Tucked away in a corner of the grounds of Kinnitty Castle, County Offaly is this sandstone High Cross, thought originally to have stood not far away on the site of a monastery at Drumcullen. An inscription on the south face of the base records that it was commissioned by Máel Sechnaill, High King of Ireland (846-62) while on the other side the cross is noted as being the work of ‘Colman’. The monument now rises seven feet 10 inches but was originally almost three feet taller, the cross-head being damaged. The north face offers, among other scenes, Eve tempting Adam, the south shows the Crucifixion.
‘Let us now attend to the antiquities of one of their [the Culdees] ancient seats: this in old records is named Inchenemeo, corrupted from Innisnabeo or the “Island of the living” but, from its situation, most commonly called Monaincha, or the “Boggy Isle”…Giraldus Cambrensis, who came here with King John in 1185, thus speaks of it: “In north Munster is a lake containing two Isles; in the greater is a church of the ancient religion, and in the lesser a chapel, wherein a few monks, called Culdees, devoutly serve God. In the greater, no woman or any animal of the feminine gender ever enters but it immediately dies. This has been proved by many experiments. In the lesser isle, no one can die, hence it is called ‘Insula Viventum’ or the island of the living. Often people are afflicted with diseases in it, and are almost always in the agonies of death; when all hopes of life are at an end, and that the rich would rather quit the world than lead longer a life of misery, they are put into a little boat, and wafted over to the larger isle where, as soon as they land, they expire”.’
‘Monaincha is situated almost in the centre of a widely-extended bog, called the Bog of Monela, and seems a continuation of the bog of Allen, which runs from east to west, through the kingdom. Since the age of Cambrensis, and through the operation of natural causes, the lesser Isle is now the greater, and Monaincha, which contains about two acres of dry arable ground, is of greater extent than the women’s island. In the latter is a small chapel, and in the former the Culdean abbey, and an oratory to the east of it. Monaincha is elevated a little above the surrounding bog; the soil gravel and small stones. We may easily understand what Cambrensis means by the church here being of the “old religion.” The Culdees, its possessors, had not even at this period when the Council of Cashel had decreed uniformity of faith and practice, conformed to the reigning superstition; they served God in this wild and dreary retreat, sacrificing all the flattering prospects of the world for their ancient doctrine and discipline. Their bitterest enemies bear testimony to their extraordinary purity and piety.’
‘The length of our Culdean abbey in Monaincha is thirty-three feet, the breadth eighteen. The nave is lighted by two windows to the south, and the chancel by one at its east end. The former are contracted arches, the latter fallen down. The height of the portal, or western entrance, is seven feet three inches to the fillet, by four feet six inches wide. The arch of this, and that of the choir, are semi-circular. Sculpture here seems to have exhausted her treasures. A nebule moulding adorns the outward semicircle of the portal, a double nebule with beads the second, a chevron the third, interspersed with triangular frette roses, and other ornaments. It is also decorated with chalices, artfully made at every section of the stone, so as to conceal the joint. The stones are of a whitish grit, brought from the neighbouring hills of Ballaghmore; being porous, they have suffered much from the weather; but the columns of the choir are of a harder texture (though grits); close grained and receiving a good polish. Being of a reddish colour, they must have been handsome objects…It will readily occur, how great must have been the labour and expense of transporting the materials of this and other structures in cots of excavated wood to Monaincha, and before this was done, the carrying them a great distance over a deep, miry and shaking bog, before they reached the margin of the water. It appears by the tradition of the old inhabitants, that about a century ago the island was not accessible but in boats; every drain for the springs, and every passage for the river Nore being choked up with mud and fallen trees; the surface, in consequence, to a vast extent, was covered with water. Present appearances fully confirm this account.’
Text taken from The Irish Culdees, and their Abbey of Monaincha, published in the ‘Dublin University Magazine: A Literary and Philosophical Review’, Vol.LXXVI, December 1870. The Culdees, their name derived from the Irish Céilí Dé (meaning Companion of God) were early Christian hermits who lived on the same site but in separate cells, only gathering for certain communal activities such as worship in church, and sharing obedience to the same leader.
Motor traffic used to crawl through Castledermot, County Kildare but the advent of motorways in Ireland means that today the town is now relatively visited, meaning fewer people get to see – even through the windows of a car – the fine ruins it holds. Its name derived from Diseart Diarmada (Dermot’s Hermitage), Castledermot was established as a monastic settlement founded around 800. Seemingly much raided by Vikings, all that remains of the monastery is a reconstructed 12th century Romanesque doorway. Behind this stands the present St James’s church, given its present form in the 19th century. To the north of the building rises a round tower, somewhat truncated and likely given battlements at a later date. Unusually the entrance to the tower is on the ground floor and this is accessed via a short vaulted corridor linking it to the church.
