Laois Crosses

There are two high crosses in County Laois, both at Sleaty.  The location of County Laois is indicated by the red star on the map to the right.


Historical Background:

County Laois did not exist until 1556, when it was established as Queen’s County  Thus, what appears here as historical background will primarily speak to the history of the kingdoms of Leinster and Ossory.  The western third of what is now Laois was part of the Kingdom of Ossory.  The eastern two-thirds was in the Kingdom of Leinster.

The county name Laois derives from Loigis.  The present county is only part of Loigis.  The leaders of Loigis claimed descent from a member of the Red Branch Knights.  In the 11th century, they adopted the surname Ua/Ó Mórdha.  The portion of Laois that was in Leinster was ruled by the Seven Septs of  Loigis: O’More (O’Moore), O’Lalor, O’Doran, O’Dowling, O’Devoy (O’Deevy), O’Kelly and McEvoy.  The Red Branch was centered in Ulster, suggesting that the ancestors of the Loigis had migrated from the north.  (

The earliest inhabitants of southeast Ireland were Mesolithic hunters and gatherers who arrived about 6500 BCE.  They were followed, beginning around 4000 BCE, by Neolithic farmers.  Some 4000 years later, at the beginning of the Bronze Age new settlers from France arrived with the knowledge of metal work.  This led to significant changes in the culture as skill in metal work spread among the existing neolithic people.

The beginning of the Iron Age has typically been associated with the coming of the Celts to Ireland around 500 BCE.  However, some have suggested that iron work first appeared earlier, perhaps as early as 800 BCE.  Whichever theory proves to be accurate, it was during the Iron Age, by the 5th century CE or before, that Christianity arrived in Ireland.  A brief Ecclesiastic History of Laois will be discussed below.

The Kingdom of Ossory

The western third of what is now County Laois was in the north of the Kingdom of Ossory, while the south of Ossory was largely in the present County Kilkenny.

First and Second Centuries

About 100 CE a group of Munster people, the Osraighe, formed a semi-independent state in the west of Leinster in what is now County Kilkenny and western County Laois.

Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Centuries

About 460 the Deisi conquered the south of Ossory and ruled it for more than a century.  This area was largely recovered by about 630.  During the 7th century Osraighe was allied with Munster.  As a result they were rivals of the Laigin (Leinster)

Ninth Century

The Vikings first raided Ossory in about 823.  Their raid was on St. Mullins, on the river Barrow.  In 845, Cearbhall macDunlainge was lord of Ossory.  That year he defeated the Vikings of Dublin.  In the following years there were times when Ossory worked with the Vikings against Leinster and other neighbors to the north.  In 846 Cearbhall, with help from the Vikings, defeated the Leinstermen.  This alliance recurred in 856 when Cerball and the Norsemen defeated the Cinel Fiachach, an Ossory neighbor to the north.  This was followed up with a defeat of Leinster.  In 871, Cearbhall joined forces with the Eoghanacht of Munster in a raid on Connacht.  Cearbhall died in 888.

Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

The tenth century was a difficult one for Ossory.  In about 939, Muircheartach, son of Niall, plundered the areas of Osraighe and Deisi.  Later, in about 981, Brian Boru plundered Osraighe and by 984 Brian gained control of all of southern Ireland.  For a short time in the 1030’s Donnchadh macGilla Patraic macDonnchada, a descendent of Cearbhall, became king of Leinster.

The Kingdom of Leinster

The eastern two-thirds of what is now County Laois was part of the Kingdom of Leinster.  The boundaries of Leinster varied through the first millennium but typically included at a minimum Counties Wexford, Carlow, Wicklow, Kildare and parts of Laois.

