Monastic Ireland: the history of Ireland’s high crosses

By Jacqueline Russe / January 29, 2020
Ireland's high crosses, Glasnevin Celtic Crosses

Ireland is known for its picturesque ruins of old castles and monasteries. But these are not the only relics of a time long past. Let us explore the history of Ireland’s high crosses together.

What are high crosses?

A high cross, or standing cross as it is sometimes called, is a free-standing cross made of stone. The crosses were often richly decorated with either religious or mythical scenes. It was a unique tradition in Ireland and Britain during early Medieval times to raise these large sculptured crosses. This probably developed from earlier traditions using wood and pagan Celtic memorial stones. But the evidence of these wooden crosses has since long rotted away. An interesting feature you will notice with most of Ireland’s high crosses is the ring around the middle of the cross. This ring was first used to stabilise the wooden crosses but later became a decorative feature that is still in use today.

Along with the Book of Kells, these high crosses can be seen as Ireland’s biggest contribution to western European art in the Middle Ages. It is speculated that they were used as meeting points for religious ceremonies or to mark boundaries. The crosses were usually only about two metres high, but in Ireland you can find crosses that are more than three times the size, with intricate carvings along the sides. Ireland’s crosses have also survived the ravages of time better than those found in Britain. Most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed or damaged after the Reformation and often only sections of the shaft remain.

Examples of High Crosses:

Today, around 250 high crosses are said to still exist throughout Ireland, with about 30 still in good condition. The majority of them are believed to have been erected around the 9th century. It is also possible to divide some of them into different local groupings due to similar look and construction. 

Muiredach’s Cross and the Tall Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth:

 

Ireland's high crosses, Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice

Muiredach’s Cross

Also called the South Cross, Muiredach’s Cross is one of three high crosses at the ruined monastic site of Monasterboice. This high cross is regarded as the most beautiful surviving example of early Medieval Irish stonework. It dates back to the 10th century and is around 5.8 metres high, including the base of the cross. Entirely made of sandstone, it is covered completely by almost 50 decorative panels with over 100 different figures depicted in them. You can find almost every well known bible story somewhere on this cross if you look for them.

Tall Cross, Monasterboice

Tall Cross

Muiredach’s Cross is not the only stunning high cross to be found at Monasterboice. At about 7 metres, Monasterboice’s West Cross is the tallest of Ireland’s high crosses and certainly deserves its name of the Tall Cross. Another unusual detail of this cross is that the crucifixion scene on the west face has a fully clothed figure of christ in it.

Clonmacnoise Crosses, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly: 
Cross of Scriptures, Clonmacnoise

Replica of Cross of Scriptures

There are two complete high crosses to be found among the many monastic remains at Clonmacnoise, as well as the shaft of a third one. The most famous of them is the Cross of Scriptures, also known as King Flann’s Cross. It was first mentioned in monastic scriptures in 957 and had likely existed even before that. This cross is also decorated on all four sides from top to bottom with religious scenes. It also has quite stunning interlacing patterns along the ring.

South Cross, Clonmacnoise

Replica of South Cross

The South Cross is quite an interesting sight as well, since it mimics the look of a wooden cross. It has raised bosses representing the studs that would keep wooden crosses together and raised edges representing the metal plates encasing the wood.

The originals of both crosses are now located in the visitor centre of the Clonmacnoise monastic site to preserve them better, with replicas at their original positions. The shaft of the North Cross can be found in the visitor centre as well.

Ahenny Crosses, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary: 
Ahenny High Crosses

Ahenny High Crosses

Ahenny has two high crosses that can be found in the remains of the monastery of Kilclispeen, close to the city. They are both made of sandstone and are around 3.5 metres high. Both are thought to be two of the earliest surviving examples of high crosses in Ireland, made around the 8th or 9th century. Because of that, they are mostly devoid of carved figures and instead feature beautiful Celtic artwork. They also imitate their wooden predecessors with their raised edges and stone bosses.

Both high crosses in Ahenny belong to the Ossory group, which is seen as the oldest group of Celtic high crosses to be found in Ireland. Other crosses that belong to this group are the Kilkieran Crosses, Killamery High Cross and Kilree High Cross.

Nether Cross, Finglas, Co. Dublin: 
Nether Cross Finglas, Ireland's high crosses

Nether Cross

Although not as impressive as other crosses in terms of decoration, the Finglas High Cross at St Canice’s Church in Finglas has a much more intriguing history. It is also called the Nether Cross or Lower Cross, is around 3.6 metres high and made of granite. The interesting part of the story is that it had remained buried underground for almost 160 years before it was found again. In 1648, Oliver Cromwell came from England with an army to conquer Ireland. In anticipation of the plunder and desecration caused by Cromwell’s troops, the villagers buried the cross in the graveyard disguised as a new grave and kept its location secret. In 1816, the reverend at that time heard the story from one of the parishioners who had heard the story from their grandfather and managed to unearth the cross to put it back where it belonged.

Moone High Cross, Moone, Co. Kildare
Moone High Cross

Moone High Cross

In Moone, County Kildare, you will find the second tallest high cross in Ireland. Its shape is quite unique, since it consists of three parts that were discovered separately. The upper part and base were discovered in the graveyard of the abbey in 1835 and re-erected as a complete cross. However, in 1893 they discovered the middle section of the shaft and the cross was reconstructed to its original size, at 5.3 metres. The theme of the scenes depicted on the cross is the help of God, how He helped people in their hour of need.

Ardboe Cross, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone:
Ardboe High Cross, Ireland's high crosses

Ardboe High Cross

The Ardboe cross was one of the first high crosses that were erected in Ulster, dating from the 10th century. With around 5.6 metres it is the tallest cross in Ulster and the third tallest cross in Ireland. It is quite well preserved and contains 22 panels depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testament. On the north side, you can find the early life of Christ and on the west side his miracles and crucifixion. Adam and Eve and the last judgement are depicted on the east side, while the south side shows David and Goliath and Cain and Abel.

Some other high crosses worthy of mention are Kells, Castledermot, Gelndalough, Duleek, Roscrea and Killaloe.

Did you like our small list of Ireland’s high crosses? Do you know any other beautiful high crosses that can be found in Ireland? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author

Jacqueline Russe

Jacqueline is a German journalist and editor for Babylon Radio who likes comics, manga and video games. She is a state-certified translator for both English and German, currently working on her Bachelor's in Technical Translation.

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