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!


The Wonders of Monasterboice

In our recent journeys around Ireland we both had opportunities to indulge our particular interests. Among them, Finola was able to take in some fine examples of stained glass and Romanesque architecture, while I concentrated on the beautiful medieval carving of a number of Irish High Crosses, to add to the examples I have written about recently.

For any Irish High Cross enthusiasts (I suspect that there are many of you out there), Monasterboice in County Louth has to be on the list of ‘must see’ places. It was founded in the 5th century by Saint Buithe, a follower of St Patrick – the Irish Mainistir Bhuithe means Monastery of Buithe – and was an active and important Christian settlement through to the 12th century, when its importance was eclipsed by Mellifont. I found out that St Buithe ascended into Heaven by climbing a ladder that was lowered down to him for the purpose.

Left – a photograph of the great cross at Monasterboice – known as  Muiredach’s Cross – taken in 1905 and, right – the same west face seen today. Finola is there to show its true scale: remarkably it is 5.5m tall

Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923, was an Abbot at Monasterboice. He is  credited with commissioning the great cross, shown above. It’s not quite the tallest high cross in Ireland, but it’s said to be the finest, probably because of its stature and remarkable state of preservation. The carved panels are all legible, and the biblical stories illustrated have all been identified. An inscription on the lower section of the cross shaft states: OR DU MUIREDACH LASNDERNAD IN CHROS – A prayer for Muiredach under whose auspices this cross was made. Confusingly there was also a king, Muiredach mac Cathail, who owned the lands on which the monastery was built. He died around 867, so it is possible that the cross was commissioned by him, or was made in commemoration of him, rather than by the Abbot.

The Office of Public Works has responsibility for overseeing the site at Monasterboice. The well produced information panel details the carvings on Muiredach’s Cross

A gallery of detailed carving work from Muiredach’s great cross: the subjects include Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel; Celtic knotwork; Moses striking the rock; the crucifixion and (header) nativity scene with the Magi. The lowest picture, above, shows the decorated base, which is shaped like a saint’s reliquary and the panel with two cats and the prayer for Muiredach

This wealth of medieval art is only part of the site’s wonders. There are two more complete High Crosses, fragments of other carvings and slabs, and a round tower. The Tall Cross or West Cross is the highest in Ireland, at nearly 7 metres. Because of its size it has the greatest number of carved panels of any Irish High Cross. However, these panels are suffering from weathering much more than Muiredach’s Cross, and their present state must raise concerns for all the carvings at Monasterboice. At other sites, crosses have been sheltered (Moone) or moved into buildings (Clonmacnoise, Durrow).

The Tall Cross (or West Cross) at Monasterboice; left – in context with the round tower beyond; right – an example of a badly weathered panel on the Tall Cross

Upper – the west face of the Tall Cross cross-wheel, which is in comparatively good condition, and lower – the east face. The number of scenes depicted on these panels alone is remarkable

Carved panels on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice and – lower – a study of Celtic knotwork found on Irish High Crosses, taken from MUIREDACH – Abbot of Monasterboice 890-923 AD by R A S McAlister MA FSA, Dublin 1914

There is a third High Cross at Monasterboice, known as the North Cross. It is less spectacular, perhaps, than the large ones, and the carvings are comparatively minimal. Nevertheless, its modesty gives it a somewhat more refined character. Close to the North Cross are some fragments, including part of a medieval sundial – reminiscent of the one we saw at Kilmalkedar, County Kerry, earlier this year.

Upper – the North Cross with the round tower in the background; lower left – North Cross east face and, lower right – nearby fragment of a medieval sundial

Monasterboice displays so many wonders. Yet, in some ways, it’s an uneasy site. It’s probably not helpful – but perhaps essential – that the parking area a little way off is rife with warnings about thieves, and broken glass is evident. There have also been reports of vandalism against the monuments themselves – emphasising their vulnerability. The place is of major importance: during the summer season the site is attended, and guides are available. We were there in early October, when no-one was around.

This site – and similar ones all across Ireland – are vitally important to the heritage of this country. The artefacts are irreplaceable, yet too little resource is given to protecting them – from weather and people. As we know from our forays into the world of Prehistoric Rock Art, stone carvings are fragile, and under-appreciated. There’s no obvious easy solution, apart from them being given higher status and priority by the empowered bodies such as the Office of Public Works. They, in turn, need to be given more support by the State, particularly in terms of funding: they do the best they can with very limited resources.

Cats on the base of Muiredach’s Cross, recorded  by McAlister in 1914:

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!