Westmeath Crosses

This page highlights the crosses of County Westmeath.  These include the Bealin Cross, two crosses at Clonfad/Rattin, the Foyran Cross, and the Fore Cross.   The location of County Westmeath is indicated by a red star on the map to the left.

Bealin or Twinford Cross

Getting There:  This cross led me on a merry-go-round chase.  It lies in County Westmeath a few kilometers northeast of the city of Athlone.  Part of the difficulty in finding it is that it is not signposted.  I knew the approximate area it was in and, as it turned out, I drove a complete ring around the site before stopping at a small convenience store to ask for directions.  The first attendant I asked about the cross had never heard of it.  She was in the process of getting the attention of another employee for me when one of the customers said that he lived just up the road from the cross.  He was headed home after he finished his shopping and invited me to follow him, which I did.  He turned on a road that led into the center of the circle I had made earlier.  Before long he slowed his car and pointed up a side road to the left then waved goodbye.  

Bealin High Cross County Westmeath Ireland

I turned left and drove up the road till it ended at a closed gate.  There was no sign of a cross or sign for a cross.  At the time all I knew, other than the general location was what Peter Harbison had written in his monumental study of the Irish High Crosses.  “The cross now standing on top of a hill in the former Twyford demesne, close to a lane leading northwards from Bealin Post Office, is almost certainly not in its original location.”  (Harbison, 1992, p. 26)  So I knew the cross was on top of a small hill.  There was in fact a small but steep hill just to the west of the road about where the gate was.  I climbed over the gate to see if there was access to the top of the hill from that side.  There was not, but, I could see the top of the cross from there.  So I climbed back over the gate, turned the car around and drove slowly back down the road, looking for some sort of access.  Not far down the road I stopped and asked a neighbor, who happened to be outside, how to reach the cross.  He pointed to an area just north of his house where I could park.  He told me to take the stile over the fence and I would find a pathway that would take me to the cross.  And it did.

The views from the cross were lovely and the cross, weatherbeaten and damaged still has a variety of clearly visible carving.  

The Cross

The cross and its origins are a mystery.  As Harbison noted, its present location was not its original site.  Where it originated is unknown.  Most of the Irish High Crosses are associated with a monastic site, and Francoise Henry drew the conclusion that the Bealin Cross was originally from Clonmacnois or at least produced by the Cl;onmacnois workshop.  She based this on two factors.  The first derives from an inscription on the cross that reads “Pray for Tuthgall who caused this cross to be made.”  She associates this name with an Abbot of Clonmacnois “who seems to have governed the monastery of Clonmacnois from 798 to 810 or 811.”  (Henry, 1965, pp. 143-144)  Peter Harbison and others question this identification pointing out that the name is more correctly read as Tuathgail.  Their conclusion being that the inscription may not refer to the Abbot of Clonmacnois. 

At stake in this discussion is not only the provenance of the cross but the dating of this and other Irish High Crosses.  If Tuthgall (Tuthgail) was the Abbot of Clonmacnoise and was behind the carving of the Bealin Cross, a very firm late 8th or early 9th century date for the cross could be confirmed.  Based on sylistic similarities this would allow the dating of other crosses as well.

The photo above was taken in 2008 and shows not only the cross, but some of the lovely landscape that surrounds it.  The photos below show the east and west faces of the cross and were taken by Henry Crawford.  (Crawford, 1927) 

Stylistic similarities between the Bealin Cross and some of the carvings that are clearly from Clonmacnois is the second point of Henry’s argument for a Clonmacnois origin for the Bealin Cross.  Others, including Carola Hicks, identify a “distinctive regional group” that includes “five pieces, the shaft known as the Banagher pillar in the National Museum, Dublin, the ringed cross at Bealin, county Westmeath, and three shafts at the monastic site of Clonmacnois, county Offaly.”  These five pieces have “artistic features which characterise the group [and] can be compared closely to certain elements in the Book of Kells.”  (Hicks, p. 5)  So the Bealin cross, regardless of its origins, is related to other carvings that are part of a Clonmacnois workshop.  The Book of Kells is also dated to the late 8th or early 9th century.

