Painting by David James
The High Cross at Duleek, Co. Meath, Ireland
Duleek is situated in the southern region of the Boyne Valley, county Meath, an area rich in ancient sites and monuments ranging from megalithic times to the Celtic Christian era. About eight Km north of Duleek are the famous chambered cairns of Newgrange (mentioned in the article on Jersey in this issue), Knowth and Dowth, which wre built over 5000 years old. About twelve Km south west of Duleek is the famous Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland, while the early Celtic Christian monastic settlement of Kells, which gave its name to the magnificent illuminated Gospels book, is about twentyfive Km to the west. The nearest east coast town is the coastal port of Drogheda, close to the mouth of the River Boyne.
Duleek was an important ecclesiastical centre in the early Christian centuries,, and its cross iu unusual and very interesting. The religious settlement here was founded by St Cianan (or Keenan), who was himself batised by St Patrick in 472 AD. St Cianan built at Duleek the first stone chuch recorded in Ireland. The name of the town is derived from the Irish 'daimh liag', a house of stones. The centre grew and flourished fro more than 700 years and aerial photographs of the town show how the ecclesiastical boundaries still impose themselves on the street plan of today.
Being near the eastern seaboard Duleek was attacked many times by Norsemen, but still became as important as Armagh, or Clonard and Clonmacnoise, including in its monastic community hospitals, almshouses and sanctuaries. It was a resting place for the bodies of king Brian Boru (whose harp still remains in Trinity College, Dublin and is the earliest surviving example of an Irish Harp) and his son-in-law. They lay in state at Duleek on their way to burial in Armagh in 1014 after the battle of Clontarf. At a later date the O’Kelly family built an Augustinian priory at Duleek, and when the Norman, Hugh de Lacy built himself a castle nearby he granted the Church of St Cianan to the Augustinians of Gloucestershire in 1180. Ironically the Normans themselves had pillaged the Priory a few years earlier.
With regard to the High Cross, the unususual feature is that one face, the East face, is completely covered with Celtic curvilinear and geomtric designs (see illustration), the West face being full of the more usual figures and scenes.. At the bottom of this face there is a scene with three figures that may represent the holy Family or it could be the presentation of Jesus in the Temle. Above are two panels, each with two figures facing, one with hands clasped, the other with hands raised. At the centre of the cross is a Crucifixion scene, and at the top a scene from the story of the manostery is depicted. It seems that Adamnan (the monk who wrote 'The Life of St Columba', about 100 years after the latter's death) visited the tomb of St Cianan where the latter's body lay uncorrupted. He is said to have broken the rule and touched the body, and his eye was struck out. Later he fasted as a penance and his eye was miraculously restored; the top panel of the cross shows this scene.
The cross itself dates from the 10th century. We do not understand the full significance of the designs on the East face. There appears to be a symbolic vine, while the centre shows a design with seven bosses. Scholars now realise that the early Irish artists, whatever medium they were using, constructed everything with "meaning and exactitude" (Hilary Richardson, 1984). It would seem that they too the abstract decorations of the early Celts and developed a new symbolic language using design and the symbolism of numbers to convey the original Christian message.
In this area the legendary Battle of the Boyne took place in 1690 between King William III and the Jacobite forces. The final skirmishes are thought to have taken place at Duleek before the Jacobite army was defeated, and William is said to have 'slept peacefully' at Duleek the night after his victory. This battle is thought to have been the last in Europe in which opposing monarchs played an active military role.
- © Claire Clancy