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Irish High Crosses

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High crosses are giant free-standing stone crosses which were erected by the early Christians of Ireland, mainly in the 9th, 10th and 12th centuries. They range from about 2 metres (6½ feet) to a massive 7 metres (23 feet) in height. The high crosses are a distinctive shape, with a circular ring around the top, centred on the intersection of the horizontal and vertical parts.

There were originally hundreds of these crosses in Ireland, and quite a few have survived in good condition to modern times. They were built in the grounds of monasteries, and a rich monastery might have a few such crosses.

We don't know exactly what they were used for. Some are covered in abstract carvings, such as 'Celtic' knotwork. Many crosses feature carved panels showing scenes from the Bible, and it is thought that they were used as a teaching aid, either for young novice monks or for members of the laity. A senior monk might stand at the cross and explain the stories on it while the people sat or knelt on the ground in front of the cross - often the most important panels are the ones close to the ground which would be easily visible by the people.

There is some evidence that the crosses were originally painted, although no trace of paint has ever been found on any of them. For example, on the Tall Cross of Moone, in the panel showing the 'Flight into Egypt', the figure of Mary is carved in full, but the baby she is carrying is shown as a head, without any body. It is thought that the body of the baby Jesus would have been painted onto the carving.

There were two distinct phases of high cross building in Ireland: from the 9th to 10th centuries, and again in the 12th Century. The practice of building the crosses died out and then was revived a couple of centuries later. It is not known why this happened. Crosses from this second period of building do not normally feature pictures of scriptural scenes. Instead, they often have the image of a bishop or saint on one side to match the figure of Christ on the other. This suggests a devotional use rather than an educational one.

All crosses were made using locally cut stone. The ancient Irish did not transport stone over large distances, so the crosses were made from whatever stone was available locally. They were cut into shape, erected and then the patterns and Biblical scenes were carved into them. In some cases, crosses were erected but the carving was never completed, or even never started.

Because Irish high crosses are so distinctive, they have become a symbol of Ireland, and since the 19th Century, similar smaller crosses have been popular as gravestones in Irish cemeteries.

Detailed Description of a Typical Cross

Irish high crosses are normally made in three sections: the base, the main cross and the capstone. Each section is made from a single piece of stone. The base is wider than the shaft of the cross and is usually pyramidal in shape. The capstone is a small stone at the very top of the cross. Sometimes it is shaped like the roof of a house; in some crosses it is domed like an acorn. Not every cross has a capstone. The rest of the cross, including the upright shaft and the horizontal bar, is all one piece.

Any cross consists of a vertical bar and a horizontal bar. In high crosses, the vertical bar usually extends above the intersection the same distance as the horizontal bar extends on each side. The most distinctive feature of an Irish high cross is the circular ring centred on the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal bars, and cutting through them. Some think this is a halo or aura around the figure of the crucified Christ, others think it represents the whole cosmos.

There are four holes in the cross, between the four arcs of the ring and the centre of the cross. In order to accentuate these holes, the four corners where the vertical bar meets the horizontal bar are cut away with circular cut-outs. These can be seen clearly on the photograph at the top of this entry.

High crosses are usually rectangular in cross-section, so they are covered in flat surfaces. These surfaces are divided into rectangular panels, and each is carved, either into an abstract design or a scene from the Bible.

It's often quite difficult to identify what the scenes represent - some of them are quite worn, and if indeed they were originally painted it would have been clearer in times gone by. Some are immediately recognisable - David with the head of the giant Goliath, Jesus with a dove over his head at his baptism, Jesus being arrested by two soldiers, one with a sword and the other with a spear. Other scenes just contain some people, but scholars have identified them as particular saints or Biblical figures.

Irish high crosses are normally positioned facing east and west. The most important two scenes are the ones at the intersection, at the centre of the circle. In 9th-Century crosses, the west face normally features the crucifixion of Christ, while the east face depicts Christ the King at the last judgement. In 12th-Century crosses, the last judgement scene is usually replaced by an image of a bishop, presumably either the one who commissioned the construction of the cross or a local saint.

