The Fassaroe-Type Crosses of South County Dublin

The Fassaroe Cross (also know as St Valery Cross, below) is familiar to me from childhood, but I hadn’t realised until recently that it is part of a concentration of four crosses in south County Dublin, all still extant*. We have visited them all now, and this first post will look at these remarkable examples of surviving Irish Early Medieval crosses. In the second post I will study their possible dates, established mainly through association with similar examples from elsewhere in Ireland.

In using the term Fassaroe-type, I am following Padraig Ó hÉailidhe (better known as Paddy Healy) who, in 1958, published Fassaroe and Associated Crosses in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (available on JSTOR). Not only did he lay out what was known about these four crosses at the time, but he included his own wonderful and accurate pen and ink drawings.

Robert included the Fassaroe Cross in his post East Coast Archaeology, so I refer you to that for additional photographs of the cross in its context. It’s easy to see why this cross would have become the diagnostic ‘type’, since it is the most complete. 

Standing incongruously at the edge of a traffic roundabout, the cross is an arresting sight. According to Ó hÉailidhe, It was brought from ‘a glen’ some distance away. He also states:

When O’Curry visited the site in 1838,4 he saw, in addition to the cross, a font, pedestal, and quern, which are still extant, a cross shaft which is now missing and part of a baptismal font which had been removed along with another quern to the farmhouse beside Fassaroe Castle. He was furthermore informed that a circular crosshead had also been removed, and that human bones had been dug up on the south side.

The cross has a circular head on a straight shaft which is set into a semi-conical base. On its front face its a crucifixion image, head tilted to the right. The crucified Christ is surrounded by four wedge-shaped quadrants, as if to indicate the hole-and-circle we associate with high crosses. A carved head occupies a space on the outer circle on the lower right.

The back of the circle has two carved heads. Although very worn, Ó hÉailidhe felt their elongated shape pointed to long beards and a mitre. The base has yet one more head. You can view the cross in 3D here, a project of the Medieval Bray Group.

The second Cross is in Rathmichael, just outside Shankill, at the start of a woodland walk. It’s my lead photograph, which shows the context. It was moved here from the ruins of Kiltuck Church which once stood, with its associated graveyard, in what is now the housing estate of Castle Farm on the Bray to Shankill road. 

Old photographs taken by Thomas Mason (see Roberts post for more about this photographer) show it before it was moved, in a jumble of stones at Kiltuck.

The two Mason photographs above are from the Mason collection at the National Library of Ireland, and used under license from them.

Apparently the shaft was in the present location and when the cross was re-united with it – it fit! The front of the cross has the crucifixion image carved in relief, while on the back the image is recessed. Like Fassaroe, the recessed head  is slightly tilted to the right. Unlike Fassaroe, in which the top of the cross was circular, this one has very short arms. 

The base has a small cupmark. Since walkers regularly use this route, some have taken to leaving small offerings, and it’s good to see this cross as valued and respected.

There were two crosses at Kiltuck, and the second one was removed by the Parish Priest of the newly-built Church of St Anne in Shankill in the early 1930s. In recent time the Rathmichael Historical Society, an active local group, sponsored its erection in its current location in front of the church, on a stone plinth.

The front face has a recessed crucifixion image, head slightly tilted to the right. The photograph below was taken in the church yard and shows the urban environment of this cross.

The back of the cross has a head, with the pointed chin such as we saw at Fassaroe. The head of the cross has the same short arms as the Rathmichael cross. 

Our final cross is in a most unexpected location – right in the middle of Blackrock. It may have been used in the 15th century as a boundary marker to separate one medieval Dublin ‘franchise’ from another. Here’s what Ó hÉailidhe has to say on his decision to include it with the others: 

The newly erected cross at Blackrock (Fig. 5)26 has been included in this group, because it has several features in common with that of Kiltuck, i.e. a human head in exactly the same position on the shaft and some rather irregular chamfering. This cross does not possess any artistic or architectural merits.

The chamfering is most obvious on the Kilmichael cross, while the head is similar to that at Kiltuck. The shape of the cross, however, is entirely different: rather than the head of the cross being circular, this one is, well, cross-shaped.

It’s impossible to make out what’s on the back on the cross, although Ó hÉailidhe tries manfully to illustrate it. 

Ó hÉailidhe includes one more cross, from Killegar in Wicklow, now in the National Museum, but I will deal with that one in the next post, when I will review the literature about similar crosses and come to a conclusion about likely dates. Spoiler alert: although there have been claims that these crosses may be as late as 17th century, as you will see, I agree with most authorities that they are 12th century. As such, they represent a very important monument group.

* Thanks to Chris Corlett for pointing me in the direction of resources for this post

Megalith or Monstrosity?

Some intriguing arrangements of stones here – and some enigmatic reporting of their significance as history. We are a long way from West Cork – in fact, over on Ireland’s east coast, among the fine estates of Killiney. We can’t help but search out examples of archaeology wherever we go, and a red dot on the Historic Environment map is always a good starting point, as is anything with an enigmatic name.

