High crosses are the iconic traces of early medieval Christianity in Ireland and the monastic landscapes in which they were situated. Here I want to briefly discuss their widespread replication in the modern era as a common form of gravestone from the 19th to the 21st centuries in Ireland.
In British cemeteries, as at Overleigh, Chester, early medieval crosses proved a relatively short-lived inspiration in the Victorian era alongside other tall monuments such as obelisks. Part of the Gothic revival, they extended the fashion for neo-medievalism from cathedral and church architecture and church monuments out into the newly constructive public cemeteries around Victorian cities and towns and also in churchyards and chapel graveyards. This medium declined rapidly however, and few of 20th-century date are found. This was not simply a question of the form going out of fashion, but regulations on the height of gravestones preventing such exorbitant funerary displays.
In stark contrast, in Ireland these neo-Gothic funerary forms persist into and through the 20th century. On a recent trip to Ireland, I spotted them on display in a masons’ yard, and on display in proliferation in cemeteries and churchyards. Roman Catholic faith and Irish nationalism are surely dimensions, but so is the potential of high crosses to bear many names of families, therefore allowing memorials to configure intergenerational relationships beyond the grave. Some have plaques with names on one, two, three or even four faces. Status display is inevitably a factor too.
Moreover, it is not only the fact that they are more frequent, but that they create a striking collective presence along the main pathways through cemeteries.
Here are some pictures from St Mary’s cemetery, Navan to illustrate the collective impact and how this seems to me rather anachronistic and very ‘Victorian’ from a British perspective. However, rather than old-fashioned, they persist in new ways through the 20th century and are incorporated into new fashions of mortuary expression.