As an aside, Henry proposed the possibility that the Bealin Cross may be the cross marked with the letter R on Blaymires’ 17th century view of Clonmacnois.  There is no definite evidence to support this.  (Harbison, 1992, p. 27)         

The East Face

In the center of the head of the cross is a square panel with two-strand interlace.  Above this is a three-pointed knot of interlace.  The south arm has a lion facing to the left.  The image on the arm is not particularly clear to me in any of my photos.  The north arm has been badly damaged so that no carving is visible there.  (Harbison, 1992, p. 27)

Harbison identifies another lion at the bottom of the shaft.  It has a projecting tongue and raised tail.  It is also facing left. This makes me wonder if there might have been a lion on the north arm of the cross as well.(Harbison, 1992, p. 27)

The photos below show the east face of the cross, the right photo being focused on the head of the cross.

Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland


Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland



                







The main section of the shaft has an elaborate zoomorphic design.  The drawing and description below are from Henry Cerawford.  

“The whole shaft from the base to the level of the arms is covered with one zoomorphic design in which three elongated animals are placed one above another; they have bird-like heads and show one foreleg and two hindlegs.  The neck and foreleg are in two cases interlaced with the coiled body of the animal next above.  As the uppermost one has no coil to pass through, it is completed by having the neck and leg bent back into a horizontal positon.

“The tails of two of these animals are omitted, and this is the more remarkable as it throws the interlacing wrong, but this is not the only instance in which the interlacing of zoomorphic designs is incorrect.  The base of the panel is filled by an animal of a different kind (as thickset as the others are attenuated), the tail of which passes through the coil formed by the body of the animal above it.”  (Crawford, 1927, p. 2)




Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland


The South Side

The south side is dominated by interlace patterns.  These can be found on the end of the arm, the underside of the ring and the upper panel of the shaft.  The center of the shaft is a square panel that Harbison describes as follows:  “A lyre-like design, consisting of a pelta-shaped C-spiral rising upwards to two outward-coiling spirals.”  The lowest design on the south face is that of an animal.  The head is above and a fish-like tail below.  (Harbison, 1992, p. 27)  The designs on the south side of the cross are well illustrated above by Crawford.

The two photos below and the photo to the right show the south side of the cross. 

Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland                                      Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland








The West Face

Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland

The central design on the west head is a series of circles.  At the center is a round knot of interlace with a raised circle around it.  Moving outward is a circle of interlace with another raised circle surrounding it.  “The south arm has loose interlace enclosing a round knot of interlace, similar to that between the birds’ necks on the shaft.  The decoration of the north arm is similar, though more worn, while the ornamentation of the top of the cross has been completely obliterated.”  (Harbison, 1992, p. 27)  Crawford adds that “there were originally five flat bosses covered with knotwork and occupying the usual positions.  Crawford 1927, p. 2)  The “usual positions” would mean there was a boss in the center of the head, on each arm, the upper extension of the shaft and below the center boss about where the ring joins the shaft.

Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland

Moving down the shaft and enclosing the lower boss is a "six-cord plait formed by the bodies of two animals of the serpent or sea-horse type.”  The center panel is a square of circular knot-work.  (Crawford, 1927, p. 3)

Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland

The lowest panel on the west face contains the inscription discussed briefly above.  “Pray for Tuthgall who caused this cross to be made.”

The three photos, above left, to the left and right below show the west face of the cross.

           

           



North Side

The north side of the cross has three panels.  An illustration can be seen above with the illustrations of the east face and the south side.  The upper panel is filled with “broken plait-work:  this is an eight-cord plait in which two horizontal and two vertical breaks have been made.”  (Crawford, 1927, p. 3)

The center panel has a Greek cross “formed of two bands of step pattern, and having the angles filled by L-shaped pieces.”  (Crawford, 1927, p. 3)

Bealin Cross, County Westmeath, IrelandBealin Cross, County Westmeath, Ireland

Crawford describes the lowest panel on the north side as follows.  “The lowest panel contains a scene of considerable interest.  At the base is a mounted hunter armed with a spear:  he is the only human figure on the monument.  Above is a stag at bay, and a large dog which greatly resembles the old Irish hound.  As some space was vacant over the hindquarters of the horse, the sculptor has filled it in by carving a triquetra.”  (Crawford, 1927, p. 3)

The two crosses (left and right) show the north side of the cross.

