History of the Irish Celtic Cross

Posted on: November 5th, 2011 by Vincent Byrne No Comments

There are so many amazing aspects to Ireland, it’s history, mythology, legends, wonderful scenery, cuisine and sometimes even the weather, but one of the most fascinating has to be the history of the famous Irish Celtic Cross. As you might expect there are various theories and stories associated with its origins which are so ancient it is hard to be certain which ( if any) are accurate, these are some of the best known stories and information relating to the history of this famous icon which is regarded as a symbol of Ireland all over the world.

The oldest examples of these remarkable crosses are believed to date back to around the 5th century A.D. They are very large with the distinctive circle set at the intersection of the cross and decorated with curves, spirals and geometric designs. Sometimes referred to as High Crosses the earliest ones are flat on the ground formed from rocks found in the earth. Later versions stand upright, the smallest being about five feet high and the largest sixteen feet or more. The circle of stone around the intersection was believed to strengthen the structure as well as being decorative. Those constructed in the tenth century often have a pitched roof at the top.

Traditional Celtic Cross

Alternative theories suggest that the shape of the Celtic Cross was a symbol of Odin one of the Norse gods. It was also called a sun cross or sun wheel and it was possibly a method used by the early Christians to convert the Celts by combining the sun sign onto the shape of the cross. Another story tells that St Patrick designed the original Celtic Cross when he drew a circle over a Latin cross mixing it with the symbol of a pagan moon goddess. Irish Catholics see the circle on the Celtic Cross as meaning the endless love of God, a halo from Christ, or a sign of eternity.Another idea is that the distinctive shape is derived from the symbol Chi Rho made popular by a Roman emperor Constantine, who was a Christian. There may be some truth to this since ‘Chi’ and ‘rho’ are Greek for the first two letters of Christ.

There are many famous Celtic Crosses all over Ireland, but considered to be the finest example is the eighteen feet high Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, County Louth. The name is from the inscription at the base which is entwined around two cats. It asks for a prayer for the person who commissioned the cross, Muiredach. No one is sure who he was, but he may have been an abbot who died in 923. The carvings are many and fascinating, showing various famous events from both the Old Testament and the New Testament such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath and scenes of Christ.

Celtic Cross of the Scriptures

The Celtic Cross of the Scriptures

Another stunning example is the Celtic Cross of the Scriptures, County Offaly. This famous Celtic Cross is located at the Clonmacnoise monastery. It is unique in that it was carved from a single section of sandstone at around the tenth century. It is just over thirteen feet high and has been relocated in recent years to the inside of the visitors center to preserve it. However, a replica has been made and now stands on the original spot. There is an inscription requesting a prayer for Colman who commissioned the cross and Fiann, who was an Irish king. The cross is divided into panels each one featuring many Biblical scenes. These are only two examples of the many stunning Celtic crosses which can be seen all over Ireland and no visit would be complete without seeing some of them.

Whatever the truth may be of the origins of the Celtic Cross, it has died along with the mysterious people who first built them. However, the symbol they created has become synonymous with Ireland and is recognized all over the world not only as a religious icon but as a sign of Irish heritage. The design is frequently used for jewelry and is extremely popular for necklaces and pendants for both men and women which can be fairly plain or more complex designs, often set with emeralds, the precious stone most often associated with Ireland.


Managing Director of Celtic Rings Ltd. But my passion is Celtic history and mythology.

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