The Ballymacasey Cross

A few weeks ago I wrote about my visit to the National Museum on Kildare Street Dublin. At the time I was trying to find out more about a processional cross that was found near Ballylongford, Co. Kerry. I presumed that once a piece makes it into the musuem it has reached celebrity status and so would have lots written on it’s history.

I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to find out anything about this cross. I have a great book on the treasures of the museum, but it just gives a brief history of when it was made and who commissioned the piece. Apart from that there was nothing, both the library and google let me down.

Ballymacasey Cross, Dated 1479 Co. Kerry
Ballymacasey Cross, Dated 1479 Co. Kerry

I did find a reference to the cross in ‘The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland’ but typically I couldn’t get hold of the book except in an archive library in the city. I reckoned I’d need some proof that I was studying the piece to get into their archives. I’m not sure they would see idle curiosity as a good enough reason to let me flick through a 19th century journal!

Thankfully my search didn’t end there. The good people at Harvard University had a copy and they had been kind enough to scan the whole journal and put it up on the American Libraries website for all to see. The journal is a collection of essays by its members on various artifacts and historical documents. It was so interesting to see how archaeology was conducted in Ireland in the 1800’s. The chapter on the cross was written by George J. Hewson. He just happened to be passing through Ballylongford on his was to Ballybunion and spotted the cross which was in the possession of its finder John Jeffcott. In 1871 the cross was found in a number of pieces when Jeffcott was ploughing. Hewson writes that it took him a long time to get back to Ballylongford to properly inspect the cross it being “a very out of the way spot”. Having grown up 8 miles from there, of course I have to disagree, but maybe things were different back then.

It was easy enough to trace the origins of the cross as it had been engraved with the details of the maker and the recipients. It turns out the cross was commissioned by Cornelius O’ Connor and his wife Avlina (or Eileen!) as a gift to the Lislaughtin Friary, Ballylongford in 1479.  It might be slight vanity but the search was completely justified when I discovered my name was engraved on the cross.

Ballymacasey cross, Journal Royal Historical & Archaeological Association
Ballymacasey cross, Journal Royal Historical & Archaeological Association

The cross which is silver gilt is 67cm in height and considered one of the finest crosses from medieval Ireland. It has the figure of Christ in the centre surrounded by the symbols of the  four Evangelists. The symbol at the centre of the cross is missing, leaving just a winged lion, a winged bull and an eagle. The entire cross is decorated with an open work border (the leaf -like trim). It has an amazing amount of intricate detail and it’s hard to believe it has survived so well. The engraving is entwined with images of birds, animals and flowers which would not be typically Irish.

Engraved detail, Journal Royal Historical & Archaeological Association
Engraved detail, Journal Royal Historical & Archaeological Association

The funny thing about this cross is that it remained in the home of Mr Jefcott in Ballylongford rather than being handed over to be put on public display. I love the idea of a 2 foot gold ornate cross lying around his house. Where would you put something like that?! In Hewson’s article he writes that “the finder does not appear disposed to consent to part with it to anyone on any terms” It seems Hewson argued the case that although it was well looked after it would be much more secure in the national collection. He believed it would be worthy of a place alongside the Cross of Cong. Which coincidently was also commissioned by an O’ Connor.

I couldn’t find out when the cross finally left Ballylongford and went on public display in Dublin. If anyone has any more information, please do let me know.

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