10 September 2016
Finding the High Crosses of Moone
and the ruins of a once-grand house
I spent much of Saturday [10 September 2016] in Carlow, at the launch of ‘My Right Foot’ with ‘The Jacket off your Back’ and then exploring the streets of Carlow town, admiring the fading elegance of the Georgian and Victorian architecture of the town.
On the way back to Dublin, two of us stopped at Moone in Co Kildare to see the High Cross and the ruins of Moone Abbey.
Moone is about 4 km south of Ballitore, off the N9, the roads are confusing and it was difficult to find the site with the church and the cross. They are hidden from direct view on a side road, and parking beside the wall seemed quite tight.
Moone claims to be one of the oldest inhabited areas in Co Kildare, with evidence of a settlement there dating back 6000 years.
Saint Colmcille founded a monastery at Moone in the sixth century, and both the Martyrology of Donegal and the Book of Lismore refer to Moone as the Maen Colum Cille or the property of Saint Colmcille.
Tradition says the Roman Bishop Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431, brought Christianity to Moone. Local lore says Saint Patrick planned to visit Moone from Glenealy, but the local people considered him a heretic and laid traps for him. Saint Patrick was warned by a woman called Brigitta about the traps and took evasive action by skirting Moone. As he passed, he blessed Brigitta, and cursed Moone saying no more men born there would ever become king or bishop.
A pair of two tall pillars in the centre of Moone are a legacy of the Belan House estate, once the home of the Earls of Aldborough. The road through these pillars leads to the site of Moone Abbey and Moone High Cross.
The large High Cross of Moone is believed to have been carved between 900 and 1000 AD. This high cross is carved in an interesting flat style. These flat surfaces would have been easier to paint, as were many high crosses.
The cross stands in the ruins of the 13th century church, and is one of four crosses that originally defined the boundaries and extent of the abbey property. The South Cross or Moone High Cross is the only one of the four crosses to survive intact, although fragments remain of the three other crosses.
The South Cross at Moone is a granite ringed cross in three sections and now stands inside the former medieval church. The cross was found ca 1835 buried in Moone Abbey Churchyard, near the south-east wall of the old abbey church, and since its restoration it measures 5.33 metres (17.5 ft) from platform to submit.
The iconography of the cross includes references to both the Old and the New Testaments, and it is one of the best preserved of its kind in Ireland. It is a masterpiece among granite crosses and is the second largest in Ireland.
The decoration consists of panels with scriptural scenes carved in false relief. The base is a tall rectangular block with a truncated pyramid on top. On the face of the cross is the figure of Christ Crucified with his arms extended, and a fish like dolphin over his head.
On the South Face of the base, the lower panel depicts Daniel in the Lion’s Den; the middle panel depicts Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac; and the upper panel shows Adam and Eve.
On the West Face of the base, the lower panel depicts the loaves and fishes; the middle panel depicts the Flight into Egypt; and the upper panel depicts the three Hebrew children in the fiery furnace.
On the North Face of the base, the lower panel extends into the middle panel and depicts the Twelve Apostles; and the upper panel depicts the Crucifixion.
On the East Face of the base, the lower panel depicts two animals with scrolls on their backs, the ends of which interlace and have heads as terminals; the middle panel depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony by two beasts in the desert; the upper panel shows Saint Anthony Paul and Saint Paul breaking bread in the desert and the raven bringing them bread.
The South Face of the shaft shows Christ in Majesty on the Cross Face, and the panels of the shaft are filled with interlaced decorations, animals and abstract motifs.
The West Face of the shaft has panels decorated with animals and figures, but every second panel is undecorated.
On the North Face of the shaft, the Cross Head has a large spiral and small panels in the arms. The shaft panels are filled with animals, including a cow, a deer and two dogs. The panel below the ring has a diamond-shaped design on a background of small bosses. The upper panel has a six spiral pattern.
On the East Face, once again every second panel on the shaft and ring have animals or interlace while every other panel is blank.
The upper part of the Holed Stone Cross is now in fragments. These fragments originally belonged to one block of granite. Three fragments remain and these consist of the lower portion of the head, the upper part of the shaft, and one arm of the cross.
Both faces are sculptured. Three different animals are represented on one of the faces, and on one of them there is a strange beast, similar to that on the south side of the High Cross. The points where the ring of the cross started are quite visible in the edges of these fragments. There is a great round hole opened to the sky, with the edges of the circle well rounded and polished. Around it, four serpents are entwining their tails.
The East Cross dates from before 1200. A granite base of a cross is deeply buried in the grounds of the graveyard, north-east of the church.
The North Cross also dates from before 1200. The undecorated base of this cross in the shape of a pyramid is situated in a wooded field to the north of the mediaeval church.
The base of the pre-1200 West Cross is situated immediately north of the South cross. It is a two-stepped undecorated pyramidal shaped granite base with small mortice. There is a rebate around the mortice and one side of the base has three steps.
The cross head and stepped base of the granite high cross were discovered in 1835 during work in the graveyard of the ruined church. Because the carvings were not exposed to the elements, they were in a remarkable state of preservation, and the cross was re-erected by the Duke of Leinster in 1850.
The shaft was found in 1893 and the cross was restored again. A section of another highly ornamented cross was found and both crosses were moved to the interior of the church ruin in 1995, when some conservation work was done on the large cross.
The crosses have been recently cleaned and a modern plexi-glass roof has been placed over the shell of the church to protect the crosses from the elements.
Only 200 High Crosses survive in Ireland and the majority are fragmentary. High Crosses were erected near the entrances to monasteries or they were commissioned by kings to show their patronage of an abbey or church. Unlike their modern counterparts, high crosses were never erected as gravemarkers.
Belan House nearby was once a grand mansion but is now hollow shell, and its once fine demesne now a shadow of its former glory.
This was once the country house of the Stratford family, Earls of Aldborough, who came to Ireland in the 17th century. Belan House was built largely from the ruins of a FitzGerald Castle that once stood on this site but was destroyed in 1641.
The Stratfords’ house, built by architects Castle and Bindon, became one of the largest gabled houses in Ireland, with fine gardens that included follies such as a classical temple and obelisks and with extensive parklands.
John Stratfford became Baron of Baltinglass and in 1777 was made Earl of Aldborough. He decided to enlarge Belan House to match his new status. His son, the second earl, built Aldborough House as his palatial townhouse in Dublin.
The decline of Belan House began in the 1820s when the fourth earl, embroiled in gambling debts, mortgaged the house and let it fall into disrepair. He even sold the garden ornaments and the gates were given to Carton Demesne.
Most of the worthwhile parts of the estate were sold in years that followed, and the title died out when the sixth Earl of Aldborough died in 1876.
The only successful part of the estate was the corn mill with its great millrace owned by Ebenezer Shackleton, uncle of the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Today the ruins can be seen on the bend in the road between the village and Moone Abbey. There are ‘No Trespassing’ signs and the large gates remain closed. I could not confirm stories beside the ruined house the classical temple and the obelisks are still standing.
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