‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’

As you will know from these pages, ‘Ireland of the Saints’ is a country rich in treasures dating from medieval times. Architecture and stone carved ecclesiastical monuments were prolific on the island of Ireland, with many examples and fragments remaining. Finola has a series covering Romanesque Architecture, while I have always been on the lookout for High Crosses from the early medieval period. Over 250 examples of High Crosses are said to survive in Ireland, either complete or broken – a remarkable number. Without fail, all are beautiful, and wonderful examples of early art and craftsmanship.

When we are out and about, we usually don’t have to go very far off whichever route we are travelling to find more examples to add to our archive of The Irish High Cross. Last week was no exception: we were off to the Burren in County Clare to see a new exhibition of the work of our friend Keith Payne, and it was no trouble to take a little detour in County Clare to view ‘Ye Citie of the Seven Crosses’ – Kilfenora. A wonderful carved capital on the Cathedral there is shown above (the drawing of it on the right is from Duchas). I knew the place because of its famous Ceilidh Band, but I am now aware that even this admirable institution must take second place to the Kilfenora High Crosses.

The most detailed description of the Kilfenora crosses was written by historian Jack Flanagan (1921 – 2014) and it’s available online, courtesy of Clare County Library. Jack lived most of his life around Kilfenora, and charts the fortunes of the High Crosses through the 20th century, mostly from his personal experience. Now they are well looked after – some are under a glass roof – but they have suffered various misfortunes throughout the last Millennium. Above are all that’s left of two of the crosses – both now protected.

You would hardly think of Kilfenora as a ‘city’ – but the hamlet of thatched dwellings was an important monastic centre from the days of  Saint Fachtnan (from County Cork) who founded it around 650AD. It has its Cathedral (above), although . . . it was the smallest with the poorest diocese in Ireland . . . (Flanagan). However in 1111 the Synod of Rathbreasail snubbed the claims for diocesan status by Kilfenora, and the O’Connors and the O’Loughlens came together in their desire to remain aloof from the Diocese of Killaloe which was very much under the patronage of the O’Briens. There was history here, as it was the O’Briens who had burned Kilfenora Abbey and its inhabitants in 1055. At the Synod of Kells in 1152 Kilfenora did succeed in its claims, and attained status as a separate diocese. It’s said that some of the High Crosses were carved and erected to celebrate this achievement.

If this is the case, then the Kilfenora High Crosses are relatively late examples of the art. This would seem to be borne out by the style of the finest of them – now known as the Doorty Cross – because the interlacing designs on the shaft are undoubtedly influenced by Scandinavian motifs. This, then, must have been a time when the Viking invaders were not only accepted but also assimilated into the artistic culture: this would have been the case by the mid twelfth century.

The Doorty Cross (upper, details from west and east faces and lower, Duchas drawing) has a partially traceable history. Jack Flanagan remembers when the main part of the shaft was in use as a grave slab of the Doorty family in the burial ground of the Cathedral, while the head was lying under the chancel arch in the sacristy. In the 1950s the two parts of the cross were reunited by the Office of Public Works, and the restored cross was erected next to the Doorty grave – hence this cross is now known as the Doorty Cross. Interestingly, there is an inscription on the base of the cross shaft which dates from 1752: this was buried when the cross was re-erected, but is now visible as the cross was removed into the new glass roofed shelter in the mid 2000s. The upper picture below shows the inscription visible today – it’s upside down on the raised cross: the lower picture shows a drawing made by Westropp in 1910 when the shaft was still used over the grave: the inscription can be read as IHS X V n D – the V n D stood for V ni Doorty.

The battle between the diocese of Kilfenora and Killaloe wasn’t quite won as they became combined in later years. Dr Richard Mant was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, and in that year he set out on a visitation of his two diocese. In early August he arrived in Kilfenora which he described as “the worst village that I have seen in Ireland and in the most desolate and least interesting country” . In a subsequent letter to a friend he describes;

. . .  On a visit to Kilfenora in 1820 where there had been five or six stone crosses I found two or three broken and laying on the ground, neglected and over-grown with weeds. On expressing my concern that these remnants of ecclesiastical antiquity were left in such a state, a clergyman of the parish proposed to send me one of them, which he said might be done without difficulty or danger of giving offence, as when they were brought to that state the people had no regard for them. One was accordingly sent to Clarisford, and I caused it to be erected among some trees in a picturesque spot, between the house and the canal, having inlaid the shaft with a marble tablet bearing the inscription annexed below. When my daughter was at Clarisford about three years ago, the cross was still standing, being considered “an ornament to the grounds” . . .

