You could have forgiven the religious men and women of Early Christian Ireland (400 to 800 AD) for just giving up. They were working through times when much of Europe was being laid to waste by Vandals and Visigoths; not to mention their own troubles with Viking raids. Surely the easy thing would have been to down tools and hit the mead.
But no – in violent times, Ireland’s monks were busy imbuing manuscripts with glowing pages of ink and gold leaf. Round towers were being built up brick by brick to keep treasures – and people – safe. And elaborate high crosses were bringing the Bible to life in panels, like an early version of PowerPoint.
The Book of Kells, created around 800AD and exhibited in Trinity College Dublin, is one of our only remaining treasures from this golden age. Academics have yet to prove conclusively where this treasured tome was produced, or indeed how it survived, but the mystery only adds to its allure. It has been in Dublin since a quick-thinking governor of Kells, County Meath, delivered it for safekeeping in 1654. Visitors can get up close and personal with the book in the Old Library of Trinity, where two of the four volumes are kept on display.
Trinity has other treasures, too, including the books of Durrow and Armagh, as well as the pocket-sized Book of Dimma, with its elaborate cumdach (case).
High crosses and higher art
In Early Christian times, of course, few could read. To spread the Word of God, therefore, monks had to be inventive, and go above and beyond creating beautiful books. Ireland’s high crosses, with carved panels illustrating Bible stories, show just how inventive they could be.
In the 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, three high crosses are an enduring testament to the skill and artistry of Early Christian sculptors. The four-metre Cross of the Scriptures is a highlight, covered on all sides with fantastically intricate figures. Along with the others, it’s housed in an interpretive centre to protect it from the vagaries of Irish weather.
Clonmacnoise isn’t the only site with wow factor, though. There's the heritage town of Kells, famed for its high crosses richly carved with biblical scenes. In County Tyrone, the 10th-century Ardboe High Cross is the oldest in Northern Ireland. Standing at the site of a former monastery established by St Colman, “Ard Boe” literally means “hill of the cow” – a name evoking the legend of a magic cow that apparently helped build the monastery.
As the men built and crafted, the story goes, the cow provided endless lashings of cream, milk and butter.
Despite their shallow foundations, over 70 round towers remain standing in Ireland. Built to be seen from afar (or indeed to see afar!), these were beacons for those seeking refuge, safety and prayer. Think of the round tower at Glendalough in its deep valley, or the needle-like round tower in Antrim town, and you get the picture.
In many Early Christian sites, you’ll find not just one treasure, but a cluster of them – so getting your fill of monastic glory is easy. At the late 5th century monastic site of Monasterboice in County Louth, for instance, a round tower stands next to two high crosses. While you’re there, closely at Muiredeach’s Cross, whose elaborate Biblical scenes include that of Christ’s arrest, with the villains cast as Vikings… right down to their contemporary jewellery.
Didn’t we say the devil was in the detail?