The craftsmen appear to have taken great delight in the construction of the crosses - there are often small scenes which appear to be just for fun - two men pulling each other's beards, two cats facing each other, and so on.

The Top High Cross Sites

High crosses are scattered throughout Ireland, but there are very few in West Connacht or in Southwest Munster. The best crosses are almost all in Leinster. We've selected nine sites which are easily accessible by car and where the crosses themselves are of exceptional quality. We're not suggesting you need to visit all of these, but any of them will be worth the trip.

1. Monasterboice, County Louth

The graveyard of Monasterboice, in County Louth, is without a doubt the best place to see high crosses in Ireland. There are two outstanding examples, and a third cross which is impressive in size but relatively unadorned. In times past, there was a monastery here, and the crosses were in its grounds. There's nothing left of the monastery now except the ruins of two church buildings and a round tower (which is not open to the public).

  • Muiredach's Cross - this is the best example of a high cross in Ireland and is pictured at the top of this Entry. It is in almost perfect state of preservation. As is normal for all crosses, one face shows the Crucifixion of Christ. Here it is on the west face. The corresponding position on the east face shows Christ as King at the Last Judgement. Both arms of the east face are filled with the multitudes of people being judged.

    There are many other details to look out for. The Hand of God is on the underside of the north arm. At the bottom of the shaft on the west side, Christ is held prisoner by two Roman soldiers, one with a sword and the other with a spear. The Celtic sculptor fashioned the Romans in the same way as any Celt, with enormous moustaches! Below this are two cats and the inscription:

    (A prayer for Muiredach who had this [cross] built)

    There were two abbots of the monastery with this name, so it is likely to have been one of those who commissioned the cross. On the north side are two men pulling each other's beards.

  • Tall Cross - this is the tallest cross in Ireland, at 7.1m (23 feet) high. Because of its size, it has room for more carved panels than any other cross. It is not in quite as good a state of preservation as Muiredach's cross, but still ranks as one of the best crosses in the country.

  • North Cross - this is a plain cross, inside an enclosure of railings in the northeast corner of the graveyard. There is a Crucifixion scene in the usual place on the west side, and an interlaced pattern on the east side, but other than that the cross looks unfinished. It is worth a look if you are visiting the other two crosses.

Monasterboice is a graveyard in the middle of farmland. The site is clearly signposted with brown signs from the M1 motorway - take Junction 10 if you are approaching from the south, or Junction 11 if coming from the north. There is a car park and toilets. Admission is free. There is a small gift shop at the entrance and you may like to give a donation for the upkeep of the graveyard. A visit to the site won't take more than 45 minutes, even if you are very interested in high crosses as there's really nothing to see except the crosses, but you could combine it with trips to the other interesting sites in the area, such as Mellifont Abbey and the outstanding Brú na Bóinne sites of Newgrange and Knowth.

2. Clonmacnoise, County Offaly

Clonmacnoise, founded in the 6th Century by St Cíarán, grew to be one of the biggest monasteries in Ireland. Today there are the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches and two round towers in a glorious setting on the east bank of the River Shannon south of Athlone. Even without the high crosses, Clonmacnoise is well worth a visit. The site is well signposted from the N62 Athlone to Birr road. There's a small admission fee to the site.

There are three sandstone crosses: one, the Cross of the Scriptures, is of exceptional quality, and one has lost its head leaving only a shaft. The crosses have all been moved into the Visitor Centre, but there are realistic replicas in the original locations.

  • The Cross of the Scriptures was originally located to the west of the Cathedral, the large building at the centre of the site. Probably built around 900 AD, it is 3.9m high (12'10"). It is a beautiful piece of work, with the horizontal arms angled upwards slightly to give it a very elegant appearance. The scenes depicted on the west side show the Passion of Christ, with Jesus' possessions being divided among the soldiers, the flogging, the Crucifixion, and the tomb with two soldiers standing guard and a bird breathing new life into Jesus' dead body. The east face shows the Last Judgement in the centre of the ring, with scenes which possibly show the story of the Joseph and the Pharaoh's butler's dream. There's a nice Hand of God on the underside of the south arm and a cat eating a mouse in the same position on the north arm.

