Medieval Churches, High Crosses, and a Round Tower
The archeological ruins against the emerald green landscape at Monasterboice merge to form a setting that could almost only be Irish. Established in 520 A.D. by St. Buite, a follower of St. Patrick, the Christian settlement at Monasterboice was a community of life and worship that thrived for more than 5 centuries. Its associations within Irish history include marauding Vikings and the kings of Tara. It is a place of awe and of mystery, evoking phantom visions of a secluded community of religious scholars walking to prayers, working in the surrounding fields, and carefully copying their sacred and secular texts onto vellum. After being attacked and burned by Vikings in 1097, the community entered a decline from which it never recovered.
Himself and Yours Truly visited Monasterboice on a fickle day in late May. The sky vacillated from dark and dreary to a brilliant blue streaked with wispy white clouds. Like much of rural Ireland, despite its nearness to major motorways, Monasterboice seems isolated and forgotten by time. Indeed, much about this place has been forgotten by time, and most of its undoubtedly rich history has been lost. It is known that the monks of Monasterboice once had a fine library with many "treasures"—not just books, but quite likely relics adorned in gold, carved ivory, and other precious substances. Now, all that remains are the echoes that speak of long vanished prosperity—and the stones that can be admired in a true sense of homage.
These days Monasterboice is best known for its well-preserved watchtower and its three magnificent crosses. The site also includes what remains of two churches, two early grave slabs, and a medieval sundial—all surrounded by a still-active cemetery. The presence of two churches at Monasterboice indicates that this was once home to both a monastery and a convent, with each community having its own place of worship.
The Round Tower, which can be seen for some distance as one approaches Monasterboice, is remarkably well preserved and stands about 30m in height. It may well be the best example of a medieval tower of this type remaining in Ireland. The interior still has floors connected by ladders. Although routine access is closed to visitors, the views from the top are said to be reach as far as the Mourne Mountains. The top section and the roof are missing, leaving the tower’s jagged pinnacle stabbing upward like an outstretched forefinger pointed toward the sky. The windows and doorway are all intact. The tower was probably built during the ninth century and served the community as a library and as well as a lookout post and refuge from Viking raiders pillaging along Ireland’s east coast.
The three Celtic high crosses located at Monasterboise were carved of local sandstone and are excellent examples of the medieval carver’s craft. The best known and best preserved of the three is the South Cross (also known as Muiredach's Cross), which stands 5½m high. Its surfaces are covered with relief carvings depicting biblical themes—including the Fall of Man, David’s defeat of Goliath, and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The carvings and bold and clear, and they are abstract as only the best medieval art can be.
The West or Tall Cross is 7m high and stands in close proximity to the Round Tower. Tall and slender relative to the South Cross, it is more graceful than its companion. It is also more weathered by time. Viewed with the tower in the background, both the tower and the cross seem to gain in height, and the sight of the two together is worth the price of the Atlantic crossing. Like the South Cross, the West Cross is ornately carved and covered with scenes representing familiar stories from the Scriptures. Unlike the South Cross, which was created using a single block of stone, the West Cross was carved in segments that were then joined together—the shaft was created of one stone and the head piece of another.
The North Cross, the third of the high crosses at Monasterboise, is unique and impressive in its own right, but it is only a fragment. Mounted above a 2m improvised shaft, the 3m headpiece of this cross is far simpler than its companions. Either the carver never finished his work, or he chose to use simple lines and curves rather than complex and deeply carved designed. The head piece includes two medallions, a simple crucifixion scene on front and the complex pattern of a Celtic knot on back.
For Himself and Yours Truly, our time was passed quietly, enjoying the peace and beauty of this dignified and sacred place. It is possible, as we did, to pass an hour at Monasterboice without encountering another visitor. The privacy, the beauty, and the serenity of Monasterboice make for a visit that is both very personal and extremely moving.
One should not visit Monasterboice expecting to find a visitor center and teams of docents. Informational placards are provided at strategic locations. Other than that, facilities consist of a small carpark along the road, and a tiny all-purpose shop attached to the caretaker’s cottage. There visitors can pick up post cards and small keepsakes, choose from a limited selection of literature on antiquarian topics, and purchase soft drinks and snacks. Local lore focused on the site and other nearby attractions is also generously shared by the proprietor.
Wherefores and By-the-Ways
Monasterboice is located in the Irish countryside roughly halfway between Dublin and Belfast in County Louth. The exit is signposted from the M1/N1, about 8km northwest of Drogheda.
Open to the public all year around.