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Nuadú, the God of War

 


IRISH CROSS-PILLARS

AND CROSS-SLABS

part one






text and photographs by
Anthony Weir


There are many unique pictures on this page:
if you do not have a broadband connection, please be patient while they download.

 



Kilnasaggart, county Armagh: detail of Christianised pillar-stone
(south side)
For a full view in colour of the inscription on the north side, click on the image above.


Just as Ogam inscriptions were added to already-standing stones of considerable antiquity, so, with the remarkably peaceful Christian penetration of Ireland, menhirs and sacred boulders attracted Christian appropriation.


Dunfeeny, county Mayo


Although the largely-legendary St Patrick is credited with overturning 'idols' all over the island, in the unique and traditional Christian manner, it may have been just as satisfying in the 6th century - and much more permanent - to Christianise a 'pagan' stone as to destroy it. As late as the 19th century 'pagan' stones removed by priests had a propensity for returning to the spot.


Lankill, county Mayo

Some of the Christianisations had a distinctly prehistoric look, suggesting that the Irish church (which was nothing like the modern Catholic church, but much more like the Coptic and Syrian churches) was rather more receptive and assimilative than others in Europe.


Cross-pillar inside the entrance to a stone-fortified farmstead,
Knockdrum, county Cork. This type of cross is called a
cross-pattée.

By and large, the inhabitants of Ireland welcomed this tolerant form of Christianity, with its fantastic redemption, as a relief from the dark rites and realistic fatalism of Celtic religion.


Kilvickadownig, county Kerry: a design on a boulder
which incorporates an A for Alpha (the foot of the
cross-pattée)
and an Omega (W ) forming a curclicued nimbus around it.

Celts had holy stones and holy wells and worshipped trees, streams, groves, glades and genii loci. Irish Christianity seemed to be able to accommodate all these except the trees - and it was with the proliferation of wealthy monasteries from the eighth century onward (and the Norse attack that they attracted) that the first serious deforestation since Neolithic times occurred. Ireland, like Scotland, was largely covered with deciduous and holly-tree forest.
It is now the most-deforested country in Europe.


Kildreelig or Killerelig, county Kerry


Irish Christianity was essentially monastic and almost federal (sometimes almost feral!), whereas Catholicism is episcopal, hierarchical and totalitarian: "E pluribus unum"! The Irish church had no Rome-appointed head until St Malachy of Armagh went to Rome in the 12th century and had himself appointed Archbishop.

While large monasteries were established on the fat cattle-lands of the East of Ireland

Sun-dial, Bangor photo by John Musther county Down

and around the central Bog of Allen which covered a great deal of the interior, little monasteries were established in remote places, often called Diseart or Dysart, after the Latin Deserta. Monks modelled themselves on the early Desert Fathers, amongst whom the first monks of all, St Paul the Hermit and St Anthony - and successors such as St Onuphrios - were models for those few who went off to solitary spots, often on islands or islets, and subsisted on seabirds, sea scurvy-grass and shellfish while praising the glory of God as presented to them by wild and spectacular Nature.

A monastic settlement, containing clochans or stone huts,
and resembling a promontory fort, on an island off the North shore of the Dingle Peninsula.
Below: a typical clochan, which would have housed one or a few monks..


All over the island, monks found, carved and erected cross-pillars for themselves.

Pillar and Tomb-shrine with armhole for touching the bones of St Buonia,
Killabuonia, county Kerry.
Click for a larger picture.

Today these are found in the remnants of old monastic settlements, often with holy wells, with altars of loose stones called leachta, and sometimes with rare surviving tomb-shrines (above) and sacred (or magic) stones.


Carnacavill, county Down

These pillars can be quite small and crude - but they took considerable effort to carve when the stone was not easily worked: flaky schists, shales and granites are the most commonly-found in the old monastic sites.


Lateevemore, county Kerry


But, even in remote places, rather finely-carved pillars were put up.


Cloon West, county Kerry


There are wonderful variations on the basic designs of the Latin and Greek (equal-armed) crosses.


Currauly, county Kerry


Gallerus, county Kerry


Non-geometric elements were introduced to the designs.



click for a photo taken 25 years later

Caherlehillan, county Kerry:
a dove or peacock (symbol of immortality), and snakes or trumpets (?)


Ballyvourney, county Cork:
a 'wheel' enclosing a
cross-pattée, surmounted by a monk


Killaghtee, county Donegal: a 'wheel' cross above a triple knot of Brigid
probably representing the Trinity


Cross-designs often combined in different ways and proportions rectlinear and curvilinear elements.


Castletown, county Meath

 

Glencolumcille, county Donegal



Glencolumcille, county Donegal



Templastragh, county Antrim


They could incorporate the Chi (X) Rho (P) symbol derived from the first two letters of the Greek CRISTOS: ('Christos' meaning 'anointed' - which of course he never was: he was, famously, baptised!).


Drumaqueran, county Antrim: the Rho (P) - a curclicue on the top arm of the cross - is the wrong way round on this side, but the right way round on the other side of this boulder


The Alpha (A,a) and Omega (W,w) were also popularly incorporated, as we have already seen.


Loher, county Kerry


Toormoor or Toormour, county Sligo: an entirely rectilinear design which ingeniously incorporates an Alpha (A), in the bottom half, with an Omega (w ) in the top half of the slab

Some strikingly incorporate Neolithic passage-tomb designs to great effect - while also obviously influenced by the Danish-Scandinavian motifs of Northern English 'Hogback' Stones.


Kinnitty, county Offaly


Killegar, county Dublin

These at Killegar are, of course, not pillars, but grave-stones in the Scandinavian tradition.

Irish grave-stones - or, more properly, cross-slabs - will be discussed and illustrated on the next pages, together with the large crucifixion-slabs which are primitive forms of the well-known sculptured or 'scripture' crosses of the rich and richly-meadowed Midland monasteries.

 

 

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