Fifth and Sixth Century

The Dal Messin Corb were the primary leaders of Leinster in this period.  Their main sub-sept were the Ui Garrchon.  They were rivals with the Southern Ui Niell who were seeking to extend their domination southward.  The Dal Messin Corb were later pushed eastward into the Wicklow Mountains by the Ui Dunlainge.  (O’Croinin, pp. 188-189)

Mid Seventh Century to the Eleventh Century

The primary tribal groups in Leinster by the late 7th century were the Ui Dunlainge in the north and the Ui Cennselaig in the south.  (O Croinin, p. 188)  The Ui Dunlainge were descended from Dunlaing, son of Enna Nic.  Following the Battle of Ballyshannon on 19 August 738 the Ui Dunlainge were unopposed as kings of Leinster.  The tribe had three divisions and the kingship rotated among them from about 750 till 1050.  The Ui Meiredaig clan became the O’Tooles and were based at Mullaghmast; the Ui Faelain kings became the O’Byrnes and were centered at Naas and the Ui Dunchada kings who became the Hiberno-Norman FitzDermots were based at Lyons Hill.  (History of County Kildare)

Vikings in the Ninth through Eleventh Centuries

In 999 the Leinstermen allied themselves with the Norse of Dublin and revolted against Brian Boru, king of Munster.  Brian had made peace with Mael Sechnaill mac Domnaill, the High King at Tara in 997, and these two joined to put down the revolt.  They crushed the Leinster/Dublin alliance at the battle of Glenn Mama in what is now County Kildare.  The Leinster/Dublin alliance was defeated again in 1014 at the battle of Clontarf.  Following these defeats the Ui Dunlainge decreased in power and the leadership of Leinster shifted to the Ui Cheinnselaig in the south of Lenister, with their capital at Ferns in what is now County Wexford.

The Twelfth Century

In the year 1042, Diarmait mac Meal-na-mBo established himself as King of all Leinster.  His family took the name of Mac Murchada (Mac Murrough).  A later relative, Diarmait Mac Murchada was deeply involved in the politics of the twelfth century that resulted in the “invasions” of the English into Ireland.

Ecclesiastic History

Tradition holds that St. Ciaran of Saighir (the Elder) founded a monastery in the Slieve Bloom Mountains before the arrival of St. Patrick.  He was considered to be the first bishop of Ossory.  His mother, Liadan, had an early convent in what is now County Offaly. (

During the early Christian period in Ireland, up to about 1200, there were numerous monasteries founded in what is now County Laois.  Below is a list of these early foundations as reported by the List of Monastic Houses in County Laois.  (List of Monastic Houses in County Laois)  Most of these early monasteries were founded in the 6th century.  The monastery founded by St. Ciaran of Saighir, the Elder, was the Errill Monastery listed below.

Abbeyleix Monasteryearly site, founded c. 600

Addrigoole Monasteryearly site, nuns, founded before 600 by St. Finbarr of Cork

Aghaboe Monasteryearly site, founded 6th century by St. Canice

Aghmacart Monastgeryearly site, founded 6th century

Annatrim Monasteryearly site, founded by St. Mochoemoc

Clonenagh Monasteryearly site, founded 6th century by St. Fintan

Durrow monasteryearly site, founded by St. Fintan Loeldubh of Dermagh in Hiduach

Dysartenos Monasteryearly site, founded by St. Oengus

Dysart Gallen Monasteryearly site

Errill Monasteryearly site, founded in 5th century, possibly by St. Ciaran

Kildellig Monasteryearly site

Kilfoelain Monasteryearly site in either Laois or Offaly

Killabban Monasteryearly site, founded by St. Abban

Killermoghe Abbeyearly site, founded 558 by St. Colmcille

Killeshin Monasteryearly site, founded c. 545 by St. Comghan

Mountrath Monasteryearly site, possibly founded in 6th century by St. Patrick

Mountrath Nunneryearly site, possibly founded 6th century by St. Brigid

Oughaval Monasteryfounded c. 595 by St. Colman of Oughaval

Rathaspick Monasteryearly site

Rosenallis Monasteryfounded by St. Brigid of Kildare

Rostuirc Monasteryearly site

Shrule Monasteryearly site, founded late 5th century

Sleaty Monasteryearly site, founded by St. Fiacc

Tempulnaearly site, nuns

Timahoe Monasteryearly site founded before 654 by St.l Mocha mac Lonan

Only one of these monasteries, Sleaty, has an extant high cross.  The site and cross are discussed below.

