Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel on the hill of Cashel is the jewel in the crown of Irish Romanesque architecture. It also allows us to trace the influences and development of the Irish Romanesque style both to other examples inside Ireland and to models outside of Ireland. Now that the church has been cured of its chronic leakage problems and the scaffolding has been taken down, we can finally look at this wonderful building in its entirety. In doing so I rely heavily on the work of Prof Tadhg O’Keefe.*

On a walking tour of Bavaria a couple of years ago we visited this church, which turns out to have been connected with Cormac’s Chapel in a surprising way. This incredible portal is completely enclosed by a glass frame to protect it from the weather

We know from historical records exactly when Cormac’s Chapel was started (1127) and when it was consecrated (1134). This means that it was not the high point (that is, the latest and most elaborate development) of Irish Romanesque, but in fact quite early in the sequence of buildings that constitute the corpus of Irish Romanesque architecture. We can look back to the early churches we examined in Irish Romanesque – an Introduction for antecedents, but in many ways this is not a ‘typical’ Irish Romanesque structure. It is, in fact, more reliant for its influences on Anglo-Norman churches in England and Wales, and on the important ecclesiastical links between Cashel and modern-day Germany. O’Keefe puts it this way:

This is the one building of that era in Ireland which must surely belong in the European canon of great Romanesque architectural essays; with a floor area less than the size of a tennis court it is also one of the smallest.

With the scaffolding finally removed, we can see the full extent of the chapel

Who was Cormac? Cormac Mac Cárrthaig (McCarthy) was King of Munster from 1123 to 1127, when he was deposed and retired to be a monk in Lismore with St Malachy (the man credited with reforming Irish monasticism and inviting in the Cistercians). His throne was restored to him within a few months and in gratitude he commissioned a new chapel to be built on the Rock. While the Rock of Cashel had been gifted to the church previously, the chapel was probably intended to serve the purpose of a royal inauguration site, thus enhancing and securing Cormac’s power. It took some time to build – it was consecrated seven years later.

In this photograph, note particularly the high pitched roof and the tiny windows that are the only means of letting light in to the rooms above the chancel and above the nave. Note also how the later gothic cathedral impinges on the much smaller chapel

Let’s start on the outside. This is a nave and chancel church, with opposing doors on the north and south sides, twin square towers, steeply pitched stone roof, projecting altar bay, and extensive string coursing and blind arcading on the exterior walls. The pitched stone roof appears to be a typically Irish feature – similar examples have survived intact in St Kevin’s Kitchen in Glendalough, St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, and in St Colmcille’s House in Kells (see Robert’s post A Medieval Feast), while we saw vestiges in Kilmalkedar a few months ago. In fact, the roof accommodates a second story, accessed via a stairway within the church. You can see the tiny round-headed windows that give light to this space on the wall above the chancel, and there are also rectangular windows right at the bottom on the roof where it meets the wall of the nave. It must have been an uncomfortable room, dark and damp, and it is hard to imagine it being used for daily activities (such as a Scriptorium, as the Kells room was traditionally thought to have been) so it has been suggested that it was a sacristy.

St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, Co Clare. As in Cormac’s Chapel, the steeply pitched gable accommodated a room above the chancel, in this case lit by a single window in the end wall

But that pitched roof is where the older Irish influences stop – for the rest of the building we must look elsewhere.

Intriguing carvings on the portal of the Regensburg church

The two square towers are particularly interesting and have few parallels in Ireland. In fact, they are based on a church we happen to have visited two years ago in Regensburg (previously called Ratisbon) in Bavaria. Upon his restoration as King of Munster, Cormac received a visit from two Ratisbon monks, Isaac and Gervasius, accompanied by a carpenter (Conrad) and one other man.

Detail from the St Albert of Cashel window by Harry Clarke in the Honan Chapel, at University College, Cork: Albert preaching to the (red-haired) people of Ratisbon

The first evangelising monk from Cashel to establish links with Ratisbon had been St Albert, way back in the 700s and there had been strong connections ever since. The church, St James, in Regensburg, is called the Scots Church or Schottenkirche (Schotte was the term used for Irish) and while it has been altered over the centuries, the Romanesque core remains, along with the two flanking towers and a magnificent doorway in the north wall.

Conrad the Carpenter and his sidekick may well have put to use the knowledge they acquired building the Schottenkirche St Jakob in designing the two square towers at Cormac’s Chapel.

