Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New Adventures with High Crosses | Clogher, Co. Tyrone

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Earlier this summer I took time off work to help out with childcare and to spend some time with my two sons, while their regular child-minder took a much needed and deserved holiday. It turns out that my wife and I had … let’s call them ‘divergent’ … ideas as to what constitutes a ‘fun day out’ for the children. She does things like making aliens out of cardboard boxes and tissues, providing home-made playdough (called ‘squashy’ in our house), and building temporary housing for our garden snails (a snail aquarium, or ‘snailarium’, if you will). I, however, appear to have a different idea of ‘fun’. My tendency is to stick the kids in the car and head out in search of ice-cream, bacon, and archaeological sites … though not necessarily in that order. Results are variable, but we more often than not have a great time looking at interesting sites (and playing hide & seek), arriving home tired, bedraggled, and smelling suspiciously of pork products. This year my plan was to take them west – to beautiful, wonderful, Fermanagh – in search of island experiences.

On one of these excursions, we passed through Clogher. Today it seems like a relatively ordinary Tyrone village, but it appears to have been a place of importance, on the intersection of major route ways, from antiquity. Clogher Hillfort probably dates to at least the Late Bronze Age and the complex includes a ring barrow, a possible inauguration mound, along with the banks and ditches of the Hillfort ‘proper’. Excavations by the wonderful Richard Warner in the 1970s, though sadly unpublished, allowed the recovery of numerous high status artefacts including portions of decorative metalwork and exotic pottery. By tradition, the nearby monastic foundation was founded by St. Aedh Mac Cairthinn (c. 430–505 AD), an early disciple of St. Patrick. The site was later recognised as an episcopal see, and it retains its status in the 18th century Cathedral Church of Saint Macartan.

In all the years I worked in field archaeology in Northern Ireland, I spent quite a lot of them ‘out west’, in Tyrone, Fermanagh, Derry/Londonderry, and Cavan. I that time I passed through Clogher on more times than I can count – maybe as many as a thousand times … well, going each way every day for months at a go certainly racks up the numbers! In that time, I believe, I only stopped in Clogher once – in the company of the Historic Monuments Council when we stopped to visit Clogher Hillfort. Most of the other times I was rushing to get to work or rushing to come home – never a chance to stop and see the Early Christian High Crosses! This occurred to me on our first summer excursion as I passed through with my boys in the back of the car, moving with all legal velocity towards the delights of Fermanagh. This time, as we passed, I noted that the church appeared to have replaced its gates in the relatively recent past – they’re certainly newer, shinier, and taller than I remembered them. I’ll write about where we went in Fermanagh on some other occasion, but on the way home, I decide to stop the car and see if we could get into see the crosses. I parked, and explained with much enthusiasm to my young sons that (if we could get in) we were going to see a couple of very old crosses. In fairness, they had been tramping about Fermanagh since early morning and their patience was … ‘thin’. It was only when I offered a bribe of (more) ice-cream they reluctantly agreed to follow me. With refreshments purchased, we made our way up to the gates, only to find them locked and barred. Even over the cacophony of the passing traffic, I perceived the sound of knocking. After some blank-faced searching, I spotted an elderly lady in one of the first-floor windows on the far side of the road. Once she was sure she had acquired my attention, she made a series of hand-gestures that I understood to mean ‘go around to the left, there is another entrance there’. I now realise that this was the wrong interpretation of whatever she meant. Instead, we ended up on the grounds of Saint Macartan’s Nursing Home, explaining our situation to a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Unfortunately, there was no entrance on that side and there never had been. The very lovely and kind Sister looked at us three tired and bedraggled travellers, and offered us refreshment. Not wanting to put her to any trouble I, of course, declined. My beautiful sons had, it appears, not read the same manual of etiquette as I, and protested loudly … even more so when they learned that biscuits would also be forthcoming. That was how my sons and I spent a very pleasant late afternoon in Clogher – sipping ice-cold MiWadi orange drink, crunching on biscuits, and passing the time with a delightful nun who made a great fuss over my (suddenly) shy boys. We didn’t get to see the crosses and, if truth be told, I didn’t particularly mind either.

We may have missed seeing the crosses, but I’d not forgotten them.