Upper picture – the High Cross which was taken from Kilfenora by Bishop Mant in 1821, and which has ended up – after a series of excursions – in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe. A translation of the Latin on the marble tablet which was placed there by the Bishop:

. . . R.M.S.T.P. (Bishop’s name and title) of both diocese, being solicitous for church antiquity, took care to erect at the See of Killaloe this cross which you see, and which collapsed at Kilfenora lest it entirely disappear through neglect, and by reason of the site A.D. 1821 . . .

It seems there was still little love lost between the two diocese. The Kilfenora Cross on the Hill has now been moved into the St Flannan’s Cathedral at Killaloe – and that’s where we saw it back in September last year. When you speak to local people in Kilfenora you get a sense that there are grumblings – they feel they would like their cross back: it would be one of the finest in the collection.

Left – the West Cross (see header picture and below) in 1910, possibly taken by Westropp: it’s still in situ to the west of the Cathedral today – the cathedral building is on the right of this photo. Right – the Doorty Cross standing beside the Doorty grave in 1980.

The West Cross at Kilfenora has escaped capture under the glass roof and still stands – probably where it always has – on a prominent knoll to the west of the Cathedral. It’s open to the elements, but seems to be in good condition. In some ways, the protection of these ancient pieces does in some way detract from their magnificence, but there’s no doubt that constant exposure to the weather extremes that we experience here in Ireland must ultimately adversely affect them. It’s a conundrum – and a debate we have touched on before.

Perhaps my own response to these protected High Crosses in Kilfenora is that I feel they are under-appreciated. I saw – at the height of the tourist season – coach-loads of visitors disembark, enter the sheltered enclosure, stand and look at the old stones for a few minutes and then file out. What did it all mean to them? There are interpretation boards but I doubt they get the message across: these are great monuments of the world, to be revered, respected and wondered at: these representations take you back through a thousand years of history: we are fortunate that we can still be in their presence.

Off the M8 – Searching out Péacáin

Once again we followed in the footsteps of our friends Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines. They had visited the Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary and pointed us to St Berrahert’s extraordinary site at Ardane which I described in this post. Not far away is another site, which Amanda reported on fully in her own post, here. It is equally remarkable, and related to St Berrahert’s Kyle in that they were both restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s. They are also both very easily accessible in a few minutes from the M8 motorway at Cahir.

We were delighted to be travelling again through the beautiful Glen in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains (above) as we searched out a boreen that led us down to the railway, as directed by Amanda. We parked and crossed at the gate, watching out carefully as this is the Waterford to Limerick Junction line used by two trains a day (except on Sundays!)

Once across, we were in an idyll. It’s a private lane, running alongside a gentle stream, but the Bourke family allow visitors to walk (as they have done for centuries) to the old church, the cell and the holy well of Saint Péacáin. Ancient stone walls line the way, and trees overhang, shading the dappled sunlight in this most exceptional of Irish seasons. We met Bill Bourke, who regaled us with tales of his life spent mostly far away from this, his birthplace – but who returned to rebuild the family home and to enjoy perpetual summer in what is, for him, the most beautiful setting in the world. He also told us of the crowds who used to come to celebrate St Péacáin at Lughnasa – 1st August – paying the rounds and saying the masses.

In her monumental work (it runs to over 700 pages) The Festival of Lughnasa – Oxford University Press 1962 – Máire MacNeill points out the harvest feast day was such an important ancient celebration that it survives as the focus of veneration of many local saints who would otherwise have been known for their own patron day, and she particularly mentions Tobar Phéacáin in this regard: a place well away from any large settlement where the great agricultural festival was so critical to the cycle of rural life.