In this case, the red dot is just to the left of the ‘Pagan Temple’ at the top of the 25″ OS map – but look at all the other intriguing names in the locality!

Here’s a close up -extracted from the 1888 OS map, highlighting the site that we are looking at today. With Templeville, Druid Lodge, Druid Hill and Stonehenge as neighbours, the Pagan Temple demands a closer look!

It was last week’s subject – the writer and photographer Thomas Holmes Mason – who directed us to this County Dublin location. As a significant producer of picture postcards, Mason has left a large body of work, even though many of his photographic plates were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1963. The National Library of Ireland houses a comprehensive collection, and I am grateful to them for this image, above, which shows an intriguing stone formation on the Killiney ‘Pagan Temple’ site. It is referred to as The Sun and Moon stone by some antiquarians, and the following description appears on the current Historic Environment Viewer:


Scope note

Class: Megalithic structure

Townland: KILLINEY

Description: “. . .This enigmatic structure is located within an area enclosed by a hedge on top of Druid Hill. In the E side of the enclosure are three irregular granite boulders that form a façade behind which is a larger boulder containing a setting of stones that form a seat. To the W of this are two large granite slabs set on their long axis. There are tool marks present. This structure appears to be a folly but it may incorporate the remnants of an earlier monument . . .” Historic Environment Viewer

The write-up is accurate. In addition to the ‘chair’ (which Finola is elegantly modelling while trying not to sit in a puddle!) there are two further irregular granite boulders – but one of them (detailed in the T H Mason photograph) looks like two circles – hence ‘sun and moon’ – but is in fact a single boulder, here seen from the ‘front’ face:

The right-hand side of this stone has some marks carved on it (by human hand) – possibly part of a large circle that outlines this half, while the vertical ‘groove’, central to the boulder, also appears to have been chased out. It’s worth noting as well, perhaps, that there are two small holes drilled on the back face of this stone, one on each side but not aligned on any centre. Additionally, there is also a small hole drilled on the back face of the second stone:

This article – by William Wakeman – appeared in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland December, 1896. It introduces an element of scepticism, which we should perhaps explore. The excellent Killiney History website has collected together a number of writings and observations about this site.

John Dalton writing in 1858 seems quite satisfied of the antiquity of the Judgment Seat. The Gazetteer of Ireland states “A well-preserved Druidical circle with its priests’ seat and its sacrificing stone, occur within a carefully kept enclosure, behind Mount Druid demesne, and near the Martello Tower, but is made accessible by the proprietor to respectable visitors.”

William Wakeman, a well known antiquarian of the last century, appears to have been the first to condemn these remains as spurious. “Formerly it was enclosed within a circle of great stones and a ditch. The circle has been destroyed and the ditch so altered that little of its original character remains. The seat is composed of large rough granite blocks and, if really of the period to which tradition refers it, an unusual degree of care must have been exercised for its preservation. The stones bear many indications of their having been at least rearranged at no very distant time. Small wedges have been introduced as props between the greater stones. The right arm is detached from the other part, to which it fits but clumsily. The whole, indeed, bears the appearance of a modern antique, composed of stones which once formed a portion of some ancient monument.”

These photographs were taken by William Frazer in 1898. The arrangements of stones at that time are very similar to what we see today – well over a century later – but with far less growth of ground cover.

Above: Druid’s judgement Seat, Killiney – from Library of Ireland archives.

Elrington Ball [1863–1928] confirms this view of the Druid’s Judgment Seat. The stones of which it is composed formed part of a Sepulchral memorial dating from very early times, consisting of three small cromlechs, surrounded by a circle of upright stones about 135 feet in diameter, and, at the time of its first attracting attention, in the 18th Century when everything prehistoric was attributed to the Druids or the Danes, it was assumed to be a Pagan Temple . . . Near the circle was discovered at the same time an ancient burying place, and some stones with curious markings, which are still to be seen. The burying place was of considerable extent, the bodies, which were enclosed in coffins made of flags, having been laid in a number of rows of ten each . . .

Finally Woodmartin [Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland 1902 Vol 11] makes the sweeping statement: the entire structure leaves the unmistakeable impression of very modern fabrication, and it is a mere clumsy attempt to gull the public . . . As seen to-day these relics of antiquity present rather an unlovely picture, in an obscure and ill-kept corner, surrounded by an unsightly hedge, where weeds and brambles share their ancient sanctity; they seem to arouse but little interest . . .

Today, the jury seems to be out on what we are looking at on this site. Time has undoubtedly changed the shape of things: wouldn’t we like to go back a while and see the burying place of considerable extent with all those . . . bodies, which were enclosed in coffins made of flags, having been laid in a number of rows of ten each . . . ? But we do appreciate that a former landowner must have donated the land to excite our interest!

A good tailpiece from William Wakeman