Ireland is such a small country but it’s jam-packed with history.
Driving back down from Carlingford last week, we stopped to look at Monasterboice, the ruins of an ancient monastery which I last visited about 30 years ago. It hasn’t changed a bit since then, nor much at all in the last 1500 years. An old graveyard down a quiet country road, with the remains of a round tower, a church, and some 10th-century Celtic high crosses. The biggest one of these, the Cross of Muiredach, is almost 6 metres high. Stop and look closely and you’ll see why it’s considered to be a high point of Irish stone sculpture.
Our guidebook had it spot on. It is extraordinary to find one of Ireland’s artistic treasures just sitting in a field.
We wandered around in that romantic drizzle you find in this ancient part of the country, close to the Boyne Valley, Newgrange and Tara with their kings and tombs, battles and myths. Even the kids’s patience held out, for a bit. They headed back over the stone stile to the car – the only one in the car park across the road – while we looked more closely at the images carved into the stone, now more worn since the M1 motorway was built nearby a few years ago.
One old OPW sign marked out some of the biblical stories on the cross, and we had a good look up at the full size of it, picking out old reliables like Adam&Eve, Moses, Jesus, Michael, the devil, doubting Thomas. Along the sides was knotwork to equal any in the Book of Kells, and on one side, above your head you can see a hand reaching over you – the Hand of God (or Hand of Ulster). Two cats, or lions, guarding at the bottom.
These crosses, unique to Ireland (but with cousins in England and Scotland) were not actually grave markers but more likely to have been teaching tools for the many people who couldn’t read. It was the Victorians who revived them for their graveyards.
As we left, the evening was closing down around us and we drove back toward the motorway, the big city and the start of a new week.
The old stone stayed where it was.