Sleaty Crosses

The Site and the Saints

For background on the history of Sleaty and its Saints I rely on an article by Sean Murray.  While his focus is on St. Fiacc, the founder of Sleaty, his article also offers a brief overview of the early history of the monastery.  Much of what follows is based on the information in his article.  Related to the name of the site, he tells us that the monastery was in the townland of Sleaty or Sleibtach (House near the mountains).  (St. Fiacc and Sletty)

Fiacc was the son of a prince from the Irish midlands.  His mother was sister of Dubhtach, chief bard and brehon of Ireland.  The brehons were the lawyer/judges of the time.  Fiacc was an early convert of St. Patrick in the year 433, when Patrick was at Tara.  The following is quoted from a revision of Sean Murray’s article:

"Patrick converted the Leinster King Laeghaire to Christianity at Tara too, and this set the ball in motion for the seemly rapid adoption of the new religion throughout the country.  Fiacc was ordained and Patrick is said to have cut off his beard and given him a tonsure, he became the first Ard Espog of Laighen and founded a monastery near Clonmore in Co. Carlow.  From here he founded a second monastery on the east bank of the barrow at a place called Domnach-Fiech, this site was to be the scene of a great tragedy in which over 60 monks died from  disease.  Fiacc received a vision and was accompanied by St. Patrick to a place ‘marked by the boar’ on the west side of the river Barrow in Co. Laois.  Here he founded a thriving monastic settlement at Sletty. Fiacc is said to have received the Latin alphabet from Patrick and the site here at Sletty may have become one of the first scriptoriums on the island of Ireland. Soon afterwards Fiacc was to fall ill and Patrick sent him a horse and chariot from Armagh, on which he could administer as Bishop to the province of Leinster.”  (St. Fiacc and Sletty)

In the photo to the right the South Cross is in the foreground with the ruins of the church in the background.

“As a learned man and former bard, Fiacc is said to have recorded the ‘metrical life of St. Patrick’ in Irish. . . .  Fiacc was known for piety too. . . . It is said that many pilgrims flocked to Sletty, both for prayer and learning.”and many pilgrims visited Sleaty.”  (St. Fiacc and Sletty)  Sletty was well positioned as the River Barrow was a major natural waterway in ancient Ireland.  Fiacc died between 510 and 520.  His son Fiacre became abbot of Sleaty after him.

Over 100 years later, Aed was abbot of Sleaty.  He is credited with commissioning Muirchu, a scribe, to write a “Life of St. Patrick.”  This he did in by about 688 and we have this “Life” still.  Aed died in 698.  The Annals of the Four Masters record that “Aedh, Anchorite of Sleibhte, died.”  (St. Fiacc and Sletty)

Sleaty is mentioned in the annals a number of times.  

(AFM, M864) reports that the monastery was plundered by the Ossorymen.   Perhaps because of Viking raids along the Barrow and the growth of large monasteries nearby, Sleaty began to diminish in importance.  

(AFM, M1055.4)  The last mention of Sleaty in the Annals comes in 1055 when the annalist wrote, “Maelbrighde Ua Maelruain, airchinnech of Slebte.”  The meaning is that this steward of the monastery died. 

On the site now can be found the two High Crosses that will be described below.  They are dated between the 8th and early 10th centuries.  The ruins of a later medieval church also survive.

The Crosses

The South Cross

This imperforate cross is carved of granite.  It stands a little over four and a half feet.  

The west face, seen to the left has a raised ring with what appears to be a Maltese cross inside.  There is a slightly raised panel on the shaft that does not seem to have any decoration.

The East face, seen in the photo to the right, has a raised circle in the center of the head but there is no apparent decoration.

The North Cross     

The North cross, seen in the photos left and right, stands nearly nine feet in height.  It is ringless with arcs carved out on all four corners where the arms and shaft meet.  It has no apparent decoration on either side.

Getting There:  See the Road Atlas page 45 4 B.  Sleaty is not named on the map.  The site is just north of Carlow on a minor road that runs between the N80 and the R417.  At a fork in the road keep right.  The distance from the N80 is about 1km.  

Resources Cited

History of County Kildare:

History of Laois:  (

List of Monastic Houses in County Laois:  (

St. Fiacc and Sletty by Murray, Sean;

O Croinin, Daibhi, ed.; "A New History of Ireland:  Prehistoric and Early Ireland", “High-kings with opposition, 1072-1166, Marie Therese Flanagan, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 188-189.

 Barney McLaughlin 2012