Armchair Archaeology: the High Crosses of Monasterboice

Published: 08 May 2020

Welcome to the fourth edition of Armchair Archaeology! In this series we look at the famous and the less well-known sites in the Boyne Valley. Since the current restrictions mean we cannot go out and explore in person, let Boyne Valley Tourism take you on a virtual tour of some of our favourite sites.

Today we'll be looking at the beautiful High Crosses at Monasterboice in County Louth, and recent research carried out by Roger Stalley, fellow emeritus of Trinity College Dublin and former professor of art history. Not only is the medieval expert examining the beautiful carved depictions on the crosses, he also considers the master craftsman who carved them.

 

The historic ruins of Monasterboice (Irish: Mainistir Bhuithe) are of an early Christian settlement in County Louth, north of Drogheda. It was founded in the late 5th century by Saint Buithe who died around 521, and was an important centre of religion and learning until the founding of nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142.

There are three high crosses at Monasterboice, two of which are highly decorated and some of the finest exaples of insular Early Christian art in Ireland: Muirdeach's Cross (below) and the West Cross (above), noted as being the tallest in Ireland. The site also boasts an impressive round tower.

 

Writing in the Irish Times, Stalley describes how “the high crosses of Ireland, especially those adorned with figure sculpture, are such familiar features of our historic landscape that it is easy to take them for granted. While the meaning of the scenes depicted on the crosses have prompted intense debate, the carvings themselves have rarely been considered as works of art.” Stalley reminds us that work of the master mason at Monasterboice can be seen in other crosses in Ireland's Ancient East including nearby Kells and further afield in Durrow and Clonmacnoise.

While some have argued that the crosses were designed to teach an illiterate population, their main function, Stalley argues, was as expressions of wealth and power by the chieftains who commissioned them, alongside the high status abbots who ran the monasteries: “it is important to note that abbot Muiredach at Monasterboice was no self-effacing official, but a man of status who wielded authority throughout the region.” The High Crosses “were certainly designed to impress as well as educate.”

Monasterboice is certainly an intriguing and enchanting site and will no doubt continue to inspire much debate in the future. The full article by Prof Stalley may be read here.

Listen below to some audio on the High Crosses of Monasterboice.

Monasterboice is well worth a visit, when restrictions are lifted and access to the site is free. Please note it is still the graveyard is still in use and the site must be respected. It is easily accessible, close to the main M1 motorway from Dublin to Belfast, and the N2 Dublin to Derry road. The nearby Monasterboice Inn is a popular spot for food and special occasions and if you are looking for some family fun the Irish Military War Museum is close by, as is White River Karting.

We hope you've enjoyed this article on Monasterboice and its wonderful high crosses. Stay tuned for many more, and in the meantime stay home and stay safe.