The first thing you spot from the distance is the round tower, roofless now but still rising to over 100ft above the surrounding farmland and announcing to the world that this was once a site of great importance.
Monasterboice translates as Mainistir Bhuite – monastery of Buite. Saint Buite was an Irish monk and a follower of St Patrick (who is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland) and his monastery was once a centre of learning and religion. He is said to have cured many people during his travels and when he died in AD520, he ascended into heaven by a ladder which had been lowered down for him from above!
Typically, monasteries of the time centred around a church and a round tower facing each other. The tower was divided into 4 or more storeys connected by ladders and served as a belfry, a watch tower, a storage place for books, relics and valuables and last but not least, as a refuge for the monks during Viking raids. The entrance was usually several feet above ground and accessed by a ladder which was drawn up for safety.
This tower is still in good condition (although without its conical cap). It was burned in 1097 and the library and other treasures were destroyed.
Here at Monasterboice, the doorway is just 1.84 metres above ground, suggesting that the ground level may have risen by a few metres,
Looks as though its still serving as a home……
The Celtic High Crosses
The site is most famous for its 3 High Crosses. There are actually over 300 to be found throughout the country. Apart from their height, they are distinctive for having the four arms of the cross encircled in a ring and for their rich engraving. There are all sorts of theories put forward re eternal life, the circle of life, etc., but more than likely they were constructed with the ring as extra support because of the height and weight of the structure.
Early crosses were decorated with simple celtic designs. Then biblical scenes were introduced. In this period before books, such images would have been used to educate early Christians.
The High Crosses were never used as headstones – they did not mark burial places. Rather, they were ritual – declaring territory as Christian and serving as a focal point for ceremonies.
Stonemasons would live and work in the monasteries. The sandstone crosses were built in 3 parts – the base with a hollow centre, the cross itself and a capstone. They were always placed in situ before the carving was completed. They might have been painted but there is no proof that such was the case.
The Cross of Muiredach
No one knows which Muiredach commissioned the cross – there were 2 abbots at the monastery with that name as well as a king Muiredach who owned the monastic land. Measuring 5.5m (almost 18 feet), this cross features 124 figures and 17 patterns and is in the best condition of the three.
Biblical illustrations would help the spread of Christianity – This scene depicts Moses striking the rock.
Cats and an inscription to Muiredach
The sides are decorated with celtic knots and scrolls…
The Tall Cross
This is the tallest High Cross in Ireland standing at 7m (23feet). It is said that at the time of the Great Famine, locals would chip off a piece of the cross before emigrating, Some parts have been badly eroded and are difficult to interpret but scenes from both Old and New Testaments have been identified.
The North Cross
This cross is the oldest and plainest of the three. It has been heavily reconstructed and stands beside the remains of an old sundial.
There are also the remains of 2 churches on the site. They would have been built several centuries later and there’s very little left apart from the outer walls.
The site is still used as a graveyard today.
Where is Monasterboice?
About 60 km north of Dublin in County Louth
Its a bit of a challenge by public transport. You’d need a bus from Dublin to Drogheda, then another one to Monasterboice Inn and then you have a 30 minute walk!
Driving, you head north from Dublin on the MI motorway – the tower is visible from the road just north of Drogheda. Take exit 10. There are plenty of signposts
There is no charge
The site is wheelchair accessible and there are public toilets in the car park. Information boards will help you interpret the crosses.
NOTE: There is no public access to the interior of the round tower