, Booleybane and Curravalley.

If anyone local knows about it, or can tell us the best way up, we would love to hear it.

It wasn’t always a cross – the people of the beautiful Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary decided on a giant Christ the King statue (above). It’s visible for miles – the current one a 1975 replacement for the original and made by the same firm. According to the signage it depicts the hand of Christ the King, raised in blessing the Glen, its people, and all those who pass by.

However, crosses (that’s the one close to Skibbereen above) seem to be the most frequent choice to commemorate and mark the 1950 Holy Year. Do you have one close to where you live?  Have you been to it? Is it still in some form of use (for annual masses, say)? Is it valued by the community?

*There have been other Holy Years (officially they occur every 25 or every 50 years) but the only other Papal-decreed year of devotion that made the same kind of impact in Ireland was the Marian Year in 1954 – see our post Mary Mary for a quick description of the Lourdes Grottos that proliferated that year.

9 thoughts

  1. Very interesting. I have seen countless such monuments, but didn’t know the background to them.
    Personally I see them as an ugly scar on the landscape, but it would seem that I am in the minority.

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  2. What a great post – I learnt loads! I’ve been to the holy cross on Bere Island, and there’s another near Watergrasshill but that was put in 1933 apparently. This could be another fascinating challenge – any idea how many there are?

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  3. I see it becoming an endurance sporting event – The Race of the Hilltop Holy Crosses! I think it could catch on!

    There are two of these crossed not far from us, across the river in Co. Kilkenny. One is above the school where I worked for many years – on Tory Hill – and we went for a walk there every year. There was also a Fraochán Sunday – “Frocken” is the south Kilkenny pronunciation – at the end of July or start of August. The other cross, not very far away from that on Tory, is in the parish of Slieverue and clearly visible when travelling from Waterford to New Ross – it’s not an especially high hill, more a rocky outcrop, and I can’t see it featuring in the races.

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