Condition of Mid Ulster’s High Crosses a “Catastrophe Waiting To Happen”.

Local communities express serious concerns over the State Care Monuments Branch’s approach, as the potential for tourism is ignored, reports Eoin Boyle.

About twelve miles east of Cookstown, on the scenic shores of Lough Neagh, sits the rural hamlet of Ardboe in county Tyrone. Nestled beside the ancient graveyard there, stands the highest high cross in Northern Ireland. At 18 feet, it has a quiet but overpowering presence. It’s been a gatekeeper to the lough’s horizon since the 9th or 10th century.

Pat Grimes gazes across the shoreline, admiring the view. “It’s our place” he says proudly. “Getting to know the lough, it’s just part of our life you know?” The 69-year-old has lived in the area all his life. “Practically every Sunday we were over here when we were children” he reflects, his accent lilted with an earthy, rural brogue.

Rising from a stepped base, biblical stories illustrate the cross shaft on all four sides. There are twenty-six of these panels on Ardboe High Cross. In between the shaft and the head is a block of intricately carved Celtic lace. It was likely carved to ensnare the Devil, so he couldn’t enter the holy Abbey beyond.

On the cross head, more biblical scenes give way to an extraordinarily decorated ringed cross head. On one side, framed within this broken round head, is a sculpture of Jesus crucified, flanked by more figures and decorative patterns. Knotwork cascades down the side of the rings. At the very top, Ardboe cross is crowned with a capstone, which was probably originally shaped like a house. The capstone was badly damaged when it toppled from the cross in 1817.

Ardboe High Cross. The 9th or 10th century cross still stands in its original position.

Dr Megan Henvey is a lecturer for medieval history in the history department at the University of York. She is an expert on Irish high crosses. “What a high cross tends to be defined as is that it’s free standing and fully carved.” Dr Henvey explains. “It’s a stone carved into the shape of a cross. Most of them do have figural carvings… they have figural and narrative scenes in them.”

Pat Grimes describes the carved detail on Ardboe High Cross.

These carvings are often biblical or symbolic in nature.

“There are a variety of functions they may have held,” Dr Henvey adds. “Uses might be commemorative and also, I have argued liturgical. They may have held different functions at particular times of the year. They’re very unlikely to have been burial markers.” Dr Henvey also thinks it’s unlikely they were primarily used as teaching aids, “the theological programmes on them are much too precise and distinctive to suggest that across the board they were used to tell people who couldn’t read about what’s in the bible”, she says.

Ardboe Cross likely “functioned as a marker of the Christian nature of the settlement for people approaching by water as well as land, and perhaps was used in baptismal liturgies”, judging by the nature of the biblical scenes carved on it, remarks Dr Henvey.

Dr Megan Henvey describes the impact of the partition of Ireland in 1921 on the state’s upkeep of Irish high crosses.

The cross was carved for a medieval abbey on the site.

“We don’t really know how big an operation those monasteries themselves were”, explains Dr Immo Warntjes, Assistant Professor of early medieval Irish history at Trinity College Dublin.

“You needed half the infrastructure of a medieval town to run a monastery properly. So, they became economic entities and with time they grew and became quite wealthy. This is what made them centres of power as well because they were economic hubs. But they were often linked to the surrounding society, through pastoral care.”

They were also places of learning, says Dr. Warntjes, “The Irish were extremely good in mathematics and astronomy. They had their own original ideas.” These ideas were inspired by the ‘Easter Controversy’- a medieval debate between the Roman and Irish churches about the date of Easter. “So basically, the seventh century is when we have the earliest writings of highly original ideas, principally for the monastic curriculum.”

Dr Megan Henvey explains that high crosses were part of this culture. “By and large these iconographical scenes are part of a much wider theological discussion. They’re part of the development of theologies and ideas.


Despite its steadfast appearance, all is not well with Ardboe High Cross. The carved figures have melted like wax, due to 1,000 years of weathering. On the southern side, structural cracks twist up the arm like ivy choking a tree. Cracks shatter the bands of intricate knotwork on the ring. There have been serious fears for its future for years. “When the cross gets wet, it freezes and so on and it’s bound to lead to cracks. It’s horrendous the cracks that are up there. It needs to be protected”, says Pat Grimes, craning his neck up to the crucifixion scene above him. 

