Christ; King of the Cosmos
There are a few places in Ireland where there have been very important wells that have since long dried up or been forgotten and covered over with concrete or with houses - this is one such well and I felt it was important to state that before you begin to read and find yourself disappointed at the lack of an actual well!
The Round Tower
Monasterboice is a collection of Christian ruins at a somewhat small site in County Louth. It was founded back in the fifth century by Saint Buite (who died in 520AD); the name Monasterboice is an anglicanization of the Irish name Mainistir Buiti, meaning the monastery of Buite. Curiously there is no mention of the site as a monastic settlement at all until 723AD and it is after this point that many clerical obits begin to be recorded in the annals* and continue until the start of the twelfth century. The site was an important centre of learning and religion for both monks and nuns until Mellifont Abbey was built nearby in 1142. From this point onwards, monastic activity seems to have ceased, but the site becomes a parochial centre and an important site of the relics of Saint Buite until the fifteenth or sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century the site declined as a place of worship, but the graveyard continues to be used today as a parochial cemetery. In this cemetery there are two churches (the North Church and the South Church), a round tower, a sundial dating to the eighth century, a recently vandalized ballaun stone and three Irish High Crosses.
The remains of the Lavabo at Mellifont Abbey
The round tower at Monasterboice is missing its top and is currently 110 feet tall and was likely divided into four or more different sections when it was in use. Despite the fact that it is missing its top it is still one of the tallest examples of a round tower in the country. It has a small doorway two metres from the ground and is framed in sandstone and above this are a series of small windows dotted around the tower. The North church is a simple rectangular structure made mainly of shale as is the South church. The South church has evidence of a chancel arch in the walls, but is also fairly plain in style. The North Cross consists of four different sections; the west face shows a crucifixion scene with Christ, Stephaton and Longinus and a raised circular medallion on the east face. It has been suggested that this cross is made of fragments from a number of crosses that would have stood in the area at one time. It is said that Oliver Cromwell’s forces vandalized this cross. These crosses were hugely significant for worship, as points of prayer and mediation for pilgrims and as teaching aids in an era when few could read.
The 'Tall' Cross
The Tall cross (the West cross) is just over seven metres in height being the tallest high cross in Ireland but its base has been horribly vandalized by tourists who have chipped away ‘souveniers’ of their pilgrimage to the site. The carvings on this cross are badly weathered, but you can make out David killing a lion and a bear (or possibly Sampson), the sacrifice of Isaac, David with the head of Goliath and David kneeling before Samuel. On the other side you can make out the resurrection, Christ crowned with thorns, the baptism of Christ, Peter cutting off the servants ear and the betrayal by Judas.
Muiredach’s cross (the South cross) has a curious capstone of different stone representing either a small church or a reliquary. An inscription on the base of the cross, accompanied by two peaceful cats, reads ‘Or Do Muiredach Las Ndernad I Chros’ (pray for Muiredach who made this cross) and it may refer to Muiredach Domnall, abbot of Armagh and abbot of Monasterboice who died in 924AD. The scenes on each of these crosses are not simply rendered to tell the story but also to explicitly convey a particular teaching of the church; for example, the panel of Moses extracting water from the rock is linked to an early Irish Christian teaching on ‘the Help of God’ both in a spiritual and a physical sense and as a means of teaching both the faithfulness of God and how we should in turn be faithful to God. Christ is presented as King of the Earth and King of the Cosmos throughout the Muiredach cross (the cosmos likely representing the spiritual, the earth the physical). Not all of the carvings have been identified, but you can easily spot Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Moses striking the rock for water and the Visitation of the Magi. The central panel depicts the Last Judgement led by David with a harp and above is Saint Paul in the desert. It is thought that these scenes interplay teaching on sin, judgement and atonement. The other side of the cross has Christ’s arrest and mocking, doubting Thomas with Saint John, Christ giving keys to Saint Peter and a book to Saint Paul and Moses praying with Aaron and Hur. The central crucifixion scene shows a Christ who is clothed and not in pain (a typically Irish way of depicting the crucifixion), flanked by two soldiers with a spear and one with a sponge, the two circles to the side of Christ may represent the two thieves and a phoenix under Christ’s feet may represent the resurrection. The right arm of the cross has the resurrection and the left arm is not deciphered. It is likely that all of the crosses would have been highly coloured and would have been an even more remarkable sight than they are today. All three crosses are classed as National Monuments of Ireland.