The graveyard here contains two High Crosses, one on either side of the church, both dating from the ninth century. That to the north rises over 10 feet and while weathering of the granite over the course of more than 1,000 years makes some of the panels challenging to interpret, but the centre of the head on the east side is thought to show Adam and Eve (representing the Fall of Man) and on the west side Christ’s crucifixion (Man’s Redemption). The west face of the High Cross to the south of the church is better preserved than its equivalent on the other side of the graveyard, not least the central panel which once again features the Crucifixion, with a series of familiar tales below on the shaft, including Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Temptation of St Anthony and, once more, Adam and Eve. In this instance, the east side of the cross is not figurative but given over to abstract patterns, geometric shapes and scrolls, like those found in illuminated manuscripts of the same period.
Another week, another cross, this one found in Killamery, County Kilkenny. A monastery was founded here in the 7th century by St Gobhan, and the High Cross is thought to date from the late 8th/early 9th century. Although there are scenes with figures (now well-worn) around the cross itself, the shaft is decorated with abstract patterns, those of the western front featuring a floral motif; seemingly a much-weathered inscription on the base reads OR DO MAELSECHNAILL, ‘A Prayer for Máel Sechnaill’ who was High King of Ireland 846-862. The capstone, which takes the form of a gabled roof, used to be touched by visitors as a cure for headaches.
The High Cross stands in the grounds of a graveyard close to the ruins of a former Church of Ireland place of worship dedicated to St Nicholas. Dating from 1815, it was constructed with assistance from the Board of First Fruits but services ceased to be held here less than 90 years later, and it has since fallen into its present state.
The Cruise, or Cruice, family has been mentioned here before, specifically with regard to the remains of Rathmore Church, County Meath (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2012/11/19/music-sent-up-to-god). They were the descendants of an Anglo-Norman soldier with the name de Cruys who came to Ireland in the 12th century and settled in this part of the country, gaining control of land that stretched from what is now North County Dublin and well into Meath. More than 15 miles north of Rathmore can be found the ruins of another church in a place called Cruicetown, thereby showing its direct link with the family. Now standing at the highest point in a field, and surrounded by a low, subcircular stone wall, Cruicetown church is believed to date from the late 12th or early 13th century, and to have once served a settlement in this area, begun when the Normans constructed a motte and bailey. At the start of the 14th century, when all Irish churches were being valued for the Papacy in order to assess the proportion of their revenue that should be given as tax, that at Cruicetown as valued as £2, 15 shillings and eight pence. The church continued to be used for services until the mid-16th century, but probably fell into disuse soon afterwards and was already in a ruinous state by 1622 when visited by James Ussher, then Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath.
The Cruises remained in this part of the country until the upheavals of the 17th century. They also, like many old Anglo-Norman families, remained loyal to the Roman Catholic church, the consequence being that eventually they came into conflict with the English authorities. There appears to be some confusion about what became of the Cruises of Cruicetown in the aftermath of the wars of the 1640s (in which they had supported the defeatedCatholic side). Many reports declare that Christopher Cruise was forced to forfeit his property at Cruicetown and then transplanted to Connacht, only some time later his son Lawrence being able to regain possession of the land here. On the other hand, a very substantial report on the site produced by Dr James Galloway in 2005 states that ‘the Cruise family appear to have retained their position as lords of Cruicetown in the post-1640 period’ and that in 1686 ‘the manor was granted by royal patent to Laurence Cruise.’ Certainly, they owned land here for another century, until in 1789 Joseph Cruise sold his interest in Cruicetown to one Arthur Ahmuty, a retired colonel formerly in the service of the East India Company and now living in London. With this transaction, the Cruice family’s major interest in Cruicetown came to an end.
Cruicetown church contains two notable features, the first being a remarkable chest tomb inside a niche on the south wall of the chancel. Dedicated to the memory of Water and Elizabeth Cruise, it features recumbent figures of the two deceased, above their heads appearing that of God flanked by trumpet-blowing angels. The figures rest on a base with four pilasters carved with foliage, rosettes and hearts while the end of the chest features symbols of mortality. On the wall above is a dedicatory plaque containing heraldic motifs of the Cruise and Dalton families, and the information that the tomb had been erected in 1688 ‘AND IN THE 4TH YEARE OF THE REIGNE OF THE MOST ILLVSTRIOVS PRINCE OVR GRACIOVS KING JAMES THE SECOND’
The tomb was erected by the couple’s son, Patrick Cruise and he was also responsible for a sandstone cross that stands outside the church and to the south of the building; an inscription on one side of the monument reads ‘Pray for the souls of Patrick Cruise and Catherine Dalton, his wife, daughter to William Dalton 1688’. It is clearly inspired by much earlier Irish High Crosses and yet considerably more primitive in design. One face features the crucified Christ with a winged head above, while the other side carries a depiction of the Virgin with a rather substantial Child occupying her lap. It would appear that even when this pair of additions were made to Cruicetown church, the site had already been abandoned for services and now only served as a burial place. The persistence of an ancient religious faith in Ireland during this period is remarkable to observe.