  • The South Cross was located to the south of the cathedral, just beside the corner of the small Temple Doolin. Like the crosses in Ahenny, it is mainly decorated in Celtic knotwork panels and has the bosses and ropework edges that make it resemble a wooden cross plated in metal. The Crucifixion scene is on the west face, but not in the usual place at the centre of the ring. Instead, it is on the shaft below this.

  • The North Cross was located to the north of the cathedral. It has lost its head and is now just the shaft of a cross. It is decorated on only three sides, with knotwork panels.

3. Moone, County Kildare

Moone has one of the most impressive crosses in Ireland: the Moone Tall Cross. At 7.04m high, it is the second tallest cross in Ireland, and today is made to look taller by having been moved into the ruins of the old church for protection. The ruin has a transparent plastic roof, so there is lots of light, highlighting the carved images and scenes on the cross. These are of excellent quality - they're done in a very simple style; people are depicted as plain rectangles with feet and heads, making the images very cartoon-like, but easy to recognise what they're showing. Without any special knowledge, you'll be able to pick out Daniel in the Lions' Den, the Flight into Egypt, the Miracle of Five Loaves and Two Fishes, and the Twelve Apostles. You should also be able to pick out Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent. Slightly less obvious is Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, with the ram in the background.

The village of Moone lies just off the road from Castledermot to Kilcullen. At the centre of the village there is a signposted turn west between two huge pillars - it looks like a gateway of some sort. About a kilometre along this road, the site is clearly signposted on the right. If you're approaching Moone from the south, don't be misled by the Moone High Cross Inn. This is a picturesque-looking drinking establishment, but it is nowhere near the High Cross.

4. Castledermot, County Kildare

Castledermot has two very fine crosses. These are both situated in the grounds of St James' Church, about a hundred metres to the east of the main street, and the site is clearly signposted. There is also a round tower.

Both crosses are made of granite.

  • North Cross - this is 3.13m high and is rather thick and stocky-looking. The base is decorated with a pattern of spirals. The east face features the Crucifixion as is normal, but the west face has the scene of Adam and Eve at the centre of the intersection. This is very unusual, but appears to portray the downfall of Man on one side and his redemption on the other. There's a nice image of King David the Harpist just to the left of Adam and Eve.

  • South Cross - this cross is slightly higher than the north one, at 3.34m, but it is much more slender making it seem even taller. The east face is entirely abstract designs, while the west face has the Crucifixion. There's a nice hunting scene on the base, in which two men with spears pursue some animals, but it is not clear what it represents.

5. Ahenny, County Tipperary

There are two crosses in Ahenny, Tipperary near Carrick-on-Suir. They are made from the local sandstone. They are of particular interest because they show many features which you would expect to find on a wooden cross plated with metal1. The ornamentation on the Ahenny crosses is almost all 'Celtic' interlaced patterns, the sort that appears on metalwork of the period. There are raised lumps known as 'bosses' which on metalwork are used to cover up screws that attach the metal to the wooden base. The edges feature carved 'ropework' which in a metal cross would be a standard way of joining sheets of metal together.

The Ahenny crosses are often stated to be among the first crosses made in stone. Peter Harbison, however, in his 1994 book, said that a recent study showed they date from the mid-9th Century, the same as most of the scriptural crosses, so the difference in style must be just a regional variation.

The Ahenny crosses are in a very small graveyard in the middle of farmland. There is no trace of the monastery that once stood here. To find Ahenny, take the R697 road from Carrick-on-Suir towards Kilmoganny. After about 8km, there is a small road on the left signposted for Ahenny. After 500m, turn left into the single street of the village and at the far end, turn left again. The graveyard is clearly signposted on the left after another 100m or so.

The crosses are very similar to each other. They are an unusual shape with a very large ring, making them look top-heavy. The north one, standing at 3.13m, is slightly damaged - one portion of the circular ring is missing. It has a huge domed capstone on top. The south cross is 3.90m high, and its capstone is much smaller.

Other than that, the crosses are very much identical. The carvings are all abstract Celtic designs, other than on the bases where there are some representational scenes. These are so worn that they are unrecognisable, although scholars think that two of them represent David and Goliath.