      

Francoise Henry discusses what she considers to be the Christian content of the hunt scene.  She points out that the scene probably has pagan origins.  The stag and horse being “the two Celtic animal-shaped divinities which appear most frequently in Gallo-Roman carvings.”  (Henry, 1965, p. 155)  In another work, Henry explains the possible Christian content of the scene.  “In Christian times, the stag ’thirsting for running waters’ (Psalm 42) became a symbol of the soul thirsting for God.  It is represented with that meaning in innumberable monuments . . . The stag-hunt then, can become a figure of Christ pursuing a soul.  That it actually did is suggested by the fact that on the Bealin cross the hunter is accompanied by the threefold knot, a symbol of the Trinity.”  (Henry, 1964, p. 52)   

Resources Consulted

Crawford, Henry, “The Early Crosses of East and West Meath”, The Journal of the royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jun. 30, 1927), pp. 1-6.

Harbison, Peter; The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH, Bonn, 1992.  Volume 1:  Text, Volume 2:  Photographic Survey; Volume 3:  Illustrations of Comparative Iconography.

Henry, Franciose, Irish Art in the Early Christian Period (to 800 A.D.), Methuen and Co. LTD, London, 1965.

Henry, Francoise; Irish High Crosses, Three Candles LTD., Dublin, 1964.

Hicks, Carola, “A Clonmacnois Workshop in Stone”, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 110 (1980), pp. 5-35.

Clonfad/Rattin

The Site

A monastery was established here in the 6th century by Bishop Etchen (d. 578)  It is mentioned in literature in the mid 8th century and again in 799.  The Annals of the Four Masters described it as being burnt and desecrated in 887.  (Stevens, 2006, p. 8)  The site was apparently abandoned in 891, following another catastrophic fire.   The ancient name is variously reported as Cluain fora fine, Clain-bile and Cluain-foda Baedain-abha meaning “the Long Lawn or Meadow of Baetain Abha.”  (Cogan, p. 553)

St. Etchen was of the royal house of Leinster.  It is reported that it was Etchen who ordained St. Columba.  (Cogan p. 553-554)  

Stevens and Cogan both report on another monastery known as Clonfad that was founded in the 6th century, probably by St. Finnian of Clonard.  Finnian was succeeded by St. Senach, bishop of Clonard and Clonfad and libra of Clonfad, abbot or priest.  (Stevens, Settlement and Community in the Fir Tulach Kingdom and Cogan p. 555-556))  The presence of two Clonfads in County Westmeath offers some confusion.  This latter Clonfad was known as Cluain-foda-fine or Cluain-foda-Librain meaning “St. Libran’s Long Lawn or Meadow.”  Cogan p. 555)

Returning to the first Clonfad, the size of the foundation suggests that it was a relatively large monastery, “typical of a medium to high-status Early Christian monastic site.”  (Stevens, 2006, p. 9)  Excavation revealed evidence of iron-smithing, handbell-brazing and bronze-working.  

There is also evidence of monastic activity at Clonfad in the Anglo-Norman period.  (Stevens, 2006, p. 9)

The Crosses


Clonfad/Rattin 1:  Shaft fragment of a small cross.  It stands about 20 inches high by 10 inches wide by 6 inches thick.  The shaft has a panel of interlace on the south, roll mouldings on the corners and holes on the north side.  (Harbison, 1992, p. 46, photo above left, Vol. 2, Fig. 125) 

Clonfad/Rattin 2:  The head and part of the shaft of a cross stands 58 inches high and 40 inches across the arms.  The north arm has been reattached and the south arm indicates that this was a ringed cross.  A roll moulding trims the edges with a narrower rib inside.  The head of the cross is irregular and the top may not have belonged to the original cross.  The base that the cross stands on measures 37 by 33 inches at ground level.  (Harbison, 1992, p. 46, photo above right, Vol. 2, Fig. 125)

Sources Consulted

Cogan, Anthony, The Ecclesiastical History of the Diocese of Meath:  Ancient and Modern, Vol. 3., pp.553-555.