This photograph illustrates the altar projection on the east end of the chancel, as well as the two towers. Note the conical cap on the north tower, as in the Regensburg example

Opposing doors in the north and south walls are almost  unknown from older Irish contexts, as it  was customary to enter through the west end (opposite end to the altar). We saw opposing doors in Liathmore but O’Keefe feels they may be a bi-product of later reconstruction. There are reports of a  two-door church of St Brigid in Kildare, and such designs…

were presumably designed to accommodate different types of procession, sometimes simultaneously: royal and episcopal parties certainly entered through the large portal on the north side, while clerical concelebrants and choristers presumably entered through the smaller portal in the south wall.

And wonderful doors they are! (Look back at Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways for more about doors in general.) The south door is now the main entrance for visitors but in fact is relatively modest with only two orders and a timpanum depicting a animal, probably a lion. The archivolts are chevroned but weathering has damaged much of the other carvings.

The cathedral wall cuts off part of this doorway, damaging the door and making photography difficult. This is a small open triangular space between the cathedral wall and the north door

The north door is larger and more elaborate, although it is incomplete, as the later gothic cathedral was built up against this section of the chapel. Above the door is a triangular pediment, decorated with vertical and horizontal chevroned lines and with rosettes.

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett 1888

The tympanum has a curious decoration – it’s a centaur, of all things, shown hunting a large lion with a bow and arrow. This is not unknown in Romanesque carvings, which often feature animals from the medieval bestiary, but unusual enough.

As for the rest of the chapel, Prof O’Keefe points to the most likely influence being the Anglo-Norman churches of England and Wales, which provide exact parallels for many of the features, external and internal, that can be observed at Cormac’s Chapel. One feature he points to, for example, is the shallow projection, lit by lateral windows, at the far east end of the church – functioning as an extension of the chancel to contain the altar. Indeed, muses O’Keefe, as he ponders the particular mixture of Irish and non-Irish features visible in this building;

Walking around Cormac’s Chapel, outside and inside, one instantly recognizes that it has affinities in Britain. The blind arcading and the chevrons can be paralleled effortlessly in literally hundreds of English Romanesque contexts, from south Wales to East Anglia, and from Exeter to Dundee (Fig. 78). Moreover, their execution speaks not of Gaelic-Irish craftsmen who have learned these forms and how to carve them but of actual English Romanesque craftsmen in Cashel in the late 1120s and early 1130s. We cannot prove this, of course, but later Romanesque work in Ireland looks sufficiently different for us to be very confident that Anglo-Norman hands recreating an English Romanesque repertoire shaped large parts of Cormac’s Chapel.

Blind arcading, string courses, and carved roof corbels (see below) enliven the outside of the chapel. The two small windows in the roof allow light to the room above the nave

Next week we will go inside Cormac’s Chapel and discover yet more treasures from the 12th century. See you back here then.

*Prof O’Keefe’s book  is now out of print although second-hand copies can be found. I relied heavily on his manuscript, Romanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

Circumnavigation

It’s a hop and a step from down here on the Mizen (Ireland’s most south-westerly point) up to the top of the island: people are doing it all the time, on foot, by bicycle, by boat… We thought we’d do it as a road trip – in fact, why wouldn’t we circumnavigate the whole of Ireland? We did – it took us three weeks.

Header – the Dark Hedges, Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to enhance their Georgian mansion of Gracehill, it is now much visited as it features in Game of Thrones. It’s good to know that traffic can no longer go through this avenue, as it has suffered damage in recent times. Above, one of the many byroads that we sought out on our journey around the island: this one is the loop road behind Ben Bulben in County Sligo

It was a most fascinating and educational trip, particularly for me: most of the places I had never visited before. Finola was more familiar with her own country, although for her it was a voyage of rediscovery. In many cases she saw how much had changed over years of boom and bust, while elsewhere her memories were reawakened.

A voyage of rediscovery: Finola’s Great Grandparents are buried here in Killough, County Down, Northern Ireland

This is but a short summary of our travels: a taster. Many of the places we visited will feature in future posts here. As you can imagine, Archaeology, Romanesque architecture, stained glass, saintly shrines, pilgrimage sites, holy wells, stunningly beautiful land- and sea-scapes, and social history were prominent in our must-see itinerary. But we found we were also following in the footsteps of Irish poets. And British eccentrics.