The rural setting of St Péacáin’s Cell can be seen above, just in front of the trees; the church and the well are nearby. MacNeill provides a description of Tobar Phéacáin and includes some variant names:

. . . Tobar Phéacáin (Peakaun’s Well), Glen of Aherlow, Barony of Clanwilliam, Parish of Killardry, Townland of Toureen . . . On the northern slope of the Galtee Mountain at the entrance to the Glen of Aherlow and about three or four miles north-west of Caher there is a well and ruin of a small church. About a mile beyond Kilmoyler Cross Roads a path leads up to it . . . In 1840 O’Keefe, of the Ordnance Survey team, reported that the old church was called by the people Teampuillin Phéacáin, or just Péacán . . .

. . . The well, which he described as lying a few perches south-east of the church was called Peacan’s Well or Tobar Phéacáin. It was surrounded by a circular ring of stonework. He stated: ‘The pattern-day still observed at this place falls on the 1st of August, which day is, or at least until a few years since, has been kept as a strict holiday.’ Devotions were also, he said, performed there on Good Friday . . .

A hundred years after O’Keefe wrote this, the church ruins were tidied up by the Office of Public Works. As at St Berrihert’s Kyle, it seems there were numerous carved slabs on the site and remnants of high crosses, implying a significant ecclesiastical presence here. All these have been fixed in and around the church ruin for safekeeping, and in an intelligent grouping. It’s wonderful to be able to see such treasures in the place they were (presumably) made for, and to experience them in such a remote and peaceful ambience.

McNeill continues:

. . . Nearby is the shaft of a cross which tradition avers was broken in malice by a mason who was then stricken with an inward pain and died suddenly as a punishment for his sacrilege . . . O’Keefe was told a story of a small stone, 6 or 7 inches long and 4 or 5 in depth, having ten little hollows in it and resting in a hollow of the ‘altar’ of the old church. Christ, or according to others St Péacán, asked a woman, who had been churning, for some butter; she denied having any and when the visitor departed she found the butter had turned into stone which retained the impression of her fingers . . . Nuttall-Smith speaks also of a cave where the saint used to practice austerities . . .

The carved fragments are quite remarkable and are in all likelihood well over a thousand years old. I have yet to see anywhere in Ireland – outside of museums – which has such an extensive collection of fascinating medieval antiquities as these sites in the Glen of Aherlow. Here you can also see cross slabs and a sundial said to date from the eighth century.

Nuttall-Smith’s ‘cave’ – quoted by MacNeill above – is likely to be St Péacáin’s Cell, set in a field on the far side of the river. This was probably a clochán, or beehive-hut, of the type once used by anchorites. It is protected by a whitethorn tree, but was quite heavily overgrown on the day of our visit. We could make out the ballaun stones inside, said to be the knee prints of the Saint who made his constant devotions there. Amanda – in her post on the holy well – reports that Péacáin would also stand daily with arms outstretched against a stone cross, chanting the psalter.

McNeill discusses the significance of weather at the August celebrations:

. . . Paradoxically for a day of outing so fondly remembered, no tradition of the Lughnasa festival is stronger than that which says that it is nearly always rainy. No doubt this has been only too often experienced. Saint Patrick’s words to the Dési: ‘Bid frossaig far ndála co bráth’ (Your meetings shall always be showery) must be as well proved a prophecy as was ever made. Still there must be more significance in the weather beliefs than dampened observation. Certainly it was expected that rain should fall on that day, and sayings vary as to whether that was a good or bad sign . . . There are a few interesting beliefs about thunder, which was also expected on that day: the loud noise heard at Tristia when the woman made rounds there to have her jealous husband’s affection restored; the prophecy that no-one would be injured by lightning at Doonfeeny, a promise also made by St Péacán . . .

The holy well is tucked away in a stone-walled enclosure hidden under the trees on the edge of the field which contains the Saint’s cell. It’s also a tranquil place, obviously still much visited: the water is crystal clear, refreshing and will ensure protection from burns and drowning.  This is a magical setting to complete the day’s travels in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow.

Off the M8 – A Secret in The Glen of Aherlow

The Glen of Aherlow, County Tipperary: I had never heard of it. However, as you can see from the view, above, the place deserves to be explored: it’s about 20 minutes from junctions 10 and 11 near Cahir. That’s not too much of a diversion. From the spot where this photo was taken – on our travels this week – you can look out across to the Galtee Mountains, a prospect enjoyed for eternity by this imposing statue of Christ the King, whose hand is raised . . . in blessing the Glen, its people and all those who pass by . . . The statue was originally placed here by volunteers in the Holy year of 1950, and recreated in 1975. It has become the symbol of the Glen.

