Off the M8 – A High Cross and a Complex Saint

We haven’t had an ‘Off the M8’ for quite some time. You remember that, on our journeys from West Cork to Dublin, we would go (literally) off the beaten track to find new places of interest to visit – making a ‘grand day out’ of every trip. However, the unexpected arrival of the Covid19 pandemic severely curtailed our travelling – and everyone else’s – for many months. Covid is by no means over, even now, but we are slowly venturing further afield and, last week, made the trip up to the Dublin area, following all the guidelines. Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist trying out a fresh route which adds about 40 minutes to the overall journey but which takes in a new (for us) medieval stone cross and a historic site with thought-provoking associations. It is situated with fine views of the Slieveardagh Hills to the west.

We followed the normal route as far as Cahir, on the M8, then headed off east on the N24 and N76 towards Callan. Just after Ninemilehouse (Ireland has some wonderful place names!) you cross from County Tipperary into County Kilkenny and, within a few minutes (watch carefully), you’ll see a small signpost directing you off to the right down a tiny boreen to Killamery High Cross.

The first thing you’ll see, at the end of this lane, is the ruin of a significant church. Some distance beyond it you’ll make out the distinctive shape of the large, carved stone cross but also many other treasures including old grave slabs, bullaun stones and a very fine holy well dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

The site is associated with an Irish holy man, as you would expect: Saint Gobhan, Gobán Fionn, Gobban – or even Gobanus – who lived from c560 to c639AD. Foundations associated with this saint were many, including Portadown, Co Armagh, in the north; also as Abbot to the monastery of Old Leighlin, County Carlow, where in 633AD he presided over a great Synod held to debate the timing of Easter (we seem to remember only the later Synod of Whitby – 664AD – which also set out to regularise the date but which led to irreconcilable disagreement between the Irish and Roman factions). Latterly, Gobhan was linked to the Kingdom of Kerry – near Tralee, but we are interested today in the monastery he set up by a holy well in Killamery. He had a thousand monks with him and it is said that an army of angels helped build the walls.

The angels must also have helped to eradicate that monastery as there is now no trace of Gobhan’s foundation in County Kilkenny, just a lonely 19th century church, the well (pictured above), a burial ground and this very fine High Cross. The cross is well worth a visit: some say it’s the oldest of the Western Ossory high crosses, which are themselves considered to be a distinct group. I have looked previously at the Kilkieran examples. Here at Killamery there is just the one cross and, perhaps for that reason, it stands out in the memory. Some scholars reckon it could be 8th century, but most attribute it to the 9th. It’s ancient by any standard, certainly, and it’s probably unavoidable that the carving is so weathered.

The Duchas signboard (above) describes the scenes depicted on the various elements of the cross,  but most of what we can decipher today is limited to geometrical patterns – very much in the ‘Celtic’ tradition. There may have once been other visible motifs: the large plinth stone is completely worn on all surfaces.

The cross certainly predates any of the other artefacts, bullauns and stone markers which surround it today, but it is likely that the adjacent holy well is even more ancient: it is dominated by an intriguing, large shaped monolith.

Among the artefacts which have arrived at this site is a fine 17th century (probably) cross slab and a memorial to the United Irishmen who lost their lives at nearby Carrigmoclear in 1798 – both shown below.

The origins of Gobhan himself merit some consideration. He has associations with metalworkers and, of course, we know that Saint Gobnait was their patron saint. Could there be some fusion of names in folk history and oral tradition? Like Gobhan, Gobnait is revered at many sites around Ireland and undertook diverse travels around the island in search of the nine white deer which set her destiny.

There’s nothing more Irish than the experience of finding references to hundreds of years of history hiding down a lonely boreen to nowhere in the rural heart of this land. More than anything, it makes us want to know more. What is real? What is myth – although made to seem logical and credible through stories which are still told? Of course, we can never know the reality, but we can share in the spirit of the stories, and wonder at a piece of stone beautifully carved, perhaps, thirteen hundred years ago . . .

Once you have visited this fascinating site, find your way across to the M9 (it’s straightforward enough) and you’ll be up to the big city in a jiffy!

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