Monasterboice, County Louth

Monasterboice, County Louth

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Monasterboice, an intriguing monastic site located near Drogheda in County Louth consist of a large cemetery, two churches, one of the tallest round towers in Ireland and two of its most impressive examples of high crosses. One of St. Patrick’s followers, St. Buithe is said to have founded Monasterboice in the late 5th Century. It is from St. Buithe and the nearby Boyne River that this ancient monastic site derived its name. Legend tells that the saint ascended directly into heaven via a ladder lowered from above.

In 968 AD, the settlement was captured by invading Vikings, but were soon after expelled by Donal – the Irish High King of Tara. St. Buithe’s Monastery was an important centre of spirituality and scholarship until the Cistercians arrived at Mellifont Abbey in 12242, after which Monasterboice declined.

What to See

Among Monasterboice’s many attractions are its stunning high crosses. Like many examples of Celtic art, these fantastic stone carving deal with extracts from the Bible, bringing them to life through visual representations, seeing as the majority of people from this period could not read.

The most impressive of these stone monuments is Muirdach’s Cross or the South Cross, which stands at the entrance to the site. It dates from 900 – 923 AD and stands at 5.5m (16 ft) tall. It is named as such due to the inscription on its base, which reads: “A prayer for Muirdach for whom the cross was made”.

Not all of the carvings have been identified but the eastern face appears to represent scenes including: the fall of Adam and Eve and the murder of Abel; David and Goliath; and the Three Magi bearing gifts to Mary and Jesus. The Western side seems to represent scenes from the New Testament including: the arrest of Christ; doubting Thomas and Moses praying with Aaron and Hur.

The much slimmer West Cross stands close by to the round tower in the western corner of the site. It stands at 6.5m (21 ft) tall, making it the tallest high cross in Ireland. This cross also dates from the 10th Century and it significantly more weathered than Muirdach’s Cross with only around twelve of it original 50 panels in a distinguishable state.

The simpler North Cross can be found in the northeastern corner of the complex. This cross has taken some damage (which is speculated to have been dealt out by Oliver Cromwell’s forces, and despite its few carvings is still a fine example of Celtic art.

Finally, the tower of Monasterboice is over 30m (110 ft) tall and inside was divided into four or more stories, each connected to the next via ladder. Round towers were commonly used as watch-towers, belfries or as a place of refuge for monks and their valuables during times of Viking attack. Records indicate that the interior went up in flames in 1097, destroying many valuable manuscripts and treasures, which resided inside. Please note that, unfortunately the tower is closed to the public.

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