I spent a recent holiday visiting some locations in Ireland that I hadn’t been to for a long time or in a few cases, maybe never at all. Although I’ve toured the length and breadth of Ireland a number of times now, there are always new places to discover and explore. High on the list of priorities this time were some of the ancient sites for which Ireland is well known. Location number one on this tour was the Monasterboice Monastic Site in County Louth, just north of Drogheda.
Monasterboice is most famous for its spectacular high crosses, including Muiredach’s High Cross (5.5 metres high), regarded as the finest high cross in all of Ireland, also a magnificent round tower which is around 35 metres high. This is the site of an early Christian settlement founded by Saint Buite mac Bronaigh, a bishop of Mainistir, who died in 521. The church ruins at this site date from the 13th century, while, according to a plaque on the site, the round tower and crosses are from the 10th century.
The Muiredach’s high cross features biblical carvings of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It’s thought to be the most impressive surviving example of early medieval Irish stonework. Biblical themes illustrated on the cross include:
- Adam and Eve standing under the forbidden tree
- Cain and Abel.
- Moses drawing water from the rock.
- Moses on Mount Sinai with Aaron and Hur supporting his hands/
- David and Goliath.
- The seizure of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.
- Pilate washing his hands.
- The Crucifixion of Christ. The central figure is Christ upon the cross.
- The parting commission of the ascending Christ to his Apostles.
- The Last Judgement.
- An angel with the Book of Life.
- A choir of angels playing instruments.
- Lost Souls being driven away from Christ by a devilish creature holding a trident.
- A soul being carried to heaven by two angels
This is not a complete list. All in all, a tremendous amount of biblical themes and stories are communicated through the Muiredach’s cross by these ancient artistic geniuses and communications experts from the 10th century.
The overall theme of the cross is, Christ the King, Lord of the Earth.
Round towers in Ireland were built between the 9th and 12th centuries. This tower at Monasterboice has an underground foundation of only sixty centimetres. However, these engineers knew what they were doing and time has confirmed their ingenuity. The tower’s round shape is gale-resistant and the section of the tower underneath the entrance is packed with soil and stones. The entrance-way is above ground level since a door at ground level would weaken the tower.
The Monasterboice tower is about 35 metres high and divided into four or more stories inside, connected with ladders.
Round towers were originally thought to have been used as watchtowers and as places of refuge for monks and valuables during times of Viking raids. Some academics however, hold to the view that they weren’t suited to providing protection beyond a warning of an impending attack. They may have been used as watchtowers but it’s likely that they also served as bell towers.
In 1097, the interior is thought to have caught fire leading to the destruction of the monastic library and other treasures.
The tower here at Monasterboice is still in excellent condition, though its conical cap is missing. It is the second tallest round tower in Ireland.
Monasterboice is also home to The Tall Cross also known as The West Cross. Standing about 7 metres high, it’s the tallest high cross in Ireland. Because of it’s size, this cross has more iconography than any other cross in Ireland. The two churches are from the 13th century.
Because this monastic site contains two of the finest High Crosses in Ireland and an ancient round tower which is in excellent condition, it’s incredibly popular with tourists. Two coach loads arrived during the time I was there.
Blog and photography by John Callister