Detail of Muiredach's Cross showing Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel
Very little is known about Monasterboice’s founder Saint Buite. A single text of the life of the saint survives, but is an edited edition of two earlier sources. It tells of his life, beginning with various miracles throughout his childhood and ending close to the point of his death with his prophecy concerning the birth of Colum Cille who was later said to visit the site. Buite was a devoted follower of Saint Patrick and settled in this area to help with Patrick’s missionary work - presumably quite late in his life. His birth was supposed to have been preceeded by fire in the sky as a good omen of God’s work and the Saint’s ‘manner and habit of life’ was said to bear a close resemblance to the charism of Saint Brigid. He was a descendant of one of the chieftains of Munster and in his early life he was influenced greatly by Saint Patrick. He is said to have travelled extensively throughout Germany, Italy and England before finally settling in Ireland. Two stories tell of miracles in his life and influence. On one occasion a blind man comes to him and Buite tells him to wash his eyes in the well. The man does this and is miraculously healed. The other tale tells of how an important visitor needed to get across the River Boyne which was swollen in flood and highly dangerous, but Buite struck the waters and they parted like the Red Sea allowing a safe passage for the important visitor. There are a number of decorative stone grave slabs dating to the eighth century and the South church incorporates a slab shrine which in all likelihood is the burial shrine slab of Saint Buite, although the actual burial site is unknown.
The North Cross
The records of the presiding abbots and clergy at Monasterboice are well documented and many appear to have had illustrious careers and been abbots of other very important foundations. This may indicate that they are from the same dynastic family line or that there were strong links between Monasterboice and other places like Armagh and Clonard. The most famous cleric of Monasterboice was of course Flann Mainistrech who died in 1056 and who was described as ‘eminent lector and master of the historical lore of Ireland’. Flann was noted for his incredible insight and scholarship and as such was considered in his day as the pre-eminent scholar of the age. He was a remarkably prolific poet with a keen interest in local politics and his work may also reveal something of his shrewdness of character, as a large amount of his poetical works seems to be attempts at wooing neighbours for the sake of their kind patronage! His son**, Echtigern, continued his poetic legacy, gathering his works together and writing some of his own.
The North Church
Monasterboice was also a place with a famous scriptorium, and having links with other monasteries may have ensured its survival for a while in this regard. It is thought that the Cotton Psalter may be a product of this site. With the production of quality goods came the accumulation of wealth and with this came the attention of rival families and those in league with the Norse raiders. One entry in the obits of 970AD records a particularly vicious raid on Monasterboice by those ‘raiding on behalf of the foreigners’ when three hundred people were murdered in one building in the space of a single day. In 1097 a fire broke out in the round tower, destroying many significant books and treasures. Within thirty years of this event, all references in the annals to this foundation cease. It may have been that the huge site of Mellifont Abbey nearby spelled the end for Monasterboice as a monastic settlement, or it may have been that the fire did significant damage to the scriptorium and library, or that all important relics were burned and destroyed so that pilgrims were drawn elsewhere. The most likely situation is that after the fire there was little money to make the necessary repairs to continue as the patronage they enjoyed would have very likely moved to Mellifont Abbey and added to this was the fact that the twelfth century was a period of massive reform in the Irish church. Under the new diocesan structures and the removal of petty bishoprics enforced by the 1111 Synod of Raith Bressail, Monasterboice developed into a parochial centre. The North Church was constructed in the thirteenth century and the South church was considerably refurbished in the fifteenth century. The South Church appears to have functioned up into the early seventeenth century, but by 1622 it was described as being in a ruinous state.
The holy well at Monasterboice was originally part of the foundation and known as Saint Buite’s well. Curiously, Isaac Butler describes the well as being south of the graveyard and he called it ‘Saint Kiarnan’s well’. It’s not clear why he gives it this attribution as the name is likely derived from Saint Kieran but that saint has no direct association with this site, but would have known about the site through his association with Clonmacnoise. Sadly the actual location of the well is no longer known as it was drained, filled in and covered in the 1960’s. It’s rather sad that this site has lost its well as it is a very beautiful site and its crosses are incredibly impressive. Nevertheless, it is still an important pilgrimage site and if you get a chance to pray amid the hustle and bustle of tourists, remember on this site that was once of huge scholarly importance all who are involved in the translation of the scriptures and in their production and all who - in the tradition of this place – through word and picture, spread the hope of the Gospel.
Detail of Muiredach's Cross
Direct and bless, O Lord, by the inward work of your Holy Spirit, our reading of the scriptures, to illumine and teach all students, expositors, and translators of the sacred text; and may your blessing be with all who print it, publish it, read it and carry it into the homes and hearts of people, that your word may have free course and Christ be made known in this and in all lands; through the same, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Detail of the Tall Cross
*The annals that are referenced in these blog posts as simply ‘annals’ are; the Annals of Ulster, the Annals of Tigernach, the Cronicum Scotorum, the Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Inisfallen.
**Generally speaking, monks and nuns were celibate and under vows, but clergy appear to have been free to marry until a relatively late period in the Irish church.
The two cats with the inscription on Muiredach's Cross