6. Ardboe, County Tyrone

The graveyard of Ardboe is on a little hill on the west shore of Lough Neagh. The name 'Ardboe' means 'Hillock of the Cow'. Back in the 6th Century, St Colman mac Aed founded a monastery here on the hill. It's a good site - as well as the spectacular setting, the lake provides clean water while the hillock protects from flooding. The monastery must have been a successful one, because in about the 10th Century they built the high cross, the biggest in Ulster and third tallest in Ireland. A cross such as this must have been quite an expense. There's nothing left now of the monastery other than the cross - the ruin in the graveyard is much more recent. At some time in its history, the cross fell over and lay on the ground. As a result of this, the head of the cross was damaged - it became heavily worn on one side and part of the ring is missing. The cross was re-erected in 1846.

Despite the wear and tear, the cross is very imposing, standing about 5.7m high (18 feet). It has many scenes: on the east side, facing the lake, you should be able to see Christ at the Last Judgement at the intersection. On the shaft, starting at the bottom, are Adam and Eve underneath a Tree, the Sacrifice of Isaac (with the ram in the background), Daniel in the Lion's Den, and the Children in the Fiery Furnace with very impressive flames. Above this is an unusual 'collar' - a section of the shaft which is wider. This hides a join, as the head is a separate piece of stone from the shaft. The collar is carved with a repetitive geometric pattern.

The west side, facing away from the lake, has the usual Crucifixion at the intersection. Two Roman soldiers stand on either side: Stephaton offers Christ a drink by means of a sponge on a stick; later, Longinus pierces Christ's body with a spear to see if he is dead. While the other scenes have all been identified by experts, they're not particularly obvious, except for the Christ's Entry to Jerusalem on a Donkey. The animal can be clearly seen.

To reach the Ardboe High Cross, take exit 14 from the M1 motorway and follow the A45 towards Coalisland. Follow the signs for Ardboe, taking the B520 (Moor Road) and then the B161 (Mountjoy Road) and Mullanahoe Road. At the modern village of Ardboe, which is about a mile from the lake, follow the brown signs for Ardboe Abbey and Cross, via Kilmascally Road and Ardboe Road. The cross and graveyard are beside the lake at a point where the road takes a 90° turn to the left.

7. Drumcliff, County Sligo

The single cross in Drumcliff is of excellent quality and state of preservation. The cross is situated in the graveyard on the east side of the main road through the village of Drumcliff, about 8km north of Sligo town and almost at the foot of the dramatic Ben Bulben, with its ice-carved cliffs. This graveyard is all that remains of a monastery founded by St Columba (also known as Colmcille), the second Patron Saint of Ireland. There's the stump of a monastic round tower across the road - the modern road was built through the middle of the old monastic site, separating the tower from the graveyard. The High Cross is right up against the north wall of the graveyard, and the base of it actually protrudes through a gap in the wall. The poet WB Yeats is also buried in the graveyard (just to the left of the door of the church), and as a result there is plenty of parking, and a tourist shop and café - most of the tourists come to see the poet's grave and not the high cross.

The cross is quite tall, at 3.83m (12½ feet). Unlike most high crosses, the head is made from a separate piece of stone from the shaft, and it looks as if the shaft was originally intended for a different head - it is wider than the head and narrows suddenly but not quite enough to match the head. There's a lovely Adam and Eve scene on the east side, with the snake intertwined with the apple tree. You may also be able to recognise David cutting the head off the giant Goliath above the Adam and Eve scene. There's also a nice scene of three people, one of which is holding a baby, on the west face, but it's not clear who they are meant to represent. There are a number of animals on the cross in 'high relief', which means that they stand out from the cross more than the normal carvings. The most notable of these is the camel on the west side. The top of the cross is slightly truncated - it looks as if there was once a cap stone on it which has been lost.

Right at the end of the graveyard, at the junction of the two roads, is the shaft of another high cross. This is completely without any carvings, and the head of the cross is long gone. If the church is open, you're welcome to go in and have a look around; it is very nice. WB Yeats's great-grandfather was the rector here. And it's worth looking at the grave of the poet himself. It is about 10m to the north of the door of the church (on your left as you look into the building).

