Towards a Shared Heritage

By Megan Henvey

The early medieval high crosses of Ireland may seem an unusual topic for a blog about the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, but exploration of their scholarly and civic treatment highlights the wide-ranging impact of the conflict and the religio-political divisions in the region, as well as indicating how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go, in achieving shared historical narratives and spaces. Northern Ireland is home to four almost complete stone, carved crosses (in Armagh, Co. Armagh; Arboe, Co. Tyrone; Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone; and Donaghmore, Co. Down) and around twenty fragments featuring figural schemes of largely – but not exclusively – biblical events. Most stand on or near what is likely to be their original location, that is, within the remit of an historic, early medieval Christian community’s holy space. Dating from between c.800 – c.1000, it goes without saying that these monuments pre-date the modern geographic, religious, and political divides on the island. Yet, both the spaces these monuments occupy, and their form as a symbol, have been politicised in ways that distort modern perceptions of Ireland’s early medieval history, reinforce attitudes regarding the community divisions within Northern Ireland, and highlight the wide-reaching impact of the ‘Troubles’.

Academic attention concerning the high crosses has focused on those in the Republic of Ireland, and there are two main reasons for this. First, the form of the encircled, ‘Celtic’ cross itself has come to be associated with Irish Nationalism through its employment as an icon of a Roman Catholic, ‘Free Historic Ireland’, along with the harp, wolfhound, and round towers.[1] That this is a result of conscious efforts by politicians and scholars alike through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries has long been accepted;[2] for a clear example of the success of this phenomenon in pop-culture, one can simply search Wikipedia for ‘Irish Catholics’! Indeed, pre-Partition, Republican meetings are known to have taken place at the Arboe cross (Fig. 1), thus both the object and its space took on a political significance that eclipses the historical importance of the site as vital evidence for the early medieval Christian community’s organisation, practices and beliefs. As such, the crosses in the North hold an uncomfortable position, displaced from the land and people which their form has been taken to represent (Irish nationhood, in the Republic of Ireland), and side-lined by scholars building and maintaining nationalising narratives surrounding a shared cultural heritage for the Irish.

Figure 1. Political Meeting at Arboe cross, c.1898

The second issue is one of access. As early as 1951, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland when planning their annual excursion settled on a tour of historic sites in the North, to include high crosses. However, the organising secretary, A.T. Lucas, wrote in a letter to T.G.F Paterson (then curator at Armagh County Museum) of the difficulties of planning a border-crossing route that would avoid ‘unapproved roads’.[3] The hostile and impracticable nature of crossing from the Republic into the North – for scholarly fieldwork or otherwise – was further noted by Helen M. Roe, a renowned specialist dedicated to the study of the high crosses. In a 1957 letter to Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich (who had commissioned a series of articles from her for Seanchas Ardmacha), she wrote, ‘I am anxiously watching the news out of the north’.[4] The forbidding nature of the increasing violence of the ‘Troubles’ through the 1960s and 1970s continued to keep scholars and interested parties away, resulting in the long-term exclusion of the early medieval artefactual heritage of Northern Ireland from studies of Irish history and culture.

The difficult political and cultural position of the high crosses in Northern Ireland is further revealed through consideration of events at the location where the Armagh cross is maintained. The Christian religious service commemorating the creation of Northern Ireland at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral in Armagh has been widely criticised as a non-neutral event in terms of its purpose, location, and list of invitees. This site is of important historical and cultural value as the place where, tradition has it, St Patrick established the Church in Ireland. The Armagh cross, which constitutes some of the most important evidence of the early medieval church and community that existed on this site, is housed in this modern cathedral building: at the back, in a corner, poorly lit, surrounded by piled high spare chairs, and in 2 parts with the shaft fragments incorrectly reconstructed, and the cross-head tight to the wall so only one side can be viewed (Figs 2a-b). Thus, the inherent conflict between the Unionist/Protestant-dominated space, and the perceived Irish/Republican-symbolism represented by the high cross, render the latter relegated from both view and memory.

Figure 2a. Armagh cross shaft, St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral, Armagh
Figure 2b. Armagh cross-head, St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral, Armagh

Attitudes towards the high crosses as developed through a process of culture-based Irish nation-building, and proliferated as a result of access and study difficulties during the ‘Troubles’, mean that the crosses now hold an untenable, riven position in the Northern Irish collective memory. These important artefacts provide crucial evidence for the existence and nature of early medieval communities on the island – a pre-Reformation period of history that has the potential to bring the communities of Northern Ireland together. Thus, through the study of the early medieval period, we can come to more fully appreciate the impact and influence of the ‘Troubles’ in developing and maintaining attitudes that prevent these monuments from receiving appropriate care and promotion, and the possibility for them and the spaces they occupy to become valued sites of shared heritage.

(Figure 1: © Pat Grimes; Figure 2a and 2b: © Megan Henvey).

Megan Henvey is currently Visiting Fellow at the Department of History and Civilisation, European University Institute, where she is carrying out research on the status and approaches to the care and display of early medieval Christian heritage across Ireland, Britain and the EU. She has completed her AHRC-funded and Stanford Text Technologies-supported doctorate in early 2021 at the Department of the History of Art, University of York. Her multi-disciplinary research employs the historical, literary, liturgical, archaeological, art historical and geological evidence to explore early medieval Christian communities in Ireland, their pan-geographic networks, and the relationship between regional iconographies and Christian beliefs in the early Middle Ages, with wider research interests including the nature of borders and their function and value in the classification of material heritage.


[1] Jeanne Sheehy, The Rediscovery of Ireland’s Past: The Celtic Revival, 1830-1930 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1980); Megan Henvey, “The Early Medieval Sculptural Heritage of Northern Ireland,” JRSAI 149 (2019): 21–37.

[2] See, for example: Eoin MacNeill, “The Irish Law of Dynastic Succession,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 8, no. 31 (1919): 367–82; Eoin MacNeill, “A Pioneer of Nations,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 11, no. 41 (1922): 13–28; Eoin MacNeill, “A School of Irish Church History,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 21, no. 81 (1932): 1–6.

[3] A.T. Lucas, “Letter 243: A.T. Lucas to T.G.F. Paterson: RSAI Summer Excursion,” April 6, 1951, File 9: December 1950 – July 1951, Armagh County Museum.

[4] Helen M. Roe, “Antiquities of the Archdiocese of Armagh: A Photographic Survey with Notes on the Monuments” Part I: The High Crosses of County Louth,” Seanchas Ardmhacha: JADHS 1, no. 1 (1954): 101–14; Helen M. Roe, “Antiquities of the Archdiocese of Armagh: A Photographic Survey. Part II The High Crosses of Co. Armagh,” Seanchas Ardmhacha: JADHS 1, no. 2 (1955): 107–14; Helen M. Roe, “Antiquities of the Archdiocese of Armagh: A Photographic Survey. Part III The High Crosses of East Tyrone,” Seanchas Ardmacha: JADHS Vol. 2, no. 1 (1956): 79–89; Helen M. Roe, “Helen M. Roe to Fr. Fee,” January 3, 1957, O’Fiaich Memorial Library.

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