Craftworks: we visited the Belleek Pottery, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – which has been operating continuously since 1884 (upper), and (lower) Glebe Mill, Kilcar, County Donegal – where we could watch traditional handweaving on enormous looms

I prefer to stay off the more heavily trafficked tourist spots, but we made exceptions for Europe’s highest sea cliffs at Slieve League, County Donegal (three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher! Beautiful and very wet) and for the Giant’s Causeway. After all, this features strongly in the stories of Finn McCool. I thought that the inevitable crowds were catered for very well and – if you are prepared to walk away from the main site – you can have the spectacular cliff paths largely to yourselves. In Northern Ireland I was very struck by what an asset the National Trust is, for it preserves and makes accessible so many properties and areas of outstanding beauty. If only the Republic had a similar well funded body…

Top – the cliffs at Slieve League. Lower – Giant’s Causeway on a stormy day, and souvenirs in the National Trust’s Causeway Visitor Centre

It would, perhaps, be unreasonable to pick out a ‘best’ destination that we visited, but I must say that I was probably most impressed by the medieval sites: we took in many. It’s amazing that right off the beaten track you can find stunning ancient carvings and artefacts tucked away and – sometimes – not even signposted.

Upper – the superb High Cross at Durrow has been protected and conserved, but it’s not signposted from the busy road that passes nearby. Centre – the beautiful shrine that holds the relic of the True Cross in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth: the same church holds the head and remains of Saint Oliver Plunkett. Lower – 13th century font in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, County Clare

Our travels were punctuated with a whole variety of experiences, impossible to summarise in one short post. We took in Derry – the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples in Europe: we walked the whole length of the early seventeenth century structure. Belfast was intriguing. We undertook the Titanic Experience, and were duly impressed with the building and the exhibitions. We also toured the whole city in the hop-on-hop-off bus: a full two hour tour of everything with a thoroughly enlightening commentary – a good way to keep out of the rain!

Upper – the Peace Bridge in Derry. Lower – the Titanic Experience, Belfast: the exhibition and the building. The external shot is taken from the enormous slipway which was used to launch the ship

We’ve only just got our breath back from all the travelling (although we always went at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops for investigation and coffee). Between us we took well over 5,000 photographs! You’ll see a good few of them in due course.

Often it’s the simple things that impress the most: just little vignettes of Irish life. We would thoroughly recommend a slow exploration of this land – ambling along the byroads and keeping a weather eye open for new experiences. Have a good time!

We are not averse to the odd selfie! Here we are on Carlingford Lough with the Mountains of Mourne behind us… Today it’s an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic: what does the future hold?

The Red Line – Bere Island

As part of the excellent Taste of West Cork food festival, we signed up for the Bere Island Cultural Taste Tour, and on a grey Saturday morning we drove off along the south side of the Beara Peninsula to Castletownbere. The Islands of West Cork are all fascinating to explore, in our experience, and each one is very different. This was my first visit to Bere Island, and I immediately want to go back there: this was, of necessity, a ‘whistlestop tour’, ably led by Ted O’Sullivan, probably a direct descendant of the famed O’Sullivan Bere (who deserves – and will get – a post of his own!) You may remember that the island – and the peninsula – has taken its name from the Spanish wife of Owen Mór, King of Ireland around 120AD.

Bere Island lies off the coast of the Beara Peninsula, which was in constant view as our bus took us to the eastern end on the narrow island roads – towards the ‘Red Line’

While the history of the island takes us back to the Bronze Age and beyond, more recent events have been left behind on the landscape – and in the memories of the islanders.

Upper – ancient history: Ardaragh Bronze Age wedge tomb beside the road to the east of the island with Hungry Hill beyond. In 1926 the tomb collapsed, and this was seen by some islanders as a ‘sign’ that the British might leave the occupied part of the island. Lower – modern history: looking from the island towards the Beara – British warships stationed in the bay circa 1914

Did you know that part of Bere Island remained in British hands well beyond the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921? This was one of the three Treaty Ports that were retained by the United Kingdom following the First World War, when there were fears that there might be a recurring naval threat to the islands of Britain and Ireland. The other two ports were Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and Lough Swilly in the far north of the Irish state. Relationships between Ireland and Britain remained uneasy for many years but finally, in 1938, it was agreed that these deepwater ports should be handed over to the Irish Republic. Winston Churchill was appalled by the decision, and in an address to Parliament in that year he called it a ‘folly’:

…When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty who assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered… These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence…