8. Kells, County Meath

Kells was another monastery founded by Saint Columba and was a major ecclesiastical centre in Mediaeval Ireland. The name of the town is famous because of the Book of Kells, a beautiful mediaeval manuscript. In fact the book was made in Iona, Scotland, but was brought to Kells when the monastery in Scotland was closed down. The book is now in Trinity College, Dublin. As befits a major monastery, Kells had at least five high crosses. Remains of four of these are still visible, although none of them are outstanding.

Three of the crosses are in the grounds of the Church of Saint Columba, on Cannon Street, which is on the site of the original monastery. You can't miss the site because of the 26m-high Round Tower beside the gate.

  • The Cross of Saint Patrick and Saint Columba is immediately on the left as you enter the gate, just behind the Round Tower. We know the name of the cross because it is inscribed in Latin on it. This cross is of medium size and is complete but rather worn, so it is not easy to see any of the scenes carved on it.

  • The Broken Cross - this would not be worth a visit on its own, but because it is close to the Cross of Saints Patrick and Columba, it is worth a look. The Broken Cross is further into the churchyard and further to the left of the main path. All that is left of it is the base and shaft - the top is completely missing. Since the shaft is more than 3m high, the original cross must have been one of the most impressive in Ireland. The scenes carved on the shaft are very clear - there's a particularly good one of the Baptism of Jesus, complete with a flowing river, Jesus and John the Baptist, two onlookers and a dove. Although it is not obvious, all the other scenes on the cross relate to cleansing by water as well.
  • The Unfinished Cross is to the right behind the church. It is a fascinating indication of how the crosses were made. The cross has been cut into shape and erected, but the panels have been left as flat, raised rectangles protruding from the cross. These would normally be carved into scenes after the cross was raised, but for some reason only the Crucifixion scene was ever done.

The fourth cross of Kells is probably the most famous:

  • The Market Cross was originally located beside the other crosses in the grounds of the monastery, but it was moved in 1688 to the marketplace at the centre of the town. It gets its name from this location; the street it was positioned on has ever since been called Cross Street. In 1996, it was decided that it was blocking the traffic, so it was moved again. It now stands in the narrow stretch of ground between the Navan Road (R143) and the Drogheda Road (R167). There's a protective glass roof over the cross to protect it.

    The Market Cross is in fairly poor shape - the top, above the circle, has broken off, and much of the shaft is so worn that concrete has been used to strengthen it. Nevertheless, the cross is impressive, and there are some easily recognisable scenes on it, including horsemen and centaurs around the base.

9. Kilfenora, County Clare

This is the only example in this collection of a 12th-Century cross. Kilfenora is a tiny village but in mediaeval times it was a major ecclesiastical centre. It was known as 'the City of Seven Crosses' and the remains of five of these are still on display at the ruined Kilfenora Cathedral. The ruins of the cathedral are attached to St Fachtnan's Church at the west end of the village. Travelling west along the main street, pass the Burren Centre, then take the signposted right turn just before the modern Catholic church in the fork in the road. The crosses were originally in the graveyard, but most have been moved inside the ruin, which has been given a transparent roof to protect them from the elements. The best of these is the Doorty Cross.

The Doorty Cross is about 2.8m high and is made of limestone. It was erected in the 12th Century, but some time in the following centuries it fell down and was broken into two pieces. The shaft lay on the ground in the graveyard, beside the grave of a family called Doorty, from which it gets its name. It was assumed for a long time to be a gravestone. The head of the cross was moved into the church and was used a holder for holy water - the local belief was that water from the dip in the top of the cross would cure eye ailments. It was only in 1946 that it was realised that the shaft and head were parts of the same cross, and the cross was soon re-erected in the graveyard. Subsequently, in 2003, it was moved into the church to help its preservation.

The cross is very different from the 9th-Century ones described in the rest of this Entry. It has a strange proportion, narrowing towards the top and curved so that it looks as if you are looking upwards at a much taller cross narrowed by perspective. As a result, the ring around the intersection is hardly noticeable.

