Holycross was one of the more popular pilgrim destinations in medieval Ireland. For centuries pilgrims travelled here to venerate the abbey’s sacred relic of the true cross, which gave its name to the Abbey.
View of Holycross Abbey from across the river
My last few posts have been about community archaeology projects and this post continues the theme. The Holycross Community Network have trained 19 of their members as tour guides and will be running guided tours of the abbey, to help visitors gain a greater appreciation of the abbeys history and architectural features .
Tour guides Liz Nevin, Marie Byrne, John Bourke, Mike Carley and Adam Tozer
From now until easter the community is offering free guided tours of the abbey (further information firstname.lastname@example.org / 086-1665869). Being a bargain lover I headed along with my friend Ciara to one of the Saturday tours. The tour I attended was given by three guides Adam, Liz and John who entertained us all with a combination of historical facts and folklore associated with the site, as well as pointing out many of the hidden carvings and masons marks scattered around the church and other buildings.
The full history of the abbey and its association with pilgrimage is too complex to discuss in detail here so I will just give a quick overview of the abbeys history and association with pilgrimage.
Adam pointing out the whispering arch to visitors in the cloister area
On the tour we learned that the abbey started out as a Benedictine Abbey (1169) , it was re-founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1180 by Domhnall Ó’Briain the King of Thomond (Limerick). The abbey was granted a charter in 1185-6, which confirmed lands totalling almost 8000 acres (Stalley 1987, 245). The charter mentions an older name for the area Ceall Uachtair Lamann. The name suggests the presence of early medieval church in the area.
A copy of the charter granting lands to Holycross Abbey
It is said that the original relic at Holycross was probably the same relic presented in 1110 by Pope Pascal II to Muirchertach Ó”Briain, Domhnall’s grandfather. The relic was likely gifted to abbey either in 1169 or 1181/2 by Domhnall Mór Ó’ Briain. Over time the relic became an object of veneration and attracted large numbers of pilgrims. Scholars believe that there may have been at one time up to three relic here at the Abbey (Ó’Conbhuidhe 1999, 166; Halpin & Newmans 2006, 388).
View of cloister arch
Peter Harbison (1992, 305) is of the opinion that the later rebuilding was financed by the stream of pilgrims who came here to venerate the cross. This was also a period when the abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Ormond, James Butler ,so I am sure this patronage also contributed to the revamp of the abbey. The re-modelling of pilgrim sites was often the result of increased numbers of pilgrims or the desire to attract more pilgrims. Alterations were often designed to make the relics more visible and accessible to the multitudes.
Romanesque doorway leading from cloister into the church
The church was entered from the cloister through an Romanesque style doorway. The cloister and domestic buildings of the monks would have been off-limits to pilgrims who would have entered the church through the western doorway.
The abbey church is cruciform in plan, with intricate vaulted ceilings.
There are many interesting features within the church, too many to mention here. One worth noting is a beautifully decorated sedilia, traditionally called the ‘Tomb of the Good Woman’s Son’. The sedilia is located within the chancel of the church. The base is highly decorated and the top of the structure has a series of shields/coats of arms; the abbey, the Butler arms and the FitzGerald arms and the royal arms of England (Stalley 1987, 115). In the medieval church, the sedilia functioned as a stone seat, it was used by priest officiating at the mass. Over time a colourful legend about the ‘Good Woman’s son’ developed around the sedilia. The earliest recorded version of the tale dates to the mid 17th century. The tale recounts an English prince (some accounts name him as the son Henry II) travelling through the Holycross area collecting St Peter’s pence, he was killed by an O’Forgarty, the ruling Gaelic family in the area and buried where he fell in a wood called Kylechoundowney (Hayes 2011, 10-12). Some years later a blind monk at the abbey had three visions directing him to go to the wood. Having explained his visions to the abbot, he was given permission to set forth and investigate. Having reached the wood the blind man’s companion saw a hand sticking out from the ground. The blind monk miraculously returned his sight and a spring of water burst forth from the ground (ibid). The body was brought back to Holycross and buried and the young man’s mother upon hearing the news gifted the abbey a relic of the true cross (ibid). This legend may have developed following the acquisition of a second relic of the true cross.
sedilia known as the Good Woman’s Tomb
Another very interesting feature is an elaborately carved tomb-like structure called the ‘Waking Bier of the Monks’, situated between the two south transept chapels. Stalley(1987, 116), suggests that it may have possibly functioned as an elaborate shrine where one of the relics of the True Cross could be viewed through the open-work canopy . The base of the stucture (shrine) resembles a tomb chest and the upper section with its canopy, arcades resembles English shrines such as St Albans, St Edward the Confessor at Westminster and St Swithun at Winchester. Hayes (2011, 105) notes also that Dr Dagmar O’Riain-Raedel suggest the it may also have functioned as the sepulchrum Domini (the Lords tomb), where following the Good Friday liturgy the relics of the cross and the consecrated Host were placed here to symbolise the burial of Christ after the crucifixion. Architectural fragments suggest a second shrine which may also have displayed a second relic of the cross. These fragments are not on display at present in the abbey but it was recorded in 1913, prior to renovations, as being located in the north-west angle of the north transept. Both structures are contemporary and date to the main period of rebuilding.
