Monasterboice (Mainistir Bhuithe) is an interesting monastic site near Drogheda in County Louth. The impressive ruins include a large cemetery, two churches, one of the tallest round towers in Ireland and two of the tallest and best high crosses.
History of Monasterboice
Monasterboice is said to have been founded by St. Buithe (d. 520), a follower of St. Patrick, in the late 5th century AD. (There is evidence that the site had pre-Christian sacred significance as well.) It is from St. Buithe that the Boyne River gets its name. According to legend, the saint ascended directly into heaven via a ladder lowered from above.
The settlement was captured by invading Vikings in 968 AD, who were then comprehensively expelled by Donal, the Irish high king of Tara. St. Buithe's Monastery was an important center of spirituality and scholarship until the Cistercians arrived at nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142, after which Monasterboice declined.
What to See at Monasterboice
Monasterboice has many interesting features to explore, but the clear highlight are its superb high crosses. Like murals and church sculptures, these magnificent examples of Celtic art brought the Bible to life for those who could not read (which was most people).
The cross near the entrance to the site is Muirdach's Cross (a.k.a Muiredach's Cross). It dates from 900-923 AD and stands 5.5m (16 feet) tall. It is named for an abbot mentioned in the inscription on the base: "A prayer for Muirdach for whom the cross was made."
The carvings have not all been certainly identified, but on the eastern face, from the bottom up, they appear to represent: the Fall of Adam and Eve and the murder of Abel; David and Goliath; Moses bringing water from the rock to the Israelites; the Three Magi bearing gifts to Mary and Jesus.
The center of the cross on the eastern face depicts the Last Judgment, with the saved (led by David with a harp) on Christ's right and the damned on his left; above that is St. Paul in the desert. These seemingly unrelated scenes may be connected by the themes of sin, judgment and atonement.
The western face of Muirdach's Cross focuses on the New Testament and depicts, from the bottom up: the arrest or mocking of Christ (who wears a robe and carries a sceptre); doubting Thomas with another figure (perhaps St. John the Evangelist, who recorded the story); Christ giving the keys of heaven to St. Peter and a book to St. Paul; and Moses praying with Aaron and Hur.
In the central Crucifixion scene on the western face, Christ is depicted as clothed and without pain (a typical Irish image). He is flanked by two soldiers, the spearbearer who pierces his left side and another holding a cane with a cup, apparently representing the spongebearer. Between the soldiers and Christ's knees are two heads, perhaps indicating the two thieves. The bird under Christ's feet may represent the phoenix, a symbol of resurrection.
On the right arm of the cross is a depiction of the Resurrection of Christ, with guards kneeling on each side of the tomb and three angels behind them holding a small figure representing the soul. The cross is capped with a stone replica of a gabled-roof church.
At the bottom of the western face, accompanied by two cats, is an inscription translated as, "A prayer for Muiredach for whom (or by whom) the cross was made."
The slimmer West Cross, located near the round tower in the western corner of the site, is 6.5m high, making it the tallest high cross in Ireland. Also dating from the early 10th century, it is more weathered than Muirdach's Cross, especially at the base, leaving only about a dozen of its original 50 panels distinguishable.
Among the scenes on the eastern face are: David killing a lion and a bear; the sacrifice of Isaac; David with Goliath's head; and David kneeling before Samuel. Legible scenes on the western face include: the Resurrection; the crowning with thorns; the Crucifixion; the baptism of Christ; Peter cutting of the guard's ear at Gethsemane; and the kiss of Judas.
The northeastern corner of the complex is home to the simpler North Cross, which was probably smashed by Oliver Cromwell's forces. It has only a few carvings, but makes a fine silhouette in the evening against the round tower in the background.
Monasterboice's round tower is over 30m (110 feet) tall and was divided into four or more stories inside, connected with ladders. As with other round towers in Ireland, this was used as a belfry, watch-tower, and a refuge for monks and valuables during times of Viking attack. Records indicate that the interior went up in flames in 1097, destroying many valuable manuscripts and other treasures. The tower is currently closed to the public.
For more high crosses in Ireland, see Clonmacnoise.
Quick Facts on Monasterboice
|Names:||Mainistir Bhuithe · Monasterboice|
|Categories:||monasteries; high cross sites|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||53.777600° N, 6.417590° W|
County Louth, Ireland
|Lodging:||View hotels near Monasterboice|
- Personal visit (August 28, 2007).
- Andy Halpin and Conor Newman, Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press, 2006), 321-24.
- Lonely Planet Ireland, 7th ed. (January 2006), 547.
- Muiredach Cross - Mary Ann Sullivan
Map of Monasterboice, County Louth
Below is a location map and aerial view of Monasterboice. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.