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.

Discovering Carrowmore

stone and sky

At the heart of the Coolrea peninsula in County Sligo lies one of the greatest megalithic complexes of ancient Ireland, An Cheathrú Mhór or Carrowmore as we call it today: the Irish name means ‘The Great Quarter’. Spread over a plateau of some 150 acres and centred on the high point of Listoghil are thirty recognisable tomb sites but it is suggested that there were once at least a hundred monuments here.

Carrowmore 1

The Carrowmore monuments that we know today cover over 150 acres: it’s likely that there is much more to this site which has been lost, or which remains to be recovered

The changing landscape has taken its toll: from the 18th century onwards land clearance and quarrying have damaged and obliterated many of the remains and even as recently as 1983 Sligo County Council sought to place a municipal landfill dump adjacent to the known sites. Fortunately a few alert local residents objected and took the case to the High Court in Dublin. Initially their objections were overruled but in 1989 an appeal to the Supreme Court was successful and the very important landscape context of Carrowmore has been saved, hopefully for all time. In that same year the state commenced purchase of a part of the site and has developed a sensitively planned visitor facility now run by the Office of Public Works. Since then more of the surrounding site has been purchased and is in public ownership.

stone and skyscape

Carrowmore landscape: this view to the great central cairn on Listoghil shows the nature of the terrain and the context of the monuments which it is so important to preserve

It’s the integrity of the complex that is so special here. The monuments found at Carrowmore are called boulder circles, though several have central dolmens or rudimentary passages. Generally around 12 to 15 metres in diameter, the circles contain 30 to 40 boulders, usually of gneiss, the material of choice for the tombs. Sometimes an inner boulder circle is also present.They are considered to be an early type of chambered cairn, or passage grave, though in fact, they may be the ancestor of a few monument types. This is the view of local man Martin Byrne, historian, artist, musician and our tour guide for the day. He pointed out to us how the passage of each of the boulder groupings is oriented, not towards a solar or calendrical event but to Listoghil, where an enormous cairn encloses a box-like stone chamber with a large capstone.

Monument, mountain and sky

One of the boulder circles at Carrowmore with its central chambered tomb. This view is looking away from Listoghil and towards another significant landscape feature, Knocknarea, which is topped by the cairn known as Queen Maeve’s Tomb, 6 km to the west. There are 6 more mountain-top cairns on the peaks of the Ox Mountains to the south. The central focus of the Carrowmore complex is the cairn on Listoghil, although this is not as dramatically visible as many of the surrounding cairns

The chamber on Listoghil has been given a modern context, with the original cairn covering having been cut away to allow access. This chamber displays the only examples of rock art to be found so far within the Carrowmore complex. This is hard to see in normal lighting conditions, but successive observations have enabled these images to be made:

Listoghil carvings Guillaume Robin 1994

The formerly covered central chamber of the Listoghil cairn: top left is a photograph taken during excavations by Göran Burenhult in 1996-98 – this shows three boulders in front of the tomb which are said to have been an earlier Neolithic monument displaced by the tomb construction. Top right is the OPW interpretation board for the chamber and above are drawings of the rock art on the edge of the roof slab compiled by Guillaume Robin

It’s startling to discover that the Carrowmore complex could be over 6,000 years old: carbon dating from some of the finds has suggested this. If so, then it’s the earliest of the passage grave cemeteries in use in Ireland. Many cremated remains have been found over this site (spread over a long period of time), although unburnt human bones were also recovered in the Listoghil chamber. It could be speculated that the focal point of Listoghil must have been the resting place of a very important person – or dynasty; we will never know for sure. 

‘Accidental’ rock art and rock scribing noticed on monuments at Carrowmore: these boulders have natural markings on them but it is possible that the monument builders were attracted by these marks, which may themselves have inspired carvings

The Carrowmore complex has been visible enough historically to attract the attention of antiquarians – which is useful for later archaeologists, as some parts which are now lost have been historically recorded, albeit using methodology which would nowadays be considered inadequate. Gabriel Beranger, who was born in Rotterdam in 1725, settled in Dublin in 1760 and was a notable illustrator of antiquities in Ireland during a long lifetime; he visited and recorded Carrowmore. A local landlord, Roger Walker, carried out some excavations of the tombs in the 19th century but made no significant records; it is suggested that he was a treasure hunter. George Petrie surveyed the site and numbered the tombs in 1837 but it was another 50 years before archaeologist William Gregory Wood-Martin made the first methodically recorded excavations. William Wakeman produced some exquisite watercolour sketches in 1879. More recently Swedish archaeologist Göran Burenhult undertook detailed studies between 1977-1982 and 1994-1998 and this work included the excavation and subsequent reconstruction of the Listoghil cairn.

Upper Left: the work of Gabriel Beranger who visited the area in the 1700s – this shows Queen Maeve’s Tomb on Knocknarea. Upper right: William Wakeman’s watercolour of Tomb 4 in 1879 (Sligo County Library). Above: Listoghil chamber tomb today

Our guide Martin has studied the complexes at both Carrowmore and Carrowkeel (a future destination for us) for many years and is imbued with the archaeology and the landscape. He gently pointed us to the fact that relationships can perhaps be seen between the profiles of some of the boulders – particularly the capstones of the tombs – and the more distant landscape. I find this fascinating: I have always felt, as an architect, that there should be a conscious designed relationship between any building that is erected by human endeavour and the setting of that building within nature. Could these parallels that we might be seeing at Carrowmore be conscious?

Dolmen and Mountain

Rocks reflecting nature? Were the capstones chosen to specifically echo the landscape context? A debatable – and very subjective – notion…

My day was made when I discovered that Martin was a musician – as is Margaret, and I joined them in their colourful house for a little session!

martin + margaret