November 25, 2008

County Wicklow: Monasterboice

Following our stop at Mellifont Abbey, we traveled a short way to Monasterboice to see what some consider the finest high cross in all of Ireland. The monastic site includes a couple of cemeteries, a few high crosses, and one of the largest round towers in the country.

I know that I have mentioned before that I love cemeteries, especially those that contain large headstones. This means that in Europe, I quite liked every one we visited. Most people find this creepy or just plain weird. I don't know exactly how to articulate what it is that I like about them. My appreciation stems somewhat from the tangible nature of the headstones coupled with the age of the place. In a cemetery, one is looking at the end of something and also at the beginning. It is where one is laid to rest and at the same time it is our history; where we come from. The older a cemetery is, the more I feel like this is the case. I find them peaceful; I find them beautiful.

The two located at Monasterboice are no exception. These are very old; they are ancient when compared to those in the United States. Needless to say, I liked them very much. I could have spent a long time there photographing headstones and the like.

There are three high crosses at Monasterboice. The North cross has been damaged by weather and war and therefore has few carvings that are legible. The most famous of the crosses, and the best preserved, is called Muirdach's cross.

High crosses were used in the same manner as murals and sculptures: to bring the bible to life for those who could not read it. These examples of Celtic art depict scenes from well known passages in the bible. All of the carvings haven't been identified with certainty, but many of them are quite obvious. The eastern face shows the fall of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, and the three Magi bringing gifts to Christ, amongst other things. The center of the cross on the western face shows the crucifixion, with Christ depicted as was usual in medieval times: clothed and without suffering.

The high crosses are very tall; Muiredach's cross has a height of sixteen feet. The third and final cross, the West cross, is over twenty-one feet tall; this makes it the tallest in Ireland. Due to its location and the material from which it was carved, the West cross is more weathered than Muiredach's cross and therefore has fewer panels that are easily read. It is located just in front of the round tower at Monasterboice.

The round tower is one of the tallest in Ireland. It used to have four floors accessed by ladders. Additionally, that door you see in the photograph above used to sit farther above ground level. Over the years, the soil has layered around the tower, making it appear shorter. Many say that the door was up so high in order to allow the monks to take refuge inside the tower during Viking attack. Those who argue this say that a ladder would have been the only way to enter the tower and the monks would have pulled it up from the inside.

Others state that the reason the doorway was so high is to protect the integrity of the structure. Round towers were built with little to no foundation; to place the door at ground level would have surely caused the tower to fall. In fact, the area below the doorway is packed with soil and stone in order to strenghthen the structure.

Also on the premises are the ruins of two churches. They are very small and make for excellent photo opportunities. One is right beside the West cross and in front of the round tower. It is amazing to me that the churches are almost gone and yet that tower is still standing. Granted, it is missing its roof and it isn't safe to enter it, but standing it is. They fascinate me, the structures people built without any modern technology.

This stop marked the end of our very busy morning. We had been to Fourknocks, Mellifont Abbey and here. Where to for lunch? Why, Slane Village, of course!

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