Medieval sculpture, modern problems


Our heritage of high crosses, some of them 12 centuries old, is under attack from weathering, erosion and wear-and-tear – so how can we ensure they will still be here for future generations? asks BRIAN O'CONNELL

WHILE roads and domestic plumbing were both high-profile casualties of the recent cold spell, some of our historic outdoor artefacts also felt the worst effects of the weather. The high cross known as Muiredach’s Cross in Monasterboice, Co Louth, was recently reported to be in increasing peril having suffered a hairline fracture, caused by water seeping into the sandstone and expanding when the cold spell hit. Muiredach’s Cross dates to the 10th century, and was built in honour of an abbot who lived on the monastic site. It contains 62 carvings from the Old and New Testaments, and was probably built for education purposes.

Co Louth heritage officer Brendan McSherry visited the site last week to see the damage for himself. “There is no visitor centre on the site and the guiding service is run by dedicated volunteers. I had heard previously that there were issues to do with the cross and tourists. When I got there, I saw a guy standing on the base of the high cross with his arm around the cross. When he moved, a girl sat down on top of it. People were climbing and walking by the cross, rubbing their feet against the base of the cross. There is clear evidence of erosion on the base of Muiredach’s Cross which, it must be remembered, is one of the most spectacular high crosses in Ireland.”

Currently, local people are being invited to have their say on the future of the heritage site at Monasterboice. A conservation study was produced for the National Monuments Service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Louth County Council and the Office of Public Works, which suggested several courses of action for the site and its high crosses. The three bodies have called for local people, and interested parties, to give their feedback on the study’s findings at the council’s website,

THE DAMAGE TOthe cross has renewed debate about how we should care for and accommodate our infrastructure of remaining high crosses in Ireland, which are some of the most important early medieval sculptures in the world. Experts estimate that there are some 200 high crosses in Ireland, many in graveyards and religious grounds or located on former monastic sites.

In recent years, there have been efforts to move several of these crosses indoors to purpose-built centres or to pre-existing museums and buildings near their original location. In some instances, copies have been made and placed on the original sites. But the overall national policy is sporadic and it is left to local county councils and dedicated members of the public, in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, to assess and decide on what is the best course of action for high crosses in local areas. It’s a tricky balancing act. Covering the crosses in glass casing to protect them has been tried in Scotland and has not proved the whole answer. Many crosses are in areas that may also contain medieval sundials or perhaps a round tower, so that by isolating them, the symmetry of a site can be hugely compromised.

The notion of moving local crosses to a central museum, say Collins Barracks, is controversial and likely to meet local opposition, while housing the crosses in a building locally requires staff and construction costs, at a time when local heritage budgets are being severely tested.

Dr Peter Harbison, author of the definitive three-volume study of Irish high crosses, says they are important historical artifacts. “In my view they are up there with the Book of Kells, the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch in the pantheon of Irish antiquities. I would say that they are Ireland’s greatest contribution to the sculpture of early medieval Europe.” Harbison makes the point that we have known about our high cross heritage since the mid 19th century when several crosses were exhibited in Dublin at the Great Exhibition.

With the rise of Irish nationalism, they became great religions icons, together with the round tower, the shamrock and the Irish Wolfhound. In the past two decades, there has been much debate over how to accommodate our remaining crosses, accelerated by environmental concerns. “It is felt that weathering and acid rain has been damaging them in the sense that it wears away the sharpness of the carving,” Dr Harbison says. “The thing is the Office of Public Works has been doing its best to go and do something about them. One of the first to be worked on was the high cross on the Rock of Cashel. A cement copy was made of it on the site of the cross where it had been for hundreds of years. The original was brought into the museum and it has proved very successful.” Harbison says there are arguments for and against moving the crosses from their original locations. “Ideally, they should be seen in their original locations without any covering, because the sun, when it shines on the crosses obliquely, brings out the carving splendidly. There is also the argument about future generations, and leaving something for them. In that case the inexorable argument is to house them or ring them in and protect them.”

However, taking the crosses indoors doesn’t mean the public will gain greater access. The Roscrea high cross in Co Tipperary was moved to the Black Mills centre near its original location in 2004, and a replica has been made in its place on the grounds of St Cronan’s Church. The complex opens for the summer season, generally between March and September, and guided tours are provided. Yet, the centre is not expected to open this year until early May, because of cutbacks in funding. Access to the general public is not allowed while the centre remains closed.

Con Manning, a senior archaeologist with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, agrees that more needs to be done on a national level to provide protection and access to our remaining high crosses. “I think there is a need for a policy on it as there are quite a few high crosses still out in the open that need to be taken in. The public interest is very high. It is estimated that 70,000 people visit the crosses in Monasterboice alone every year.”

There is recognition, says Manning, of the importance of preserving these artefacts for the next generation, yet resources remain a key issue. “We’re getting around to them gradually. It’s taking time and obviously money isn’t too plentiful at the moment . . . It would be a shame to see them deteriorate but if we do nothing, in another few hundreds years, that could very well happen.”

Give Them Shelter: Indoor High Crosses


The monastic site at Clonmacnoise contains good examples of two high crosses, The South Cross and the Cross of the Scriptures, dating to the 9th and 10th century respectively. Both were moved indoors in the early 1990s and are now housed in a visitor centre adjacent to the site. Replicas are on view at the original site. The centre’s opening hours are from 10am to 6pm daily from mid-March until mid-May. During the summer months the centre is open from 9am until 7pm. 090-9674195


St Patrick’s High Cross was moved to an indoor museum on the monastic site in Cashel the 1980s and a replica is currently in its original location. The cross was made in the 12th century to commemorate the handing over of the site from the kings of Munster to the church. The centre is open from 9am until 5.30pm from March until June 1st, and from 9am until 7pm from June 1st until mid-September. Tel. 062-61437.


The high cross of Tuam dates to the 12th century and two characters represented at the base of the cross are High King Turlough O’Conor and the first archbishop Hugh O’Hession. It was moved indoors by the OPW in 1992 to its current location at St Mary’s Cathedral. Prior to the move, it had been located in the town’s main square. Visitors should make appointments by phoning Jarlath Canney on 087-4121201.