Until the handover in 1938 the eastern end of the island lay beyond ‘The Red Line’. The position of this line was pointed out to us on the tour, although we couldn’t see a ‘line’. In fact, no physical line did ever exist but there was a point beyond which Irish people could not proceed, and British forces stationed over the ‘line’ could not cross. Ted, our tour guide, recounted some amusing stories of those strange times. With typical Irish inventiveness, there were many instances of how the difficulties created by the ‘line’ were overcome. For a short while there was a prison on the British sector, right beside the ‘line’. It was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners. Every weekend there would be a party held on the Irish side of the line which always included singing, dancing and drinking, and the prisoners joined in! Many politically important prisoners managed to escape, and the prison was known as a ‘leaky bucket’ because of this. A number of the British governors of the prison were removed during its short life because of their inability to contain their charges.

Lonehort Battery – built in 1899 by the Royal Engineers of the English army – housed two enormous 6-inch guns (still in place but very rusty) and is surrounded by a deep moat. There are plans to re-open the site as a historic monument

Lonehort is a natural harbour, believed to have been used by the Vikings. Archaeological excavations were carried out there in 1995 and confirmed the artificial breakwater as being Norse: there were also signs of a Viking shipyard here.

Lonehort – a Viking harbour and shipyard. The word means ‘Long Phort’, and is used to indicate Norse associations

One of the purposes of our tour was to introduce us to food produced on the island, and we ate in three establishments: The Shop and Cafe in Rerrin for soup, The Hotel for a fishcake lunch, and the Heritage Centre for a dessert and coffee. All provided good, delicious fare.

Our three food destinations. Top – the wonderful Shop at Rerrin; centre – The Hotel, open all year round (it looks as though it has interesting fare!) and lower – the modern Heritage Centre which has a gallery displaying the island’s history and culture as well as a good eatery

All too soon our short tour came to an end: we had to get back to catch the ferry. We missed several things: St Michael’s Holy Well and Church; views from Knockanallig (the highest point) and several standing stones including Gallán, which is exactly in the centre of the island. And it’s a great place for walking! We will return, perhaps for a few days in the winter, and complete our explorations. But many thanks to Ted and the Bere Island Projects Group for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an intriguing community and its history.

Robert heading home after a grand day out!

The Significant Rock Art of Clonfinlough

Whenever we stray from our home territory of West Cork, we are always on the lookout for archaeological wonders. When we set our course for Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly, last week (I like the possible translation of the Irish Cluain Muccu Nóis: Meadow of the Pigs of Nós, but there is an alternative Cluain Mhic Nóis: Meadow of the Sons of Nós), we were looking for Ireland’s most important medieval monastic site, but we were diverted only a stone’s throw from our destination by a sign that we couldn’t ignore…

Tucked away to the south east of Clonmacnoise, on a by-road, sits an isolated church in front of which is a well defined and fenced pathway leading past the Priest’s house, through fields, over a stile and into a pasture where cows grazed and barely gave us a glance. There – open to the ravages of weather and cattle – is a large, earthfast slab of limestone bearing a remarkable array of markings.

Header – a detail from the stone’s crowded surface. Upper – the well-defined path leading from St Kieran’s Church to the stone (don’t confuse this St Kieran with the one from Cape Clear). Lower – the limestone slab situated beyond the stile

For Rock Art enthusiasts like us the stone was a wonderful find. The surface is teeming with rings, lines, shapes – and even lettering. In spite of the weathering, everything was deeply defined and easy to see. And the more we looked, the more we did see, and the more perplexed we became. I even noted footprints! Remember my search last week for the footprint left by Archangel Gabriel on his visit to his eponymous mountain in West Cork? Here I counted six, and my size nine feet fitted perfectly in them all.

Upper – two of the ‘footprints’ scattered on the stone’s marked surface. Lower – the stone in its landscape context: ‘footprints’ are also visible

When we returned from our visit to Offaly I was able to research the available information on the Clonfinlough Stone and was delighted to find a very comprehensive study of it written by Finola’s old friend and Rock Art expert from UCC, Elizabeth Shee Twohig. The piece – Context and Chronology of the Carved Stone at Clonfinlough, County Offaly – was published in 2002 in The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 132 pp 99-113. It makes the most enlightening read, outlining the ways in which the stone was regarded and drawn by early antiquarians and then opening up discussion on how much of the stone’s markings might in fact be natural formations, or natural forms which have influenced and been enhanced by ‘artists’ working with motifs which have become familiar to Rock Art researchers today, including cupmarks.

