Planning Your Visit to Ireland? The Iconic Irish High Cross

They are instantly recognizable, and have spawned a whole genre of tourist souvenirs. They are worth seeing, though, and can be found at many early Irish monastic sites. I saw these recently at Clonmacnoise.

the cross of the scriptures

Also known as the West Cross, the Cross of the Scriptures (Cros na Screaptra in Irish) is located directly before the main entrance to the cathedral, or Daimliag. It was erected in 909AD by St Colmán and the King of Tara, Flann Sinna, to commemorate their alliance, and to inaugurate the founding of the Daimliag. On the east face of the cross, there is a panel depicting the two men planting the first post for the church. The detail is fantastic… look at Flann’s long hair and even longer moustache, and Colmán’s finely embroidered robes and tonsured head!

This carving is also intended to represent the founding of the monastary c.550AD by St Ciarán and the then King of Tara, Diarmait mac Cerbaill. The cross is lavishly decorated with other religious scenes, and features carvings of mounted warriors and horse-drawn war chariots in a scene carved on the base. It is carved from sandstone and stands four metres high.

The West Cross is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters in AD957 (click here and scroll down to M957.10):

The Termon [santuary/ monastary] of Ciarain was burned this year, from the High Cross to the Sinainn [River Shannon], both corn and mills.’

And also in AD1060 (click here and scroll down to M1060.5:)

The Eli and Ui-Forgga came upon a predatory excursion to Cluain-mic-Nois; and they took prisoners from Cros-na-screaptra, and killed two persons, i.e. a student and a layman. God and Ciaran incited the Dealbhna, with their lord, i.e. Aedh Ua Ruairc, to go in pursuit of them; and they defeated and slaughtered them, killing, among others, the Tanist of Ui-Forgga, who had slain the student. The Dealbhna arrived at rising-time on the following morning, bringing the prisoners to the place whence they had been taken.’

the south cross

The South Cross is earlier, dating to the 800s. The west face shows a crucifixion scene, but the rest of the carving is abstract in design. Post holes found beneath the cross, and also beneath the Cross of the Scriptures, indicate evidence of earlier wooden crosses, and indeed the prominent bosses are thought to be imitations of studs which held decorative metal panels onto the original wooden crosses. The South Cross has an inscription commemorating Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, who was Flann Sinna’s father, and which dates to his reign, 846-862AD.

Both of the crosses depicted here are faithful replicas. The originals were moved indoors to the visitor centre where they are now safe from further weather erosion.


To find out more about visiting Clonmacnoise and seeing the high crosses for yourself, go to www.visitoffaly.ie, or CLICK HERE.


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20 Comments on “Planning Your Visit to Ireland? The Iconic Irish High Cross

  1. Pingback: Planning Your Visit to Ireland? The Iconic Irish High Cross | homethoughtsfromabroad626

    • Haha! That’s a vision which is going to haunt me, Geoffle! Thanks, yes, uni has been fab this semester, but a lot of pressure in terms of work submitted… all the modules I chose require vast amounts of writing… and they all want it at the same time! 🤣 Hope all is good with you and yours.

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    • Yes I bet that inauguration ceremony was the event of the century! I don’t suppose any commoners (like me) were allowed anywhere near, though. 🤣

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  2. Fascinating! “The prominent bosses are thought to be imitations of studs which held decorative metal panels onto the original wooden crosses.” Have any such panels survived, even as illustrations?

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  3. As well as the amazing carving there is evidence, in mainland Britain at least, that such crosses were painted. Imagine what they would have been like in the colours of the Book of Kells.

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    • Yes, exactly! They think that over here, too, but its been well weathered off now, so they cant be sure. There are still some traces of plaster inside the church, but not the paint. They must have looked incredible!

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      • One of our local museums has an alabaster panel that was set into a late medieval cross, fortunately it was buried at the reformation and still has blue paint on Mary’s robe and traces of gilding. As you say they must have looked wonderful.

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    • I know. And yet stone working like that was still relatively new. That church behind the cross was one of the first stone churches ever built in Ireland, and you can see how plain it is. In fact, you might just be able to see that the door isnt central in the wall. It was when it was built, but the side wall on the right as you look at it collapsed, and had to be brought a few feet inside the original foundation. It makes the facade of the church look strangely unbalanced. But that happened because the builders weren’t experienced building with stone at that time. It was only when the Anglo-Normans came a couple of hundred years later that building with stone started to improve. Still, its a very beautiful and impressive site. Thanks for stopping by, April, and have a great week! 😊

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  4. Oh dear, where you saw war chariots on the West Cross I only saw bicycles and then you can’t unsee things can you.. Now I shall always imagine the Irish going to war by bike, Sorry.
    Have a wonderful week Ali
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

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    • Haha! Love that thought, David. They may as well have been bicycles… there never were any war chariots over here. All the great archaeology that’s been done, and no evidence of any chariots! The stone mason was obviously referring to legend and tales of the Celts of Europe and Britain when he carved that. Yes, its seriously eroded, but then it has stood there a long time… over a thousand years. You have to use quite a bit of imagination when you look at it, something I’m not short of, but clearly I do not have so great or inventive an imagination as you! I think I like bicycles better! 😆🚴‍♂️💕 Huge hugs to you, David, and have a great week!

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