One of the lesser known pieces in the National Museum's vast collection of Irish treasures is the Lislaughtin (Ballymacasey) Cross. While most people have at least heard of the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch, the Lislaughtin Cross often draws blank stares. Its history and significance are equally as interesting as the chalice and the brooch, and the craftsmanship and beauty of the cross easily matches them too. (I'm not just saying this because I'm from Kerry!) We thought we should give this highly underrated piece of history the mention it deserves.
The Lislaughtin cross which is also known as the Ballymacasey cross was used by the monks at Lislaughtin Abbey, situated in the village of Ballylongford in County Kerry. Ballylongford is a small rural village like many others in Ireland. Listowel, the next nearest town, is about 15 kilometres away, and the nearest big town, Tralee, is about forty minutes drive from the village. It's a typical Irish village tucked away in a quiet corner of the country, and most importantly it's the birthplace of my lovely mother-in-law! Historically Ballylongford is one of the most significant places in County Kerry.
Ballylongford was recognised as a good defensive spot and a Norman-style castle was built there between 1490 and 1500 by Connor Liath O'Connor. This allowed the O'Connor family to set up a very strategic base for themselves, being able to 'tax' ships that they spotted going up and down the nearby river.
Around the same time that they began building the castle, the O'Connors also constructed the Friary of Lislaughtin, beginning in 1478. It was named Lislaughtin after Saint Lachtin, the first person to preach Christianity in the area. The Gaelic for Lachtin is Lios Laichtin, which over time transformed into Lislaughtin. The site of the Friary was also where an earlier church dedicated to the saint had once stood. It was populated by Oservantine monks and became one of the most important religious institutions in Kerry. Even after its dissolution, some monks still remained there.
The Abbey, as it came to be known by locals, was raided twice by English forces during attacks on Carrigafoyle Castle. Raiding a friary then (and now) would be considered a horrible crime to commit. It was dissolved around the same time that the Castle and surrounding lands were finally confiscated, so its history is intricately linked with both the Castle and the powerful O'Connor family. After its dissolution, the villagers claimed the Abbey as their own and used it as a Roman Catholic church and as a plot to bury their loved ones. Two O'Connor chieftans are also buried there. The Abbey still stands today, and although it's not intact, the beautiful east window can still be appreciated.
It was during one of these attacks that the Lislaughtin Cross, a magnificent two foot long processional cross commissioned by the O'Connors for the monks of the Abbey, was buried near the grounds presumably by a quick thinking monk. It stayed there for several decades before it was discovered by a local farmer. The cross would most likely have been the most valuable item in the Abbey.
So what exactly is a processional cross? It's a large crucifix or cross carried in processions, used during a variety of different religious occasions and celebrations. They have a long tradition of use in Christian churches, to a point where all churches were eventually expected to possess one as standard. Some had detachable shafts and doubled up as altar crosses. In Catholic processions, the cross would be accompanied with incense and candles as it was carried up to the altar. In large or important churches, processional crosses were richly decorated and made from precious metals. Aside from the Lislaughtin, some notable examples include the Cross of Cong and the German Cross of Lothair.
In March 1871 a farmer by the name of John Jeffcott was ploughing some reclaimed bogland when he discovered the cross. Although some pieces were missing and it had suffered minor damage, the cross was still largely intact and in decent condition. When inspected, it was discovered that more than one small piece had broken off and been re-soldered to the cross, not always in the right place! Jeffcott kept the cross in his home for a number of years before the Royal Irish Academy took it off his hands for preservation and public display. The funny thing about this cross is that it remained in Jeffcott's house in Ballylongford for eighteen years! (I love the idea of a 2 foot ornate cross lying around his house. Where would you put something like that?!) He was apparently very reluctant to let go of it, and it was only after much persuasion from a local historian and the Academy that he eventually parted with it.
It was not unusual for wealthy families to become patrons of a church or organisation, and that's what the O'Connors were to Lislaughtin. Thanks to a detailed description on the back of the cross, we know that it was commissioned by Cornelius, son of John O'Connor, and his wife Avelina (Eileen!) in 1479 and made by a craftsman named William Cornel, who's background is unclear. It is interesting that Avelina was recognised as a fellow patron, since women were not often considered important in medieval Ireland.
The cross stands at 67cm tall and is made from silver gilt. It was made into a complete piece from four separate components; the cross itself (with the horizontal part attached via sockets and rivets), a collar below, a knop (a type of rounded knob used in ornaments) and another hollow socket for attaching a handle. A figure of Christ, which would have been cast separately and then soldered, adorns the centre. That's just the very beginning of the intricate decorative detail on this piece; it's incredible that it survived without any major damage.
The entire cross is covered with a floreated outline that was typical of the late Gothic period and gives it a particularly ornate look. This would have taken a lot of time, patience and skill to complete as the detail is so rich but the pieces are so small. The back of the cross is plain, which makes sense since only the carrier would have seen it.
The lengthy inscription is engraved in three lines on each arm of the cross and has flowers and animals interlaced through gaps in the text. At the end of each arm and in the centre are quatrefoils (a type of border consisting of four circles intersected by a diamond shape) each of which contains a representation of an evangelist. At the top is an eagle for St. John, on the left a lion for St. Mark and on the right is a calf for St. Luke. The quatrefoil in the centre has sadly lost its emblem. There is no quatrefoil at the bottom of the cross now, but there is evidence that the cross may have broken from the rest of the piece and been awkwardly soldered back on, since the length of the cross is not exactly proportionate to its breadth. This would explain the missing final evangelist.
The figure of Christ is very stylised, with rivulets of blood, elongated arms, a crown of thick rope and a meticulously moulded loincloth. In a bid to be as authentic as possible, the figure is even attached to the cross with three small nails, one in each hand and one at the feet. He is shown with eyes closed and very prominent ribs as well as a wound in his side, clearly meant to emphasise his suffering during crucifixion.
Below the actual cross itself there is even more fine detail. First, an eight-sided flared plinth with a series of cast monks. They are each holding a cross in the left hand while the right hand is raised in blessing. This collar is set on top of a twisted knop with another eight-sided decoration, this time of rosettes and leaves. Finally, the knop sits on top of a tapering circular socket with a decoration of serrated ribs. This is where a metal shaft would have been attached to carry the cross during processions.
The Lislaughtin cross is similar in style to the forty or so processional crosses found in Britain and Ireland from the same period. What makes it unique is the fact that is the only one made from silver – all the others are gilt brass or bronze. The long inscription and the way in which it in incorporated into the cross is also a one-of-a-kind element, and finally the exceptional detail and workmanship of the cross is better than any other example.
It's great to see that the Lislaughtin cross and the Abbey it came from still has a place in people's hearts. Recently a customer commissioned a really interesting piece based on the beautiful east window of Lislaughtin Abbey I mentioned above. It's the best preserved section of the Abbey and turned out to be a beautiful pendant. Contact here if you would like to order a similar piece of Handmade Irish Jewelry. You can also see how we made The Silver Lislaughtin Window Pendant was made.