Engravings by George Victor du Noyer illustrating a paper published by James Grave in 1865. Note the emphasis that du Noyer has placed on recognisable ‘Greek’ style lettering (termed phi by Shee Twohig)

Elizabeth Shee Twohig quotes theories by RAS Macalister which evolved between 1921 and 1949, and which include the idea that the phi markings represent ‘…a possible depiction of a battle between the ‘loop men’ and the ‘cross men’ and suggested that the cupmarks …may even indicate the number of severed heads!…’ In his 1928 book The Archaeology of Ireland Macalister (quoted by Shee Twohig) suggests ‘…the carvings as showing a battle or pre-battle scene, the medicine men having prepared for their occult purposes a picture of the consummation desired…’ while in 1949 he saw it as a sign-manual of a hostile expedition from Spain which sailed up the Shannon: ‘…the battlefield, printed with the footmarks of the flying foe, strewn with weapons cast away in their flight and with missile stones…’

These are but brief extracts from the Shee Twohig account and discussions, which are essential reading – not just for possible enlightenment on the markings on this stone, but also for a well defined background on how ideas about Rock Art generally have developed since the time of the earliest antiquarians.

Elizabeth Shee Twohig has amplified her study of the Clonfinlough Stone with the first truly accurate drawing of the markings on it (above). It is certainly interesting to compare this with the 1865 engravings by du Noyer

Elizabeth Shee Twohig brings in to her study the possible significance of the stone’s positioning close to the great monastic centre of Clonmacnoise, which in medieval times was the prime pilgrimage destination in Ireland. There is evidence that one of the paved pilgrim routes passed close by the Clonfinlough Stone. It is plausible, therefore, that at least some of the markings on this limestone slab could have dated from those times: Clonmacnoise was active between the 6th and 12th centuries.

Upper – the many enigmatic markings on the stone: natural limestone solution pits, Bronze Age Rock Art, crosses carved by or for medieval pilgrims? Lower – the stone is within sight of the present day church

A trawl through the folklore records proves fertile. One legend says that at certain times of the year a horseman manifests and gallops around the stone. Another has it that a local boy named Michael used to play at the rock and there met another boy who gave him a silver knife. His mother made him take the knife back and leave it on the stone, for she said the boy was a fairy trying to entice him away. It is also said that another Michael will find the knife, and when he does he will find two big pots of gold under the rocks. Whatever the truth is about the rock and its meaning, I am struck by the path we found coming from the little church which is in sight of the Clonfinlough Stone: could there be something pagan in that stone which required the church to be built there – or is it a mutual guardianship?

PS – since publishing this post, Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh has pointed me to this 3D Sketchfab image of the Clonfinlough Stone available to view online:

In the church at Clonfinlough is a curious series of Stations: this one showing the ’empty tomb’ can be seen as a rock supplanted by a cross…

The Treasures of Castledermot

Last week we explored the medieval wonders at Moone, in County Kildare. We couldn’t leave the area without going on to Castledermot to visit the monastic site of Díseart Diarmada, (the hermitage of Dermot) – a few minutes’ drive down the road. Stone carving artists were active here, too, as we can see from the many artefacts mainly centred today around St James’ Church, built on the site of the former monastery. These include a decorated Romanesque doorway: Finola is writing about Romanesque architecture today.

Díseart Diarmada as it might have appeared in the 800s. This reconstructed view is taken from the excellent Dúchas interpretation panels on the site, and shows the earliest church, the 20m high round tower (which still stands today) and the two ornate high crosses, which also remain intact

The settlement itself was highly important. There were Viking raids during the 9th century, probably indicating that there was wealth to be plundered there. A royal grant was given for a fair in 1199, and the very first Irish parliament was convened in the town on 18th June 1264. In 1393 Castledermot was granted permission to mint its own coins.

The two high crosses at Castledermot: south cross (left) and north cross (right – round tower beyond). The header picture shows the geometric work on the east face of the south cross

There are certainly figurative carvings on the two crosses to almost rival those found at Moone. I was particularly interested to see other versions of the stories of the loaves and fishes and Daniel in the lions’ den. But the real glory of Castledermot lies in the panels of knotwork. If these were coloured (as suggested at Moone) they must have been spectacular.