We were passing on our way to search out a secret which the Glen holds: somewhere in the townland of Ardane, we knew that there is a very ancient site where treasures have been hidden away for centuries. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey map has it marked:

I was intrigued, because a ‘Stone Cross’ indicated in this way often implies a High Cross, and a monastic settlement, so I was anxious to investigate. You will remember previous posts I have written on the many magnificent examples of these medieval treasures which Ireland holds. We had been alerted to this site by our friends Amanda and Peter, who have recently visited, and Amanda has given a comprehensive account of St Berrahert’s Well (also shown on the map) in Holy Wells of Cork. Like Amanda, I am unsure if there is a ‘correct’ spelling of St Berrahert: he is also known as Berrihert, Berehert, Bernihardt, Bericheart, and Bernard! Not a lot is known about him, other than that he came to the Glen after the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 and died on 6 December 839 – one of the saints who, like St Ciarán . . . the first Saint of Ireland . . . had a remarkably long life and who has left his name behind in the heart of Tipperary.

The place is generally known as St Berrahert’s Kyle (from the Irish word cill, ‘church’). It’s hard to find. We enlisted the help of Jimmy Martin, a local resident, who regaled us most entertainingly – and at great length – about hooded monks, crows and strange characters he had personally encountered at the site, and cures which he had witnessed at the well. Following his instructions we crossed fields, passed somnolent cows, and saw before us the remarkable ‘Kyle’.

Stone walls and large trees completely encircle an oval shaped enclosure, and the only way in is by steps going over the wall. You are unlikely to be fully prepared for what you find inside. I had hoped for a High Cross – or the fragments of one: we did find a High Cross (perhaps two), but we also found around 70 other stone crosses! Somehow, the Kyle has become a repository for them, but hardly anything is known of their history. After our visit I looked into the stories and found that the enclosure itself – which feels timeless – is probably only as old as I am…

This photograph was taken in 1907. It shows that, for whatever reason, by that time a collection of stone crosses was assembled here. Suggestions have been made that an ancient church on this site was robbed of good building stone, but ‘sacred’ marked stones were left behind out of respect (or from fear of divine retribution). But records do show that the stone enclosure was built in 1946 by the Office of Public Works. What we see today, therefore, is (like me) 72 years old, although of course the stones themselves must have been carved long ago.

The whole collection of stone cross slabs, cross wheels and decorated pillar stones has been put together into an aesthetically pleasing composition which is exciting and – relatively – in safe keeping. To my mind it’s a far better way of displaying these enigmatic pieces than being tucked away in a museum. On a day when the harsh sunlight and perfect blue sky cast deep shadows and outlined the carvings so clearly the place was absolutely magical: the outside world seemed so very far away. The two largest crosses are set close to each other, built into the wall itself. The first is – to my mind – undoubtedly a High Cross in the medieval tradition; it is likely to have originated here, in St Berrahert’s holy place. As to the others, their stories will probably remain untold. But I wish them all well, and hope that future generations appreciate that what has been put together here has a life of its own and should remain an open secret, to be revealed to anyone who makes the effort to search it out.

A pilgrim path – set out with ‘stations’ – encircles the enclosure (photos below). Would this be part of the 1946 construction? From here, the way to the well is marked across more fields, and requires negotiating a boardwalk. It’s a trip that has to be made, though, as the well itself – continuously bubbling up from the sandy bed – is just as magical as the Kyle.

Kilkieran High Crosses – Medieval Gems

You will remember Saint Ciarán of Saigir, who was born on Cape Clear, perfectly framed in our view from Nead an Iolair? He was known as the ‘First Saint of Ireland’, preceding Saint Patrick by almost a century, and also as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. A manuscript dating from 1629 and housed in the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, tells how the Twelve Apostles were educated together in Clonard, Co Meath – the most important monastic school in early Christian Ireland – under Saint Finian. It is said that ‘ . . . there were no fewer than 3,000 pupils getting instruction at one time in the school in the green fields of Clonard. The master excelled in exposition of the Sacred Scriptures, and to this fact must be mainly attributed the extraordinary popularity which his lectures enjoyed. Finnian’s gift for teaching and his absolute dedication to the ascetic ideal, inspired a whole generation . . . ‘ St Finian achieved the age of 140 years himself, while Ciarán – who went off to Cornwall where he is known as St Piran (you will also remember) – lived to be 206 before falling into a well on the way home from a wild party. There’s a lot to be said for being a saint in those days.

