MONASTERBOICE AFTER THE STORM
After the storm that swept across Ireland yesterday (November 2nd, 2022), I went for a dawn swim at Port beach and visited Monasterboice, Co. Louth on the way back. This Early Medieval monastic site is called Mainistir Buite or ‘Buite’s Monastery in Irish and was founded by St. Buite in the 6th century. In Early Medieval Ireland the monasteries were like towns or cities, major centres of education, industry and agriculture as well as religious centres. The death of the last abbot at Monasterboice was recorded in 1122, after which the nearby Cistercian abbey of Mellifont became more important. To this day, however, the round tower and two of the finest High Crosses in Ireland are amongst the many remains which bear witness to the significance of Monasterboice.
It was a beautiful morning and the stonework of the round tower stood out dramatically against the blue sky. Known as cloigtheach, literally ‘bell-house’, in Irish sources of the time, these dramatic towers also served as landmarks and places of refuge. The round tower of Monasterboice is particularly interesting as it was recorded in the Irish annals as having been burned in 1097 with its library and other treasures that were housed there.
THE ROUND TOWER AT MONASTERBOICE, WHICH IS ABOUT 1,000 YEARS OLD.
In front of the round tower is the West Cross, with its stunning array of panels depicting scenes from the bible and decorated with elaborately carved interlace patterns.
THE WEST CROSS AT MONASTERBOICE, WHICH, AT OVER 7 METRES HIGH, IS THE TALLEST HIGH CROSS IN IRELAND.
Unfortunately, Muireadach’s Cross, where the panels of figure sculpture are amongst the finest preserved and best carved in Ireland, was largely in the shade. A ray of sunlight, however, managed to beam through the trees to light up a carved panel under the ring of the cross. It is only at certain times of the day and in bright conditions that the beauty of this panel stands out in such clear relief.
MUIREADACH’S CROSS, MONASTERBOICE. THIS PANEL ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE CROSS, UNDERNEATH THE ARM, SHOWS THREE PORTRAIT HEADS ENCLOSED BY TWO COILED SERPENTS, WITH INTERLACE MOTIFS ON EITHER SIDE.
The crosses at Monasterboice are over a thousand years old and have survived the elements remarkably well. They are major works of art, not just in Ireland but in a worldwide context. There are many other intriguing details on the high crosses, not least a panel which has major significance in the history of traditional musical instruments in Ireland. This and other aspects of the site’s history and sculpture will be explored here at a later date.