Monasterboice - Irish Pictures (1888)

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1888) by Richard Lovett

Chapter III: The Valley of the Boyne … continued

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True as this statement is with regard to Mellifont, it certainly does not apply to Monasterboice, only about three miles distant. No place in Ireland exhibits more magnificent specimens of distinctive Irish architecture. The car passes from Mellifont along the upland by a hilly road, and at length brings us to an enclosure situated on the slope of a gently-rising ground, from which towers aloft a bold but partly ruined Round Tower. The enclosure is a cemetery, and occupies the site of a religious house, founded here so far back as the sixth century by St. Buithe or Boetius. The Annals give A.D. 521 as the year of his death. The records of the foundation are tolerably complete, consisting mainly of the names and year of death of the abbots, and records of the plundering it endured. It was famous for learning and hospitality, and until Mellifont was founded ranked as the chief abbey of North-eastern Ireland.

Cross of Muiredach, Monasterboice

Cross of Muiredach, Monasterboice

The enclosure contains two ruined churches, the tower, three stone crosses, and some early tombstones. One of the churches, that nearest the tower, is the more ancient, dating in all probability from the ninth century; the other is a much later structure. The tower is a very fine example, being 50 feet in circumference at the bottom and about 90 feet high. It has been shattered at the top by lightning, and is somewhat out of the perpendicular. All who can spare the time should visit Monasterboice; those who are interested in Irish art, because there they can study in situ the most superb ancient crosses which Ireland can show; and those who feel no such interest, in order that, if possible, it may be developed, and thereby a new intellectual pleasure be enjoyed. The crosses are three in number. They are elaborately carved, and although the rains and sunshine, the haps and hazards of nine hundred years have passed since they were erected, many of the carvings upon them are still clear and sharp, and they enable the observer to form a clear idea of the devotion and skill concerned in their construction. Either time has dealt with them in kindlier fashion, or their material is more endurable; at any rate they are in better preservation than their great rivals at Clonmacnoise.

These crosses are monumental, and upon one of them occurs the inscription 'A prayer for Muiredach, by whom was made this cross.' Now there were two abbots of Monasterboice who bore this name. One died in 844, the other in 923 or 924. The latter seems to have been a man of greater influence and power than the former, and this fact, coupled with other inferential evidence, has led archaeologists to assign the cross to him. Hence it is at least over 950 years old. It has been found impossible to decipher satisfactorily the meaning of all the groups of sculpture. The marvel is that they have retained so well all these centuries their sharpness of outline. Miss Stokes [4] states, 'These six subjects—that is, the Crucifixion with its type, the Sacrifice of Isaac; the empty tomb guarded by sleeping soldiers, with the types of the Descent into Hell, Samson with Lion and Bear, David with Goliath; Christ in Glory—are the only ones that have been explained out of the twenty-four panels of this monument.'

Speaking of this cross, Mr. W. F. Wakeman, the well-known writer on Irish archaeology, states,[5] 'Its height is exactly fifteen feet, and its breadth at the arm six. The figures of warriors and ecclesiastics and other sculpturings upon this cross retain in a remarkable degree their original sharpness of execution. The former are invaluable, affording as they do an excellent idea of the dress both military and ecclesiastical in use amongst the Irish during the ninth or tenth century. Most of the designs clearly refer to Scripture story. There are figures of warriors armed with swords, spears and other weapons, amongst which the axe and sling are conspicuous. The men, it may be observed, bear small circular targets like those in use to a late period among the Highlanders of Scotland.'

The cross immediately in front of the tower is more slender but much higher than Muiredach's. It is about 23 feet high, and consists of three stones, a shaft 11 feet long, the central stone containing the cross 6 feet 3 inches long, and the cap 2 feet 3 inches in height. It is 2 feet broad and 15 inches thick in the shaft. It has been badly chipped where the shaft is inserted into the base, but many of the sculptures are still fairly decipherable, among them being the Fall of Man, the Expulsion from Eden, the Worship of the Magi, and the Crucifixion. When and by whom it was erected is not known.

Of the third cross only a fragment remains, the burden of its destruction being placed upon Cromwell's broad shoulders.

The graveyard is still in use, and within the more ancient church is a circular granite stone, probably the shaft of an ancient font. Whenever a funeral takes place, the body is carried around the enclosure and then placed for a few minutes upon this stone. In the Dublin Penny Journal is a description of this scene, interesting for its own sake, and also because it came from the pen of Dr. Petrie, with which we close our sketch of Monasterboice—-

'In its present deserted and ruined state it is a scene of the deepest and most solemn interest; and the mind must indeed be dull and earthly in which it fails to awaken feelings of touching and permanent interest. Silence and solitude the most profound are impressed on all its time-worn features. We are among the dead only, and we are forced, as it were, to converse with men of other days. In all our frequent visits to these ruins we never saw a living human being among them but once. It was during a terrific thunderstorm, which obliged us to seek shelter behind one of the stone crosses for an hour. The rain poured down in impetuous torrents, and the clouds were so black as to give day the appearance of night. It was at such an awful hour that a woman of middle age, finely formed, and of noble countenance, entered the cemetery, and regardless of the storm raging around, flung herself down upon a grave, and commenced singing an Irish lamentation in tones of heart-rending melancholy and surpassing beauty. This she carried on as long as we remained; and her voice, coming on the ear between the thunder peals, had an effect singularly wild and unearthly; it would be fruitless to attempt a description of it. The reader, if he knows what an Irishwoman's song of sorrow is, must imagine the effect it would have at such a moment among those lightning-shattered ruins, and chanted by such a living vocal monument of human woe and desolation. We subsequently learned, on inquiry, that this poor creature's history was a sad one; she was slightly crazed, in consequence of the death of her only son, who had been drowned; and her mania lay in a persuasion, which nothing could remove, that he was not lost, but would yet return to bless her, and close her long-weeping eyes in peace.'

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[4] Early Christian Art in Ireland, p. 135.

[5] Guide to Ireland, p. 148.