These are extracts from the OPW signboard located at the site

Why are we revisiting St Ciarán? Well, we’ve just past March 5th, which is his day, so we have to celebrate him. To do that we will go off to County Kilkenny, where there is a very important medieval site, noted for its high crosses but with plenty more to see: it’s a 45 minute drive north of Waterford city. The site, known as Kilkieran (Kieran is an alternative anglicised spelling, prefixed by ‘Kil’ which means ‘church of’) was once home to a monastery founded by St Ciarán, and the high crosses date from the 9th century.

The West Cross has animal motifs and some unusual interlacing carved on the various elements; below is the site plan included on the OPW signboard

To be able to see exquisite artistic medieval carved stone from 1200 years ago still standing where it was first placed is remarkable. In other discussions on high crosses and similar works of expertise we have asked whether these gems should be preserved out of the elements – as some are – to prevent the deterioration which is undoubtedly taking place. While I tend to favour that approach – and it seems to me to be particularly appropriate where they are replaced by high quality replicas ‘in the field’ – there is something very special about visiting intact sites like this one. The whole conservation process is full of dilemmas.

The enigmatic East Cross – unlike any other Irish High Cross

There were once four crosses at Kilkieran. Three are still complete and in reasonable condition, although much weathered, while the fourth is just the stump of a shaft. One –  the East Cross – is unusual: it is slender, largely undecorated, with minimal crosspieces and no roundel. There’s a nice little tale about it: the cross was attacked and destroyed by iconoclasts, but was painstakingly reconstructed in the mid-19th century by blind local stonemason Paddy Laurence, who had lost his sight while working on the construction of the Palace of Westminster in London: the old Palace had been ravaged by fire in 1834 and was rebuilt to its present design under the auspices of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin.

The plain South Cross: the large, acorn-shaped capping is found on other crosses in the ‘Ossory Group’

The high crosses at Kilkieran are simpler and less decorated than many others, but have a great dignity, especially in the context of the burial ground which has grown up around them. We were fortunate to visit them on a really clear day, when the shadowed relief stood strongly out.

A still-visited Holy Well and bullaun stones are found on the old monastery site

You will want to go to Kilkieran yourself: when you do, don’t miss some fine ancient grave slabs and the nearby Holy Well. Then you should take yourself off to the other High Cross sites in what is known as the ‘Ossory Group’, beginning with nearby Ahenny. I’ll be writing about them all soon.

Below – an early carved grave slab on the site, carving on the West Cross shaft, and a detail of the West Cross ring

Fading Treasures

For me, Ireland’s greatest treasures are those that are shy of publicity. There’s nothing more rewarding than turning off the beaten track and negotiating a narrow boreen with a lush growth of grass down the middle and brambles scratching your car on either side to find – often by chance – a stunning piece of medieval architecture, perhaps just the fragments of a ruin in a field, but revealing the beauty of a decorated doorway or an ornately carved corbel. Always these items are discernible but fading. Their splendour – and the exquisite craftsmanship that created them – are manifest. But there’s a melancholy in these finds: you see them, and wonder at them, yet you ask: how many more generations will be able to appreciate these works of ancient hands?

A classic case study would be the medieval high crosses. There are a remarkable number of these still intact on the island of Ireland, and many more fragmentary remains. We go out of our way to search for all these traces in our travels: some of those we have visited to date can be found through this link. It’s such a rich archive, and there are many more to be written up.

Above is St Cronan’s High Cross, Roscrea, Co Tipperary. As you can see, this example has been removed to an indoor location (Black Mills Heritage Centre), to protect it from further weather deterioration, although all the fine detail has been lost. In fact, this example has been assembled from sections of two different medieval crosses for purposes of display. I am an advocate of protecting these artefacts in this way, as acid rain and modern pollution seem to be accelerating the decay of the stone monuments. As in many cases with the protection measures, a high quality reproduction cross has been placed on the original site in the churchyard of St Cronan’s, just a few metres away. Have a look at my post on Monasterboice for a further discussion on the arguments for preservation of these monuments – and compare the condition of the as yet unprotected high crosses there with the wear and tear above.