Harbison, Peter, The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, 3 vols. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy.  Bonn, Dr. Rudolff Habelt GMBH, 1992.

Historic Environment Viewer:  http://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/

Stevens, Paul, “A Monastic Enclosure Site at Clonfad, Co. Westmeath, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 8-11.

Stevens, Paul, “Clonfad — An Industrious Monastery”, Settlement and Community in the Fir Tulach Kingdom.

Fore Cross

The Site and Saint

Around the year 630 St. Fechin founded a monastery along the river Glore.  During the life of St. Fechin it grew to some 3000 monks, drawn from numerous countries.  It is said that the place was known as Baile Leabhair or the “Town of Books.”   

The photo to the left was found the Historic Environment Viewer.

St. Fechin was born in County Sligo of a chieftains family but early on showed a preference for the ascetic and anchorite life.  St. Fechin had founded other churches and monasteries including the Abbey of Ballysadare in County Sligo, Termon Fechin near Drogheda in County Meath and several on islets around the Galway coast.  Fechin’s monastery prohibited the entrance of women, and his rule was severe.  Fetid died of the plague in 665.

Across the years, from 771 to 1169 the monastery was burnt about a dozen times.  At least part of these depredations were committed by Vikings from nearby Ballania.  (Seven Wonders of Fore)

Later a Benedictine Abbey was founded in the valley below the original St. Fechin monastery.  Most of the buildings date to the early 13th century.

The Cross

A cross-head stands near St. Fechin’s church.   It is ringed and has no mouldings or decoration.  At present it stands 4 feet high and 39 inches across the arms.  The shaft fragment is 14 inches wide.  (Harbison, 1992, p. 90, Photo Vol. 2, Fig. 289)  

Resources Consulted

G.B., “Fore Abbey, County westmeath”, The Dublin Penny Journal, vol. 3, No. 152 (May 30, 1835), pp. 380-381.

Harbison, P. 1992 The high crosses of Ireland: an iconographical and photographic survey, 3 vols. Dublin. Royal Irish Academy. Bonn. Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH.

Historic Environment Viewer:  http://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/

Voices From the Dawn:  http://www.voicesfromthedawn.com/seven-wonders-of-fore/

Stokes, G. T., “St. Fechin of Fore and His Monastery”, The journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 2, No 1 (Apr., 1892), pp. 1-12.

Foyran Cross(s)

Crawford wrote about a cross and a cross-head in 1928.  He described the cross as “A plain cross 3ft. 6in. in height with an unpierced ring similar to No. 1.  It is unbroken and stands on the west fence of the road one eighth mile N.W. of Foyran church.”  The cross-head he described as “The head of a cross 2ft. 2in. in breadth with a solid ring about 1ft. 4in. in diameter.  A rude crucifixion is incised on the front.  The stone is built into the west fence of the road almost opposite to the church.”  (Crawford, p. 57)

In 1980 the cross was described as carved of a single piece of limestone.  It was set in “the outer edge of the top of a broad field bank (NW-SE) on the SW side of the modern roadway and short distance (c. 250m) W of the Foyran Church.”  The cross is described as having short arms with a shaft tapering upward.  There was no sign of carving at this time.  (O’Brien)

Sources Consulted

Crawford, Henry S., “List of the Wayside Crosses near Fore, County Westmeath,”  The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Sixth Series, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jun. 30, 1928), pp. 57-62.

O’Brien, Caimin, http://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/.  County Westmeath, High Cross, Foyran.



 Barney McLaughlin 2012