Liz telling us the history of the ‘Waking Bier’
The earliest reference to pilgrimage is found in the Papal letters of 1488. The letters mention ‘the oblations which are made by the faithful to the wood of the Holy Cross in the church of the same monastery and which are collected by collectors appointed for the purpose’. This reference implies that the pilgrimage was well established by 1488. Pilgrims often brought gifts to the shrine, animals, foodstuffs and in the later medieval period coins and wax votives and candles.
The Ormond relic’ a 15th century reliquary containing a relic of the true cross
The presence of ‘collectors’ implies that significant numbers of people arrived with offerings. We can only guess how pilgrims would have interacted with the holy relic but given that this was a working monastery, the monks would have controlled the access of pilgrims ensuring that they did not dispute their daily prayers. The pilgrims who came here were from all social classes and came seeking healing both physical and spiritual for themselves or loved ones, to ask protection and help in times of crisis, to experience a miracle, others came out of devotion to God, some came out of curiosity, others to experience to social side of the pilgrimage .
The main burst of devotion would have focused on feasts connected with the holy cross such as the 3rd of May, the feast marking the finding of the cross and the 14th of September, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (Exaltatio Sanctae Crucis) a feast greatly observed in the medieval world and Easter.
The abbey also held one of its two annual fairs on the 14th of September, most likely to take advantage of the large numbers of pilgrims. A common practice at other pilgrim sites, the fair offered pilgrims a chance to combine prayer and devotion with more secular pleasures. Medieval fairs were often associated with other activities, such as games and matchmaking and there are many parallels to the descriptions of pattern day festivities associated with mass pilgrimages of the 18th and 19th centuries. From medieval times, the area also has strong links with St Michael whose feast was the 29th of September . So September was a busy month for Holycross. On special occasions like the feast of the cross, the relic(s) at Holycross would have been displayed within the church either in the two shrines noted above or possibly displayed in a Rood Screen or the high altar. It may also be possible that relics were brought on procession on busy feast days, as happens still with the relics of St Willibrod in Belgium.
Relics were not just a focus of devotion, they were also used in the swearing of oaths and they were used to ward off evil, pestilence and plague. There are 16th-17th century references to the Holycross relic of the cross being brough out of the abbey as far away as Kilkenny to swear oaths on and even to improve fertility of crops and there still survives a late medieval image depicting the relic of the True Cross at Holycross, being carried suspended from the abbot’s neck .
15th century window
Unlike many other Irish shrines pilgrimage at Holycross did not end with the reformation. The relics at the abbey which also included a miraculous statue of the Blessed Virgin, escaped destruction by the reformers possibly because of the abbeys connections with the Bulters and there are many references and accounts of pilgrimage at Holycross post-dating the reformation.
Carving of an owl at centre of the church
To briefly mention just a few references to post reformation pilgrimage; in 1567 the Lord deputy complaining to the Queen wrote ‘there is no small conflunence of people still resorting to the holy cross’. In 1579 James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald is said to have venerated the relic of the cross at the abbey a few weeks before his death at the hands of the Burkes, while 1583 Dermot O’Hurley archbishop of Cashel made a pilgrimage to the shrine shortly before his capture by the English. The relic of the cross would have attracted people from all classes and in 1586 Camden writes of the ‘famous abbey’ to which the people still come to do reverence to the relic of the Holy Cross’. He goes on to say ‘It is incredible what a concourse of people still throng hither out of devotion. For this nation obstinately adheres to the religion of superstition of their forefathers.’
The reformation began the decline of the religious community at Holycross. In 1534 Willian Dywer, then Abbot, resigned his office to Philip Purcell and the abbey became a provostry rather than a Cistercian abbey. By the 17th century the abbey had fallen into ruins and links with the Cistercians were finally broken with the death of Fr Edmond Coogan in c1740.
The abbey and its church remained in ruins until the 1970’s when a special act of parliament known as the HOLYCROSS ABBEY (COUNTY TIPPERARY) ACT, 1969 (http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/1969/en/act/pub/0007/print.html), allowed for its re-consecration and restoration. This process is described in fully in an excellent book Holycross. The Awakening of the Abbey, by William Hayes details this process. There is lots more to add about the pilgrimage tradition and I will hopefully discuss it further in the coming months.
View of the restored abbey church from the cloister
© Louise Nugent 2012
Halpin, A. & Newman, C. 2006. Ireland. An Oxford Archaeological Guide to Sites
from the Earliest Times to AD 1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harbison, P. 1991. Pilgrimage in Ireland. The monuments and the people. London:
Syracuse University Press.
Harbison, P. 1992. Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland. Dublin:
Gill & Macmillian.
Nugent, L. 2009. Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland, AD 600-1600. Vol.1-3.Unpublished PhD Thesis, University College Dublin.
Stalley, R.1987. The Cistercian monasteries of Ireland: an account of the history, art
and architecture of the white monks in Ireland from 1142-1540. London: Yale U.P.