Christmas in cross country


The high crosses of Monasterboice are among the best examples of early Irish sculpture, writes Eileen Battersby

Ice sits in the ruts under the ravaged hedges lining the narrow roadside. It is a postcard Christmas landscape, cold enough to make your breath drift solidly before you in a personal fog. Early morning frost that looks like snow has made a determined bid to hold everything in its grasp. Freezing air and the weak, watery light make the fields seem whiter than they are. The bare trees have acquired dramatic silhouettes. Pity the poor cattle not yet housed who stumble stiff-legged - although perhaps they only appear to be freezing. The sheep trudge on stoically, oblivious to the weather.

Suddenly in the near distance, through the empty branches, not that far off but appearing to flicker because of the winding road, stands the distinctive, roofless high tower, visible across the fields against a pale sky.

Monasterboice - originally a monastery founded in the fifth century by St Buite, of whom little is known - survives today as a lovingly-tended graveyard, still in use, overlooked by a great tower, two tiny, deserted, late-medieval churches and three high crosses, two of which are among the finest examples of early Irish sculptural art.

Situated on a slight rise about 6.5km (four miles) northwest of Drogheda, Co Louth, this atmospheric early-Christian site is a serene, beautiful place surrounded by farmland. A tractor splutters on cue, a distant dog barks. St Buite - or St Buithe mac Bronach, as he is also known, according to a 14th- or 15-century life based on two earlier sources - may have founded his monastery for nuns as well as monks.

Having established his monastery, Buite may have set off for Wales and as archaeologist Helen Roe records, the party of "150 true pilgrims" is believed to have included "10 holy maidens". His death in AD 520 or AD 521 offers further stories. Legend maintains that he may have made a temporary visit to Heaven prior to dying, thus requiring ordinary mortals, as Roe reports, to look at him through a mask of glass. Whatever about this, it appears that shortly after his death his head went missing, and a local curate was charged with its theft.

Monasterboice must have been a wealthy, well-patronised monastery judging by the presence of the round tower and the splendid sandstone high crosses. It is the only early Irish monastery whose name includes the word "mainistir". On the morning we made our winter pilgrimage, we had first eaten bread and cheese - and drunk less traditional milky coffee - under a purple early morning sky lit by stars and an ailing, distorted moon.

Against all odds, Monasterboice was never raided by the Vikings. Instead, a later wave of Christianised Norsemen merely occupied it before they were eventually attacked by Domhnall, King of Tara, in AD 968.

Monasterboice had a reputation as a place of learning and references are made in various sources to a library having been housed there. These manuscripts were possibly kept in the round tower - certainly manuscripts and other treasures could have been stored there during periods of threat. There were connections with lofty Armagh.

AMONG THE MOST distinguished of scholars associated with Monasterboice is the learned monk Flann, a professor of history whose approach was based on balancing the ecclesiastical with the secular, the pagan with the Christian. He died in 1056. While pioneering archaeologist RAS Mcalister - who published extensively on Monasterboice between 1914 and 1946 - is dismissive of Flann's scholarship, the monk clearly had a devoted following as an all-round scholar.

Less than 50 years after Flann's death, a fire in 1097 - caused by either lightening, human accident or malice; it is not known - damaged the round tower and destroyed the library it housed. The decline of Monasterboice had begun. In 1122, its last abbot had been recorded, and within 20 years all local attention had been drawn to nearby Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland.

For the visitor of today, the former monastic and scholarly grandeur of Monasterboice is not as important. Now it is a charming country graveyard, enclosed by a low stone wall and inhabited by the ubiquitous yew tree and stunted bushes. Ancient and relatively modern graves share the space.

Many of the stones, including the highly ornate Gartland tombstone from 1799 with its Latin, Irish and English inscriptions, remain fringed in white as the frost shows no sign of retreating. A fox that must have been in hiding makes a frantic dash across the path and is gone.

Frost underfoot makes the gravel crunch louder than usual. The narrow, winding path leads to a side-on view of the monolithic South Cross, one of the finest high crosses in Ireland, and certainly the densest. It is more widely known as the Cross of Muiredach because of an inscription on the base of the west side of the shaft saying that it was erected by Muiredach, who asks that prayers are said for him. As there were a few abbots of Monasterboice named Muiredach, it is impossible to know which one erected the cross. It may even have been made for someone who wasn't an abbot, but who happened to be called Muiredach.

This cross, which dates probably from the late ninth, or possibly early 10th century, stands at about 18ft (5.5 metres) in height, yet it is its sheer physical density that is most impressive. A church shrine complete with a roof caps its top. The ice has started to melt and a small section slides down the little roof.

Christ the King dominates the dramatic and complex iconography of the cross. On its west face, scenes include Christ being mocked by the soldiers, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, and Christ with St Peter and St Paul. Adam and Eve feature on the east face as do David and Goliath and Cain slaying Abel. Also depicted are Moses and other biblical scenes. On the shaft of the east face is a seasonal image, the Adoration of the Magi - with not three but four Magi.

It is an important image: aside from the flight into Egypt as seen on the high cross at Moone in Co Kildare, there are no other Nativity scenes depicted on any of the Irish high crosses.

On the south face, Pilate washes his hands. The hand of God is to be seen under the arm of the cross. The base is magnificently decorated with animals, hunters, interlacing and more abstract designs. Such is the quality of the carving, this high cross is alive with story and symbolism.

THE SUN HAS fought its way through, the frost has vanished. A path leads on to the south church, and between it and the north church is the great West Cross.

Standing at more than 23ft (seven metres), it is the tallest high cross in Ireland and the most decorated. Some of the scenes, most notably the Crucifixion, replicate those of Muiredach's and also included on the south face are two scenes from the life of John the Baptist.

Behind this tall high cross is the even taller round tower. This was derelict for some 700 years following the fire of 1097, but it was restored in 1871 by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. The small doorway is closer to the ground now than it originally would have been, because of rising ground levels. Should you follow the path that skirts the site, any pause along the way offers lovely views.

Monasterboice is a place to investigate as well as to dream about, and for some, to remember. In addition to the famous ancient monuments, there are fascinating graves, some of which are beautifully presented, such as that of a girl called Caroline who died aged 21. Along with magisterial statements such as the Gartland monument are others, influenced by the presence of the high crosses - smaller, simple stones consisting of little more than the name of someone who was much loved in life and greatly missed in death.

A third high cross, the North Cross, said to have been shattered by Cromwell, bears a simple Crucifixion depiction. Near it are some stone cross fragments and a sun dial. By now, the winter sun is shining, offering little heat but brightening the scene. A man in black appears as if out of nowhere. He passes by without a word, and walks over to a grave, places his hand on the tombstone, clutches it, bows and is gone - an eerie interlude.

It is Christmas Eve, many of the dead here have been visited. Seasonal wreaths decorate some of the graves. Monasterboice, echoing the sophisticated simplicity of its wonderful high crosses, retains both its history and its significance as a spiritual, living place.