It’s no secret that for centuries, the people of Ireland have been expert craftsmen. The Celts of early medieval Ireland created stunning gold and silver adornments for themselves like torcs and lunulae; the more ornate the piece, the higher their status in Celtic society, so huge attention to detail was paid to each item. Later when Christianity was introduced to the country, monasteries were set up all over the island as centres of learning for monks, priests, and anyone willing to dedicate their life to religion. At the monasteries, these skills were further honed and transferred to other areas too.
Monks turned their artistic abilities to painting, sculpting, drawing, and book binding among other crafts. One significant result of this was exquisite illuminated manuscripts (or in other words, hand-written bibles made with vellum and covered in intricate drawings and calligraphy) such as the Book of Kells. However, metalwork was still just as prevalent as ever with groups of artists slaving over silver chalices, high stone crosses, and altar ornaments. One such beautiful example is the Cross of Cong, a processional cross dating from the 12th century considered to be one of the finest examples of metalwork of its time from Western Europe.
History of Cong
Although made for the King of Connacht and High King of Ireland, with the intention of him donating it to the Cathedral church in Tuam, county Galway, the cross ended up in Cong Abbey in county Mayo instead (more on that later). Cong is a small village right on the borders of counties Mayo and Galway, and is actually situated on an island formed by a number of surrounding streams. These days the town is largely famous for being the setting of the 1952 film ‘The Quiet Man’, and still sees crowds of tourists visiting to see the filming sites, which include Ashford Castle and some of the streets of the town as well as the surrounding areas.
Before the phenomenon of The Quiet Man, however, Cong was noteworthy because of its 13th century Augustinian abbey, which contains some of the finest examples of medieval religious architecture in Ireland. A church was built at the site of the Abbey in the 7th century, allegedly by Saint Feichin, and the settlement grew up around it. Some 500 years later the High King of Ireland at the time, Turlough Mor O’Connor, founded the abbey there and the town was born. His son Ruaidri was Ireland’s last High King, and spent the last 15 years of his life in the abbey.
Over the following centuries the abbey was attacked more than once, first by the Norman knight William de Burgh, and later by Henry VIII, who suppressed the abbey in 1542 and instigated its slow decline. It was used by monks intermittently, with the last abbot being Fr. Patrick Prendergast, who lived there from 1795 until his death in 1829. Restoration began in 1855, although the buildings laid empty and ruined forevermore.
Origins of the Cross
The Cross of Cong is a processional cross, a type of cross common at the time for – you guessed it – ceremonial processions! It would have been mounted on top of a long wooden pole when used in public, carried up the centre aisle of the church at the head of the procession, and then removed from its staff and placed on the altar. Incense and candles would also be used during the procession.
The 12th century in Ireland however was a time of political turmoil, and there is more to the historical context of this cross than meets the eye. The cross was commissioned by Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht and (according to the inscription of the cross at least) High King of Ireland. He had it made in order to donate it – and thus form a valuable partnership with – the Cathedral of Tuam in Galway.
While on the surface this may seem like just an elaborate gift and a cementing of an alliance, many historians believe that it was in fact more than that. At this point in Ireland’s history the legendary O’Neill dynasty, who had been High Kings for several generations, had been ousted by Brian Boru. So the kingship of Ireland was up for grabs, and just about everyone wanted it (everyone being the kings of the four provinces Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht).
Taking the most powerful throne of all required more than just going to war, however – they also needed the backing of the increasingly influential and powerful churches to defeat their foes. To make it not only magnificent, but important and revered as well, Tairrdelbach made his cross a reliquary – a container for a relic – by placing in it a piece of the purported ‘true cross’, the wooden cross used to crucify Jesus.
This piece of true cross had arrived in Ireland from Rome in 1123 and was enshrined in Roscommon, where the cross was made. He then inscribed his name and title on it, adding ‘High King of Ireland’ for good measure, and handed it over to Tuam. Such a significant donation from a man purporting to be the High King – even though he wasn’t - couldn’t help but swing the churches’ alliances over to him, especially when the Pope himself had sent a fragment of the true cross to him thereby endorsing him as a highly influential ruler. Luckily, his dangerous gamble paid off!
Making the Cross
With the ornate and elaborate decoration that covers the cross, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is made entirely from a solid piece of metal. In fact its interior is actually just a simple wooden cross, covered in several precious metals including gold, silver, copper, bronze and brass as well as enamel and coloured glass. Almost every inch of the cross is covered with gold filigree and strap work, combining Celtic, Viking and Romanesque imagery and designs. Like almost all Irish art from this period, animal motifs also feature strongly.
The cross stands 30 inches high and 19 inches wide, and inscriptions along its side offer prayers for Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobhair and the people who helped the cross come into existence and supervised its creation; Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, the Bishop of Connacht, and the man who actually made the shrine, Bratdan O Echan. Another inscription also states that ‘in this cross is preserved the cross on which the founder of the world suffered’. Glass beads (some of which are now missing) are placed at intervals along the sides and down the centre of each arm of the cross, and in the meeting point of the arms is a dome of crystal glass which once held the relic – now also missing! Brass panels along the front and back of the arms are covered in intricate interlacing patterns.
Strapwork in the (Viking) Urnes style is present on these panels, consisting of snaking designs which the Irish craftsmen adapted into animals. At the base of the cross is a stylised beast head with the cross clamped in its mouth – something typical continental art of the time, particularly German crosses. Beneath the head is the ornately decorated rouned socket into which the staff would have been inserted. Underneath the decorative surface of the cross are two important symbols. On the wooden core of the cross is carved the shape of another cross (now known as a ‘Cross of Lorraine’) which is said to be a symbol for the true cross.
There is also evidence that an earlier circular container was placed underneath the rock crystal, and that this is where the relic was placed. Either way, the cross was extremely valuable due to both the relic and the extraordinary craftsmanship that went into making it, and would only have been used for very special ceremonies.
What happened to the Cross?
The Cross was originally known as the Cross of Roscommon since it was made and started its life there. Although it was in Tuam for a time, it was transferred to Cong at some point, most likely for safekeeping with the increasing threat of attacks and invasions of religious sites in Ireland. It was probably used there for very special occasions in the following centuries, but would have been hidden among locals and members of religious orders in their own homes due to persecution against Catholics during the Penal Laws.
One thing is for sure, it would never have been on public display at this time when not in use. Eventually in 1829 the cross finally emerged from hiding when the last abbot of Cong, Fr. Prendergast, revealed on his deathbed that he had been keeping it hidden in his belongings for decades. Despite his efforts, some antiquarians had come to know of its existence. One of them, a professor at Trinity College named James MacCullagh, used his own money to purchase the cross from Prendergast’s successor.
He gave it to the Royal Irish Academy, who gave it pride of place in the National Museum of Ireland (when they built it 60 years later, that is). It’s still there to this day, although it did enjoy a brief stint in the Country Life exhibit in Castlebar in 2010. A replica of the cross also sits in Roscommon in the church where it started out its life. In 1870, however, another parish priest of Cong, Fr. Lavelle, successfully stole the cross from the Academy. A known Fenian sympathiser and rebel within the religious order, he was famous for condemning the then leader of the Catholic Church and regularly gave orations on the Irish independence cause.
The staff at the academy was unaware of this however, so he simply walked in, asked to see the cross, and when everyone’s back was turned, ran out of the building with it tucked under his clothes! He attempted to make a run for the train station so he could return the cross to its rightful home in Cong, but was arrested before making it onto the train. Luckily, the cross survived the ordeal largely intact.