The badly weathered nativity scene on Ardboe High Cross. Mary (centre, right) is seated, holding the infant Jesus.
Vertical structural cracks on the southern ring and arm of Ardboe High Cross.
A close up of structural cracks on the southern ring of Ardboe High Cross.

Donaghmore High Cross

About 18 miles west of Ardboe, nestled in a bend at the Torrent River, sits another settlement with a rich monastic past. The picturesque village of Donaghmore is recorded to have begun as a church, founded by St Patrick himself. On the approach to the village, the road opens to reveal Donaghmore High Cross standing at the top of the hill. A composite of several high crosses, it towers over the village with a solid, protective stance.

Donaghmore High Cross at the busy junction (August 2016).

Pat O’Neill, now in his 80s, has lived in Donaghmore all his life.

As an international businessman, he has been researching, manufacturing and selling stone crushing machinery for 60 years. Pat is painfully concerned about the structural cracks on the head of Donaghmore Cross.

“I measure those cracks and record them,” Pat says. “Say if you’re going to break glass, and you want to take a corner of the glass, you just put a line down with a diamond and hit it, and it will break. It’s the same with these stones. These cracks don’t have to be the whole way through, and they’re not the whole way through. So it (Donaghmore High Cross) could go just like that.” Pat makes an ominous slicing movement with both his arms.

Pat O’Neill and other locals founded Donaghmore Historical Society in 1983 to find a solution for the cross.

In 2009, Donaghmore Historical Society asked the Department of the Environment, then responsible for maintaining the Donaghmore cross, to commission a survey of these cracks. He slides a copy of the survey across the table. Long cracks scour the cross like bolts of lightning.

Looking at the survey, he also remarks on the veins of iron sulphate- natural impurities in the stone.

 “The danger is that the stone can shear apart at those points,” Pat warns. “They (the impurities) are a very dangerous thing”, he adds.

A structural crack on the western head of Donaghmore High Cross. A 2009 survey, commissioned by the Department of the Environment, found 43 hairline fractures and cracks on Donaghmore High Cross.

Standing at the cross, the constant drum of engines and whirr of wheels across tarmac drown out any chance of tranquillity. The cross is sitting at a busy junction, it’s on the main thoroughfare between Dungannon and Pomeroy. The road from Castlecaulfield, a village two miles south, stops in front of the cross.

This traffic concerns Donaghmore Historical Society greatly. Farm machinery has toppled at the junction four times, onto the village pub.

In the 1990s, the local grammar school did a project on the deterioration of the cross.

“One of the conclusions that they came to was that one side of the cross seemed to be more worn than the other- it was the side of the Castlecaulfield Road,” Pat O’Neill remarks. The traffic approaching Donaghmore from Castlecaulfield was stopping at the junction and pumping fumes directly onto the cross. This eats at the layers of the sandstone and turns them into gypsum, which blows away as dust.

“Then when we started to look closely we began to see cracks in the cross and stuff like that and we got really scared about it. That cross is a catastrophe waiting to happen.”

Structural cracks at the base of the lower shaft on Donaghmore High Cross. A lorry can be seen stopping at the Castlecaulfield junction in the background (August 2016).

Around the year 2000, Donaghmore Historical Society contacted the Department of the Environment, who were then responsible for the upkeep of the cross. “They were very, very good at the start”, comments Pat O’Neill. The department had secured funding to move Donaghmore High Cross indoors, as a pilot project. However, an unsubstantiated rumour started that the cross was going to be moved into the local Catholic school. A local group put a petition into the local shops. When the response to the petition was sent to the Department of the Environment, the department abandoned the plans. It took a year for Donaghmore Historical Society to discover what had happened. By that time, the State Archaeologist, who oversaw the plans, had retired. In 2002, Donaghmore Historical Society got in touch with the department again. Plans were drawn up to cover the cross with fabric or encase it with glass. Again, progress was derailed by objections, this time from just two individuals.

A solution proposed by the NI Environment Agency between 2002 and 2010, to encase the cross in a ‘frameless glass system.’ Dr Michael King, former curator of the Down County Museum, says creating a glass box can create a “greenhouse” effect on the stone. This can deteriorate the stone further. Image provided by Pat O’Neill from Donaghmore Historical Society.
A solution proposed by the NI Environment Agency between 2002 and 2010, to erect a “tensile canopy” over the cross. Pat O’Neill thinks that none of these plans went far enough because the cross was still exposed to traffic and farm machinery. Image provided by Pat O’Neill from Donaghmore Historical Society.