The name of Moone, County Kildare is said to derive from the Irish Maen Colmcille, meaning ‘Colmcille’s property’. This is because although the place was converted to Christianity in the fifth century by Palladius (who preceded St Patrick in Ireland), a monastery was founded here 100 years later by St Colmcille. No trace of that establishment remains, the ruins on site being those of a Franciscan friary of c.1300 (although parts of the structure may be earlier). A late 18th century image shows that considerably more then survived, including a Lady Chapel on the north side and a tall, square tower but these were then demolished. The remains of the church are remarkable for holding one of the finest High Crosses in Ireland, of local granite and rising some seven metres. It was only discovered in 1837, buried in ground near the south-east wall of the building; a further missing portion of the base was found in 1875 and restored in 1893. Dating from the ninth century, it is extremely well-preserved, all four sides carved with human and animal figures, many of them representing stories from both the Old and New Testament. The cross sits beneath what was apparently meant to be a temporary cover, but the plastic roof has been there for so long it has probably acquired protected structure status.
Not far away from the remains of the Franciscan friary rises another ancient structure: a 15th century tower house. The original owners are unknown, perhaps the Eustace family who came into possession of this part of the country through inheritance in 1447. They remained in occupation until at least the mid-17th century, but then lost the property during that era’s upheavals. As so often, there is only one point of access, a door on the east side to the south of which are stone steps leading all the way to the top. While the ground floor features the customary high, vaulted space, much of the interior was converted, probably in the 18th century, into a brick-lined dovecote. However the upper storey still holds an old stone chamber with a chimney and windows.
Between monastic ruins and tower house stands the third significant building on this site: a mid-18th century Palladian building known as Moone Abbey House. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, the land around here was bought by Thomas Ashe, a Dublin alderman. He died in 1741 and seven years later, Moone was acquired on a 999-year lease by Samuel Yates of Colganstown, County Dublin: he is believed to have commissioned the new house. Colganstown has been attributed to Nathaniel Clements, and his name has also been mentioned in association with Moone Abbey House along with that of Dublin-based architect John Ensor. The building was intended to make a good impression but is less substantial than initially appears to be the case, since the central block is only one-room deep. Among its quirkier features are the convex quadrant walls that in turn lead to rather unusual two-storey, two-bay wings with Dutch gables. An engraving of 1792 by Daniel Grose (see bottom of page) shows that originally the main house was of two storeys and with a Diocletian window at the top. The third storey – and porch – are 19th century additions. Like its immediate neighbours, Moone Abbey House has undergone various vicissitudes over the course of several centuries but thankfully survives. The course of Ireland’s history can be discovered in these three adjacent buildings, all still standing and, in the case of the house, still happily serving as a family home.
Rising some twenty-one feet, the tallest high cross in Ireland can be found, along with a couple of others, at Monasterboice, County Louth. The place name derives from Mainistir Bhuithe meaning ‘Monastery of Buithe’: the latter was an early Christian saint said to have founded a religious settlement here in the late 5th century. Three high crosses survive here, this one which dates from the 9th century, standing closest to the round tower. Panels on one side feature, among others scenes of the Sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the Lion’s Denand David with the head of Goliath. The opposite side is devoted to scenes from the Life of Christ, such as his baptism, the Kiss of Judas, his arrest and crucifixion.
One of a pair of High Crosses found on the site of a former monastic settlement at Ahenny, County Tipperary. Believed to date from the 8th century, and therefore among the earliest extant examples of these monuments, the North Cross (above) is of sandstone and stands 3.65 metres high. The main body is decorated in elaborate geometric designs imitating those found both on contemporaneous metalwork and in illuminated texts like the Book of Kells. Only the base is figurative although now so worn it is difficult to make out details of the procession of figures portrayed. The nearby South Cross is likewise of sandstone and rises 3.35 metres. Like its neighbor it has a curious removable cap, perhaps intended to represent a bishop’s mitre.