High crosses also known as Celtic crosses here in Ireland, are found on old monastic sites throughout the Irish countryside. They were erected to mark a sacred place and to declare adherence to Christian beliefs, and they were also the focal point of celebrations so many can be found close to a church or round tower. However it should be noted that not all were of an ecclesiastical nature, some were just used to mark a place of interest and they were not as many believe, used to mark graves.
No one really knows the precise history of High crosses as there is no written account going back that far. The earliest crosses in Ireland were made of wood and metal and would have been smaller than the stone crosses that still survive today. Crosses can be dated back to the 8th Century. The first stone crosses are believed to be The Western Ossuary Group of Crosses, which imitated the designs of their predecessors. They can be found spread over an area in the south of Ireland around Ahenny, Killarney, Kilree and Kilkieran. The most important feature of these crosses was the basic form of the cross shape.
Most High crosses were made from sandstone as it was easy to work with and could be carved with incredible detail. Unfortunately however it was not the most robust of stones and that combined with centuries of poor Irish weather means many of these beautiful monuments collapsed and did not survive the test of time. From an unfinished cross at Kells, it would appear that the crosses were raised before their carvings were complete. The ring at the centre of the cross is what makes Irish Celtic crosses so unique. No one knows the true meaning, though the ancient pagan Celts believed a circle represented many things including the cycle of life and the season cycle. The cross within the ring has been regarded as a scared symbol of the sun since pre-Christian times. To Irish Catholics, the circle represents eternity and the infinite nature of God’s love. The crosses are etched with intricate carvings.
Later crosses are more ornate and are known as transitionary and then scriptural crosses, they are believed to date back to the 9th Century. It is the scriptural crosses that are specifically entitled High Crosses. There are about 30 of these still standing today and all date back to the 9th and 10th Century. The best known and oldest of these is the Cross of Scriptures at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.
There are several local groupings of crosses, the other most well known and popular being Kells and Duleek in Co. Meath, Monasterboice in Co. Louth, Moone and Castledermot in Co. Kildare, Durrow in Co. Offaly and Graiguenamanagh in Co. Kilkenny. Other popular crosses include Downpatrick in Co. Down, Ardboe in Co. Tyrone, Drumcliffe in Co. Sligo and Cashel in Co. Tipperary.
Crosses from the later 11th and 12th Century show a move towards more ornamental design with the Crucifixion being the main scene depicted. After this time, building of new crosses died away. In order to preserve the remaining crosses, some of them have been removed from their original locations and placed in protective environments; some have been replaced by replicas.
Now we will take a look at some of the most popular High Crosses:
Cross of Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
The monastery at Clonmacnoise was founded in 545 by Ciaran of Clonmacnoise. Known as a centre of religion, learning and craftsmanship, it was the one of the most famous monasteries in Europe. Many of the high kings of Tara and Connacht are buried there. The original buildings are now in ruins as is the castle which was built by the Normans in the 13th Century. The site also houses a round tower which was built in 1124 by the king of Connacht. The upper part was struck by lighting and was later rebuilt and also houses a number of High crosses. The most notable being the Cross of Scriptures. Standing 4 metres high it is considered to be one of the best crafted of the surviving high crosses. It has an inscription asking for a prayer for Flann, the King of Ireland at the time and Colmán who made the cross. Made about 900, it was carved from a single piece of stone. Scenes depicted on the carvings include the Crucifixion, the last judgement and Christ in the tomb. The original cross has been removed from its original standing spot into a visitors centre to protect it from the elements, however a replica cross stands in its original location.
The monastery at Monasterboise was founded pre 521 by St. Buite and remained in existence up to 1122. The round tower was burned in 1097 and there are also the remains of two medieval churches. It actually contains not one but two of the finest high crosses in Ireland. Both date back to the 9th Century. One is the Muiredach Cross and the other is the Tall Cross. The Muiredach Cross is the most well known. It gets its name from the inscription at the base of the west side which says that it was erected by Muiredeach. The cross measures 5.5 metres in height and is covered with decorative panels depicting scenes from the bible, those on the east side include Adam & Eve, Moses, David & Goliath, Cain & Abel and on the west side is Christ being mocked by soldiers, Raised Christ, the Crucifixion, the Ascension and on one of the arms is the Resurrection. The base of the cross features pictures of animals, hunters and interlaced knot work.
Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo
The monastery at Drumcliffe was founded about 575 by St. Colmcille. A Church of Ireland church now stands in its place and in front of this poet W.B. Yeats is buried. There is also the remains of a round tower which was struck by lightening in 1396. The Drumcliffe High Cross measures 3.83 metres high and features images of Adam & Eve, David & Goliath, Daniel in the Lions Den and Christ in Glory on the east face and on the west face it has the crucifixion as well as interlacing knot work.
Moone, Co. Kildare
This 8th Century cross which stands 17 Feet high is the second tallest cross in Ireland. It is situated within the site of an early monastery believed to have been built by St. Palladius in the 5th Century, in a walled enclosure outside the village of Moone in Co. Kildare. The cross had actually fallen apart and was put back together and moved within the ruins of the medieval church. The shape of the cross is unusual as are the carvings on this cross as it is more flat and as a result it is one of the most appealing of all the high crosses. The scenes depicted include the Twelve Apostles, Adam & Eve, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and the Crucifixion. There are also pictures of animals. There is also a base of another cross beside this cross.
Kells, Co. Meath
The monastery at Kells was founded in 804 by monks from St. Colmcilles foundation. There is also a round tower and a number of high crosses. The greatest treasure to come from this site was the Book of Kells, which is now housed in Trinity College, in Dublin. Near the round tower is the south cross – believed to date to the 9th Century, the cross was dedicated to St. Patrick and St. Columba. The base of the cross has interlacing and engravings of animals. The east face shows Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Daniel in the lions den and the three children in the fiery furnace. The west face shows scenes of the crucifixion and Christ in judgement. The left arm shows the sacrifice of Isaac and the right arm includes the Miracle of the loaves and fishes. There are also a number of decorative panels on the cross. To the north-west of this cross is another very fine and tall cross. Near the church is an unfinished cross and there is also the base of another cross on the site.
Kells is also home to the Market Cross. This cross stands at 3.35 metres high at the crossing of two streets within the town. It is believed that the cross was moved here and would originally have stood at the gate if the monastery. The base of the cross shows horsemen, animals and a battle scene. The east face shows, Christ in the tomb. Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel and the west face features an inscription saying the cross was erected in 1688 with panels depicting the Miracle of the loaves and fishes and the Crucifixion.
Ardboe, Co. Tyrone
The Ardboe High cross is the only surviving remnant of the monastery that sat on the hill overlooking a lake. Nearby are the remains of a church and an abbey. This is the only cross in the North of Ireland where the shaft and the head of the cross are likely to have belonged together originally. It measures 5.5 metres high making it the tallest cross in Ireland. The east face of the cross is dominated by scenes from the old testament while the west side shows scenes such as the Marriage at Cana and Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The north side appears to represent scenes from the early life of Christ and it also appears to read from top to bottom which is highly unusual. Also on the cross you will see scenes of the crucifixion and the last judgement.
Durrow, Co. Laois
The monastery here was founded by St. Columba in 553. There is no longer any trace of the monastery, but there is a holy well and a high cross dating back to the 9th Century. The book of Durrow also originated from this monastery. The cross measures 3.6 metres high and the scenes depicted on the high cross include the rising of Christ, David slaying the lion, soldiers guarding Christ’s tomb, the crucifixion, Cain slaying Abel and Adam & Eve.
These are just a sample of the 30 high crosses that can be found in Ireland. The beauty and craftsmanship of these crosses have made them some of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland. It has become a necessity to go and see at least one of these crosses if travelling around Ireland. Because of the beautiful and intricate detailing and designs of these crosses they also make ideal models for jewellery and you can buy pendant replicas of many of the most popular crosses in gold and sterling silver such as this Drumcliffe High Cross.
Drumcliffe Celtic High Cross