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.
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.