While in Roscrea, you can take your own journey along a ‘secret track’ to find treasures. Visit Inis na mBeo (Island of the Living) at Monaincha, just a stone’s throw from the town: you are likely to be the only visitors there and can fully appreciate the solitude of the location while exploring a ruined Romanesque church and a reconstructed high cross (above). The monastic site was founded in the 6th century, and was then a true island, only accessible by boat; now you can walk to it. Not least of its attractions is the fact that you are immortal while you are there (so they say). Certainly, we came back alive, but I was concerned to read later that another tradition has it that when the now dry lough contained water, no woman or female animal could ever set foot in or cross it without dying instantly. (Below – looking along the remote trackway that takes you to the former Island of the Living at Monaincha).

Another ‘rescued’ high cross can be found quietly located in the far less remote (but still a little unsung) Cathedral of St Flannan in Killaloe, Co Clare. Megalithic Ireland has a good account of the history of this cross, which can be seen in the images below (while the header picture at the top of this post shows exquisitely carved detailing from a Romanesque doorway in the same Cathedral):

. . . The High Cross in St Flannan’s Cathedral was moved to Killaloe from Kilfenora in 1821. Originally the cross stood on the highest point south of Kilfenora Cathedral, and became known as the cross on the hill. Dr Richard Mant who was appointed Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora in 1820, was appalled by the condition and lack of respect shown for the antiquities in Kilfenora. The cross, which had fallen in 1820, was sent to the Bishop the following year. He had it erected on the grounds of his residence Clarisford Palace. The cross was moved at a later date by a Bishop Ludlow and moved back within the Palace grounds in 1850. In 1934 the cross fell again and this time broke into three pieces. It was re-erected inside the cathedral and fixed against the west gable. In 1998 the cross was repaired and erected as a free standing cross. It stands over four metres high and bears a figure of christ in the centre of the head . . .

The White Cross of St Tola (images below) may not be on everyone’s list of things to see at Dysert O’Dea in Co Clare (you are more likely to be channelled to Corofin), but it’s easy to visit from the better known Romanesque monastery ruins: the ecclesiastical centre was founded by the saint in the 8th century. Cromwell’s forces destroyed the monastery and demolished the cross, but the cross was repaired by Michael O’Dea in 1683. The Synge family restored the cross again in 1871, and in 1960 it was temporarily dismantled and shipped to Barcelona for an exhibition on Irish art.

Clonmacnoise is likely to be on everyone’s list, and rightly so. It was one of Europe’s most important religious centres in medieval times. Ireland’s Ancient East website describes it thus:

. . . The whole of this early Christian site – including ruins of a cathedral, seven churches (10th–13th century), two round towers, high crosses and the largest collection of early Christian grave slabs in Western Europe – is a vast story in stone that keeps alive the spirit of Ireland as a Land of Saints and Scholars . . .

There are three conserved high crosses at Clonmacnoise – all are placed inside the visitor centre, while quality replicas are positioned on the original sites: this is a good exemplar of how to look after ancient stones and, while perhaps the seasonal crowds can be off-putting, I believe it’s the only answer for maintaining access to and displaying this valuable history. Ancient East mentions the important grave slab collection: after the high crosses (and, of course, Romanesque architecture) I feel these are the most beautiful representations of art and craftsmanship that connect us across the centuries to our remarkably focussed forebears.

These are just a few examples of the many grave slabs which are fortunately conserved at Clonmacnoise. But there are many more monuments that are less fortunate, albeit they may enjoy some sort of state care. There are just not enough resources to look after the huge historical heritage of Ireland: we can only hope that, in time, they will all be fully appreciated and that not too many treasures will fade away.

Off the M8 – Exploring the Delights of Durrow

Earlier this year, Finola wrote a very popular post entitled Off The M8 and into Medieval Ireland. From the responses, we realised that many travellers welcome the idea of breaking up a long journey by taking a diversion to experience some aspects of Ireland’s wonderful historical heritage. So, I’m taking up the mantle today by suggesting that you go a fair bit out of your way – if travelling the route between Dublin and Cork – to visit the ecclesiastical site of Durrow, County Offaly.