Instead of panels showing scenes from the Bible, there is one big allegorical picture on the east face of the cross. This shows a figure wearing a strange conical hat. This is the 'tiara', the hat denoting royalty used by both the ancient kings of Persia and the 12th-Century popes. The figure is also carrying a bishop's staff, the crozier. This figure is thought to represent Saint Fachtnan, the original founder of the monastery at Kilfenora. He is pointing his crozier downwards at two smaller bishops, who in turn are poking their croziers into some sort of giant bird or winged beast that appears to be preying on some people at the bottom of the cross. The three croziers have three different types of head: spiral, crook and t-shaped.

The west face of the cross is rather worn and not easy to see the detail. It shows the traditional crucified Christ, above some Celtic/Viking knotwork. At the base is a figure sitting on a horse or donkey, which possibly is standing on the roof of a house.

A Few Other Crosses

We've listed details of a few more crosses here. These are not quite good enough to deserve a special visit, but if you're passing, by all means call in and see them.

Killamery, County Kilkenny

This is one of the Western Ossory group of crosses, which includes the two at Ahenny listed above. This one shares many features with the Ahenny crosses - it has the same bosses and ropework, and much of the decoration is geometric knotwork rather than biblical scenes. On the other hand, the shape of the cross is more typical of other Irish crosses - it does not have the top-heavy look of the Ahenny crosses. There are some scenes but they are so worn that there seems to be no agreement on what they depict. There is a lovely roundel (circular panel) on the west face with a whorl pattern which may represent the sun.

To visit the cross, take the N76 from Clonmel to Kilkenny. Pass the village of Ninemilehouse, and after about a kilometre you will reach the tiny village of Killamery. Turn right at the crossroads onto a minor road, and after about 100m turn right again onto a semi-surfaced cart-track. After another 100m, there is a ruined church on the right. The high cross is in the graveyard below the church.

Termonfeckin, County Louth

This site is very close to Monasterboice, being less than 10km as the crow flies. The single high cross is small, about 2.2m high excluding the base. It was obviously broken into several parts and later reassembled. The shaft is set into a large, round, unadorned boulder which is presumably not the original base of the cross. The arms are short, only protruding very slightly beyond the ring. The cross shows the Crucifixion on one side and Christ the King on the other. All the other panels are decorative knotwork.

Duleek, County Meath

The single cross in Duleek, near Drogheda, is in very good condition, but is very small. At only 1.82m, it hardly qualifies for the adjective 'high', and a visitor might feel somewhat disappointed seeing it after a long journey. Nevertheless, it is clearly the same sort of thing as the other crosses listed here, and might be worth a visit if the journey was combined with a trip to another nearby cross such as Monasterboice (20km) or Kells (35km).

When entering Duleek from the east, turn right at the clearly marked L56102 just before the old stone courthouse with its pillared doorway. This is Church Lane, but there is no sign to say this. The graveyard is about 100m along this road on the left. Within the graveyard are two churches: the ruins of the old Saint Mary's Abbey, and a newer church building which has been converted into a restaurant. The 'high' cross is to the right of the restaurant building as you go in the gate, between it and the road. It is surrounded by paving slabs, so you can't miss it despite its diminutive size.

The cross is made of sandstone. The east face is covered in abstract Celtic knotwork patterns. The west face has the usual Crucifixion, and some other scenes which are not so easily identifiable. Peter Harbison, author of The High Crosses of Ireland, thinks they may be scenes from the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in which case they are from the apocryphal Gospel of James.

While you're here, have a look at the old abbey, the ruin on the other side of the church/restaurant. You'll find lots of interesting carvings, and the remains of another very plain high cross: the shaft is completely missing - the head has been inset into the base so the whole thing is less than a metre high.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you can't make it to Ireland but are visiting London, you can still see an Irish High Cross. The Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington has a full-size plaster copy of Muiredach's Cross from Monasterboice in its Cast Courts. The detail of the copy isn't quite as good as the original, and you'll miss the atmospheric rural setting, but it's still worth a look.

1The supreme example of such a metal cross is probably the 12th-Century Cross of Cong which is on display in the Archaeology and History Museum in Dublin.

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