Note the loaves and fishes, bottom left

It’s interesting to speculate who might have been responsible for this ancient carving. Could it have been the monks themselves, who considered that part of their dedicated life was to build and decorate the great monastic buildings? Or were they constructed by travelling masons, much as the later cathedrals were? And who directed and designed the work? These are such important monuments – a legacy which we must be sure to look after: they have been here for more than a thousand years and – in spite of being in the open and subject to constant weathering – are still clear to see. At Moone the great cross there has been placed under a modern protective canopy, which is not intrusive. Perhaps such actions should be considered for all these Irish medieval works of art.

The site at Castledermot reveals many other remains which appear to be weathering quite badly. These include the Hogback Stone, which has been linked to Viking activity in the area: it was discovered just below the ground in its present location in 1967. It is said to represent a House for the Dead, and other examples have been found in Scotland and England: this is the only one found so far in Ireland.

The Hogback Stone (top – Dúchas – and bottom left) and an unusual type of cross-slab close by (right). This is known as the Swearing Stone, and it is said that it may have been used during wedding ceremonies or for swearing oaths or allegiances in early times

Although residents in Castledermot are keen that their historic artefacts are well looked after and are seen by an interested public, the site remains rather obscure and perhaps deserves to be better known. There is a wealth of heritage in Ireland – do we take it too much for granted? The Office of Public Works (formally Dúchas) do their best to maintain and advertise the monuments under their care but it’s an uphill job with a budget which is far too small.

We have by no means exhausted the treasures of this remarkable Irish town. There are other intriguing carved stones and crosses on the monastic site, and, at the southern end of the town are impressive remains of a Franciscan Friary, founded around 1247. This site has a guardian and a key holder, but we didn’t have time to visit. Inside it is a rare cadaver grave stone dating to about 1520. In 1275, the town was given a royal murage grant. This allowed the collection of tolls from people entering Castledermot to pay for the construction and maintenance of town walls. The wall, with three gates, was completed around 1300.

Ancient Irish Art – Moone High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, we look for the routes which will take us past sites rich in history and archaeology. Finola wrote a while ago about places to visit close to the M8, which links Cork to Dublin. Last week we discovered a real gem, in County Kildare, about 40 kilometres east of the motorway – well worth the diversion.

Just outside the village of Moone is the finest medieval high cross that we have seen in Ireland. It is on the site of Moone Abbey (above right – a sketch from 1784 by antiquarian Austin Cooper), where a church is believed to have been founded by St Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431. It was later dedicated to St Columcille. The abbey ruins date from the 13th century, but the site must have been an important religious foundation long before this as the high crosses (there were once four here) are very much older. Historical sources differ on their age – I have found them variously attributed to the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th centuries! It’s safe to say they are at least 1100 years old.

Early views of the High Cross at Moone: left – an engraving from 1857 and right – a photograph from the Lawrence Collection dating from the 1890s. Both images show the earlier reconstruction, before the centre pillar was discovered and added

The Abbey was ransacked and burned along with the nearby Castle by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century and the high crosses were probably buried at that time. Two sections of the one we can see today were rediscovered in the Abbey grounds in 1835 and re-erected in the Abbey by the Duke Of Leinster. In 1893 a further section was uncovered and added to bring the full height of this cross to 5.3 metres. This is not quite the highest high cross in Ireland – Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice is 5.5 metres – but Moone is visually more impressive because it is so slender, and beautifully decorated.

The west face of the Moone High Cross seen in its present context in the ruined Abbey. The site has been well laid out and presented with the fragments of other carved stones discovered during excavations. A protective roof has also been constructed in a non-intrusive simple style

The carvings on the granite Moone cross are in relatively good condition and all the panels can be clearly seen. They are fine examples of medieval Irish art: stories from the Bible  are mingled with Celtic knotwork and some enigmatic bestiary. The figurative work is simple and stylised – yet somehow very modern in its execution.

Stories told in stone: Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Flight into Egypt. The header image is a wonderful representation of the Loaves and Fishes
The Crucifixion, SS Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert and The Fiery Furnace
Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and the Temptation of St Anthony the Hermit

A six-headed monster? Probably not a Bible story…

The site is very well interpreted by the Heritage Service: there are comprehensive information boards describing every carved panel.

Interpretation boards include full annotation for the panels on the High Cross, together with projected reconstructions of the other findings on the site

Top picture – looking towards the east face of the High Cross; below – the east and west faces of the cross wheel
Left – an interesting conjecture showing that the panels may have been coloured in; right – the friendly Keeper of the Cross!

Be sure to visit this site – and don’t forget to purchase your guide book at Wall’s Mini Mart in the village!