A week or two later the whole family was heading west in search of another Fermanagh island experience. As we passed through Clogher, I instinctively glanced to my left at the new gates, giant and impenetrable. Only this time … they were … OPEN!! There was only one thing to do! I dropped anchor and hurriedly pulled the car into the side at the nearest available spot, spraying gravel and divots in my wake. As no one else was interested in accompanying me up the tiny to non-existent pavement, against the prevailing traffic, I grabbed my camera and went for it. As I suddenly faced a very large and fast-moving Scania truck bearing down on me as I rounded the corner, I rather though that I had made a particularly poor decision in attempting to see these crosses and that I was about to meet my end in Clogher. Thankfully, it was not to be and I successfully – just! – negotiated the traffic and got into the churchyard.

The crosses are probably of 9th or 10th century date and were found in the grounds of the church and re-erected. Coincidentally, both crosses appear to be missing a portion of their respective shafts and look somewhat squat and inelegant as a result. At 2.75m, the more southerly cross is the taller of the two. Its east face displays a rectangular panel of 18 bosses (set in three columns of six). A similar arrangement probably was repeated further up the shaft, though only eight appear to wholly or partially survive. The centre of the ringed cross head is dominated by a single, large boss with indistinct traces of interlace decoration within it. The two lower ring portions of the cross are decorated with different patterns of interlace and scrollwork. The opposite (west) face is a relatively similar arrangement with a rectangular panel of interlaced circles and knot-work dominating the shaft. Originally an harmonious panel of similar knot-work would have been placed above this, but the effect is spoiled by the missing middle section. Again, the centre of the ringed cross head contains a prominent boss, decorated with interlace, possibly in a triangular or ‘triquerta’ knot pattern. However, owing to the low relief of the surviving carvings, this is difficult to ascertain. All three surviving portions of the outer ring appear to be decorated in an analogous manner to before, though this too was difficult to see in the prevailing light conditions.

The north cross is, today, slightly shorter at 2.30m. Its east face of the shaft is dominated by a rough square of four interlaced spirals, and the cross head is decorated with a smaller cross-like arrangement. It is difficult to make out, but it appears to me to be an interlaced cross of sinuous vines, possibly with a four-petalled flower at its centre. The opposite face has a low-relief roundel, or pseudo-boss at the centre of the cross-head, and a diamond of false-relief knot-work in the centre of the shaft. Although, owing to the light conditions, I couldn’t make it out on the day, it appears from other photographs that some decoration exists on the arms of the cross, possibly some low-relief interlace, but it is difficult to be sure.

Lying between the two crosses is what appears to be a portion of a shaft of a third cross. At the base of the north cross there is a double bullaun stone. From older photographs (e.g. Richardson & Scarry 1990, Pl. 45) it seems that it once was leant against the base of the south cross, where it was accompanied by the upper stone of a rotary disc quern. I may be wrong, but I did not notice it on my visit, so it may have been moved indoors. Photographs of the site from a 1982 visit by Billy Dunlop (now part of The William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive collection [Facebook | Website]‎) appear to show the same quern stone, if in somewhat more battered condition. Thus, despite the date of the Richardson & Scarry publication, I’m inclined to believe that the photographs used are considerably older. Where I have seen photographs taken inside the cathedral (e.g. here | here), I’ve not noticed it hanging about in the background, so it may not have been placed there for safe keeping. Unless it’s still lurking about around the church or grounds, I’m afraid that it may have been ‘lifted’ and that’s the last we may see of it.

While I felt lucky to get into the graveyard, my luck didn’t run so far as to get me past the church door. Inside I would have found an Early Christian sun dial, probably dating to the the period from 700 to 900 AD, and probably the oldest surviving item from the site. Well, maybe it’s all for the best! This way, I still have a reason to keep an eye out for open gates as I go through Clogher. I don’t know what I’ll find – maybe just ice-cream, maybe the sun dial, maybe even the kindness of strangers lavished on weary, parched travellers!

Harbison, P. 1992 Guide to the National and Historic Monuments of Ireland. Gill & Macmillan, Dublin.

Richardson, H. & Scarry, J. 1990 An Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Mercier Press, Dublin.