You’ll need a bit of guidance in order to find this little piece of medieval Ireland: hopefully the extract from the National Monuments Service Historic Environment Viewer – an invaluable source for us in our travels – will locate you (above). At the time of writing this, there is no signpost on the N52, but the entrance to the site is through a substantial gateway about 3km south of Kilbeggan – from Junction 5, on the M6 motorway – heading towards Tullamore. From the M50 around Dublin, leave at Junction 7 and it’s a one hour journey to Durrow. From Durrow it’s 40 minutes to connect with the M7 /M8 at Portlaoise. So taking this detour will add between 40 and 50 minutes to your overall journey, depending on traffic. But it will be well worth the extra time if, like us, you are mad about Irish history.

As you can see from the header picture – and the one above – the greatest delight of Durrow is the medieval High Cross, now saved from the elements and safely displayed inside the late 18th century church which is probably built on the site of an Augustian Abbey church founded in the 1140s by Murchadh Ua Maoil Sheachlainn, high king of Midhe, who died at Durrow in 1153. The cross – possibly 10th century – is a really good and clearly legible example of the scriptural type, depicting scenes from the Bible. The OPW has annotated all the panels in excellent information boards.

This is the west facing entrance to St Colmcille’s Church, Durrow, which now houses the High Cross and a number of cross slabs and grave slabs, some of which are medieval. A monastery was founded here by Colmcille in the 6th century; it is possible that the stone head which can just be made out above the entrance, and below the bell tower, could date from the earliest building period on this site and was incorporated into the present church. Perhaps it is St Colmcille himself – looking down over the old graveyard, and the original site of the High Cross. Colmcille famously established the monastery at Iona in Scotland, and over sixty churches in Britain and Ireland claim him as their founder.

Above (left) is a photograph taken in 1890 of the Durrow High Cross at its former site, to the west of the church building which now houses it. To the right is a fragment of one of the grave slabs which were embedded in the churchyard wall enclosure and which have also now been mounted inside the church for safety and conservation. This one is said to date from between the 12th and the 15th centuries: the visible inscription has not been deciphered.

Above is an earlier cross-slab which has been described as …possibly of 9th century date… The inscription probably reads Ór do Chatalan (Pray for Chatalan). This carved stone was also located originally in the wall of the churchyard, and is now in the church.

Through a curious twist, the inscribed stone above, dating from 1665 and commemorating a member of the De Renzi family of Hollow House in the townland of Ballynasrah, has been taken from inside the church and placed against the wall of the 18th century burial enclosure of the Armstrong family located outside in the graveyard. Below is a large ‘early Christian’ cross-slab, also taken from the wall of the graveyard and now resting inside the church below the east window.

Don’t ignore the church itself – and don’t get confused with the thriving Catholic Church of St Colmcille in the small village of Durrow, only about a kilometre away. The one here off the beaten track (which now houses the High Cross and the cross-slabs) is a Church of Ireland site, and is a very well presented example of a simple 18th century interior with box pews, a raised pulpit and a ‘preaching box’. It has been the subject of a conservation project by the Office of Public Works, and is more properly classified as a Heritage Centre rather than a working church, although occasional services, concerts etc are held in the building.

You will remember my fascination with Irish medieval High Crosses from my previous posts – and my concerns for those which remain unprotected from the weather. Here at Durrow the damage which has befallen this High Cross over the centuries is all too visible, although conservation works are in progress and will ultimately return it to good condition. It’s a good example for others to follow.

There is yet more to see at Durrow: follow the path to the Holy Well – on your way you will catch a glimpse of the architecturally significant Durrow Abbey House. Built in the Jacobean Revival style between 1837-43, much of it was severely damaged by fire in the 1920s. Subsequent rebuilding incorporated a Queen Anne style Art Nouveau interior. The house is not open to the public.

A walk to the well is rewarding, as the structure itself is in reasonable condition and quite ornate. It is still visited on St Colmcille’s feast day, June 9, when a procession arrives on foot from the Catholic Church in Durrow. We couldn’t complete our visit to the Saint’s special places without leaving an offering!