Since then, the State Care Monuments Branch (SCMB), a body in the Department of Communities which is now responsible for the Ardboe and Donaghmore crosses, has undertaken remedial repair work. However, there’s been no proposals put forward by the SCMB to find a permanent solution. “It’s their responsibility to look after them. They (the high crosses) are in the care of them. But that’s a misnomer because they have no care,” Pat remarks. He thinks the SCMB have “totally failed” in that regard. A frequent turnaround in staff has also impacted finding a solution, Pat says. “Certainly, within the past 10 years, I wouldn’t know who’s responsible now,” Pat says. He adds that he is now “totally pessimistic” that a solution will be found in his lifetime.

Criticism of The State Care Monuments Branch

At Ardboe, Pat Grimes has similar concerns.

“The ancient monuments people (SCMB) have control over it and they are useless, totally useless.”

The Department of the Environment proposed erecting a fabric system to protect Ardboe cross from the elements. However, the Ardboe community believed it was inadequate due to the changing nature of the winds. Pat says the community wanted to move the cross into a specially constructed building so that “…when you go into the building you see the cross at the foreground with the Lough the same as it is here, and put a replica here.”

Around 2010, Pat Grimes was in touch with someone from the SCMB Branch about finding a solution. “When the action should have been starting, she was transferred to County Down and a new person came into County Tyrone.” No progress has been made since. “The cross is still standing here,” Pat remarks. “It’s not protected. We haven’t got any further forward than 2010.”

Dr Henvey believes that a problematic attitude within the SCMB may be causing difficulties.  “Their policy is to take things under their wing which are one of a kind. So, in that regard, if they already have a figuratively carved high cross on their books, they don’t need any more. But they’re not a museum,” Dr Henvey adds. “All of them (the high crosses) need looked after. So, this attitude of collecting rather than caring always seems to me to be not very well thought through.”

Dr Henvey references Downpatrick High Cross, in County Down, as an example of how protection can be achieved. The 10th century cross was moved indoors into a purpose-built space, which opened in 2015.

“The example to what happened at Downpatrick is fabulous.” Dr Henvey says. “It is being protected, yet we as viewers are having the same experience,” However, she adds, “At Downpatrick it was the curator at the museum on the same street that went about getting funding to make it all happen.”

“These are individualised projects at individualised sites. It’s not part of a governmental or central programme to protect or preserve or promote the monuments at all and that’s sort of a problem.”

Dr Megan Henvey explains the barriers some academics face when studying Northern Ireland’s Irish high crosses.

Tourism Opportunities

Tourism is a major part of Downpatrick’s economy. The Down County Museum, where the original cross now sits, attracted 55,000 visitors per year before the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Dr Michael King, former curator of the museum was responsible for moving Downpatrick Cross indoors. Funding contributors included the SCMB, the local council and the European Union. It was a “torturous” undertaking, Dr King remarks, “but I’m glad I saw it through.” In his experience, it’s possible to preserve artefacts with a view to increase the monetary value of the site, not just for the historical reasons. This can be done without “selling out,” he remarks. “It can go too far and the objects are disregarded. It’s important to do this sustainably”, Dr King says.

“It’s important to identify your assets, preserve them and then market them”, he continues. However, it’s important to present something new to the public to “interpret the old in a new way.”

Downpatrick High Cross indoors at the Down County Museum, Downpatrick. Artificial lighting creates shadows on the carvings, to accentuate the worn scenes. Explanation panels line the walls of the room, explaining the carvings on the cross and the history of the site.

Dr Megan Henvey agrees that the crosses present a major potential for tourism at Ardboe and Donaghmore. “What does the state want from them today? As far as I’m concerned, they’re historical artefacts that need to be looked after, but also if deployed in the right way there’s no reason they can’t be used as tourist attractions. Ardboe is incredible- I’ve never taken somebody there that I haven’t had to drag home. It’s an amazing thing to see and it’s at an amazing location. Why don’t people know that?”

Standing at the lough shore, Pat Grimes ponders the Ardboe cross’ future. Downcast, he laments, “If it did fall, the ancient monuments people (SCMB) would take it away and we probably wouldn’t get it back again. They wouldn’t let it lie there, they’d take it away to a warehouse somewhere and let it wait.”

The State Care Monuments Branch were approached to comment on the concerns expressed in this investigation, but there was no response.

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