William R. Wilde's Loch Coirib - Its Shores and Islands

Chapter 7: Cunga Fheichín (Cong)

Cross of Cong

Chapter 7: Cunga Fheichín (Cong)

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The large processional cross, now preserved in the National Museum (RIA Collection), and known as "The Cross of Cong," is undoubtedly one of the finest specimens of metal work, enamel, niello, and jewellery of its age in the western world. It stands 30 inches high, and the breadth of the arms is 19 inches. The illustration on the frontispiece affords so faithful a representation of it, that it is unnecessary, especially in a work of this nature, to enter into a minute description of its artistic details. It consists of an oaken cross, covered with plates of bronze and silver, washed in many places with a thick layer of gold, and having interspersed golden filagree work of most minute character around its front centre. All the front and back plates are elaborately carved with that intertwined pattern, or strap work, with grotesque animals, which is specially characteristic of Irish ornamentation on stone, metal, vellum, and vitreous composition, and which is seen on so many of our great monumental crosses, and is well represented in the Moytura Cross, figured at page 89. The outer corners of each compartment were originally studded with precious stones, glass, or figured enamel paste, in white, and dark blue colours. Supported upon a raised boss, decorated with niello in the centre, there is a large polished crystal, under which was placed originally the relique sent from Rome to King Turloch O'Conor, in 1123, and thus stated in the Annals of Innisfallen under that year: "A bit of the true cross came into Ireland and was enshrined at Roscommon by Turloch O'Conor." And, again, in the Book of Clonmacnois, under the year 1136, we read, that Roderick O'Conor and Nuada O'Concennan were arrested by Turloch O'Conor although under the protection of the Comharba of St. Jarlath, and of O'Duffy and of the Bacall Buidhe, or "the yellow staff," by which name, as Dr. Petrie, in his learned article upon the subject, has shown,[3cp193-1] See proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. iv, p572; also Dr. O'Donovan's dissertation on this inscription in the Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, vol. i, new series, p. 37; see also his Irish Grammar. this shrine was popularly called from its golden appearance. Around its sides there are a series of Latin and Irish inscriptions both in the Irish character; the letters are punched into the silver plate, apparently by dies or types, and so deeply that the metal plates beneath are indented with almost equal sharpness; and this enables us to read uninterruptedly even where the external plate has been injured.The foot of the cross springs from a highly decorated dog's head, which rises out of a globe, the ornamentation of which, in detail, is a marvel of the workmanship of its own or any other period.Beneath that ball is a decorated socket, into which was inserted the staff or pole with which the cross was carried. The inscription affords, unerringly, the history of this magnificent relique, the time and purpose for which it was made, and recounts the names of those in any way concerned in its formation. The following is a facsimile engraving of the Latin inscription, which is in duplicate on both sides of the lower portion of the edges:

Cross Of Cong Inscription

Or, in modern characters--Hac cruce crux tegitur qua pasus [passus] conditor orbis. "In this cross is covered the cross on which the Founder of the world suffered."

Cross Of Cong

Some of the Irish inscriptions are slightly defective, but sufficient remains to furnish us with the following information: "A prayer for Mureduch U Dubhthaig, the Senior of Erin"--the notice of whose death at Cong, in 1150, is given at page 87.

"A prayer for Therrdel U Chono [Turlough O'Conor] --for the King of Erin; for whom this gressa [or shrine] was made."

Another portion of this inscription refers to the ecclesiastic whose death is recorded at page 88: "A prayer for Domnull Mac Flannacáin U Dubdaig [O Duffy], bishop of Connacht and Coharb, of [Saints] Commán and Ciarán, under whose superintendence the shrine was made"--which also lends support to the assertion already made that the work was completed at Ros Comáin, where O'Duffy was Abbot of the celebrated monastery of St. Commán, as well as that of St. Ciarán at Clonmacnois. "The fourth, and last compartment," says Dr. Petrie, " of these inscriptions, is not the least valuable, though it only preserves the name of a person of inferior station--that of the artificer who made the shrine, as it proves incontestibly what without it might, and probably would have been deemed doubtful; namely, that the shrine was of native workmanship."

"A prayer for Maelisu Mac Bratdan O'Echan, who made this shrine." This O'h-Echain was comharba of St. Finnén, of Cloncraff, in the county of Roscommon.

Probably the cross was brought to Cong Abbey by the O'Duffys; but as to what became of it for five centuries we have no historic account. There is a tradition in the parish that it was kept in an iron box, with other reliques, about a hundred years ago. The author remembers it during his boyish days, in the possession of Abbot Prendergast, who kept it with the other reliques already mentioned, in a three-cornered cupboard in his little sitting-room at Abbotstown. See page 86. It used, however, be placed upon the altar of Cong chapel at the festivals of Christmas and Easter. After Fr. Prendergast's death it was removed to Cong, at which time the central crystal had been removed, and was usually carried by a lady in her pocket. If still in existence, it is not known where the relique for which this cross was made is at present. It must have been a very small fragment, such as can at present be obtained in the Vatican. The cross was purchased by the late Professor McCullagh, and presented, in 1839, to the Royal Irish Academy, where it served to form the nucleus of that great national collection of secular and ecclesiastical antiquuties, that for its age and the scanty means at the disposal of those who have created it, is undoubtedly the finest national collection in Europe.

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