The Cross of Cong is considered to be one of Ireland’s greatest treasures. It was produced in 1123 under the patronship of Turlough Mor O’Connor, King of Connacht and High King of Ireland.
It was created to enshrine a relic of the True Cross which had been sent to O’Connor from Rome a year earlier. This would indicate that he requested the sacred item. The cross was made in Roscommon and is thirty inches high and nineteenth inches across the arms. It is made of oak and beautifully decorated with precious metals of the period including silver and bronze plates. The intricate engravings and designs are similar to those of the Book of Kells. There was a large polished crystal set in the front of the cross at the junction where the arms and shaft meet. This was to serve as a protection for the relic. The crystal was set in a conical mount which was surrounded by a flange decorated in gold filigree. The flange also contains niello [a mix of copper, silver, and lead], blue and white glass bosses. The bronze plates on the surface of the cross are decorated with ribbon-shaped intertwined animals. Just below the shaft of the cross there is a handle projecting downwards. The upper part of this section is cast in the shape of an animal head gripping the bottom of the shaft in its jaws. The highly disciplined interlace designs display Scandinavian influences.
The cross is also known as the ‘Yellow Crozier’ and has been described as the finest example of its type in Europe for that period and is ‘an authentic creation of native genius’. Both the relic and the crystal that protected it are now missing, they were lost sometime before the death of the last abbot of Cong in 1829.
It could well be called the Cross of Tuam as this was possibly the first home of the treasure. Although it may have been used as an altar object, it was designed as a processional cross. It is truly a remarkable work of art that was created for practical use also. There are a series of inscriptions in Irish and one in Latin around the sides of the cross. One of the inscriptions requests prayers for Murtagh O’Duffy, who was the Archbishop of Connacht at the time. He retired to Cong Abbey in old age taking the cross there with him. There it remained and became known as the Cross of Cong. The inscriptions also call for prayers for the abbot at Cong who also served at Clonmacnoise and Roscommon. In addition, prayers for Maelisa MacBrathan O Echan, the craftsman who made the cross are requested. A similar holy request is made for Turlough Mor O’Connor its patron. The Irish inscriptions are interrupted by one in Latin, which can be translated to mean ‘By this cross is covered the cross on which the creator of the world suffered’. Another source translated the inscription to read ‘Hac Cruce Crux Tegitur Qua Passus Conditor Orbis’ meaning ‘In this cross is preserved the cross on which suffered the founder of the world’.
Following the dissolution of Cong Abbey the abbots remained and moved to a house about two miles east of the village. The death of the last abbot, Patrick Prendergast in 1829, signalled the end of the Augustinians in Cong. Dean Waldron was the first of the secular priests to replace the abbots. Through his post he also inherited the house and its contents. A short time later while exploring the house he found an old chest and discovered a number of treasures associated with Cong. Among them was the Cross of Cong. The Dean held onto the cross for a number of years. In 1839, he sold the treasure to the Royal Irish Academy for 100 guineas, which caused a lot of resentment among the people of Cong.
In 1869, Dean Waldron was succeeded by Fr Pat Lavelle as parish priest of Cong. Fr Lavelle was born in Murrisk, County Mayo in 1827. As a young man, he spent many years in Paris where he became Professor of Mental Philosophy and Professor of Irish. Fr Lavelle was a strong nationalist and his appointment to Cong is believed to have been because of these activities. Some years earlier he had delivered an oration and recited the graveside prayers at the burial of the Fenian leader, Terence Bellew McManus. This was despite the fact that he had been ordered by the Catholic hierarchy in Dublin not to become involved. He was a man of great courage and conviction. Fr Lavelle was determined to have the Cross of Cong returned to the community and travelled to Dublin with a very basic plan in mind. After finding lodgings in the capital, Fr Lavelle made his way to the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy. He proceeded to smash the glass case and grabbed the cross. He then tucked it under his coat and walked out of the museum. The shocked officials did not react immediately; it was only when the priest reached the street that the alarm was raised. He was then surrounded by a crowd, but before they could take action he began preaching a sermon about the great treasure and of its rightful place in Cong. He convinced those present, including the museum staff, to allow him to take the cross to his lodgings in Dublin. There a number of meetings took place to decide the matter, but even though he employed the best legal aid his budget allowed, the Cross of Cong was returned to the museum. Nevertheless, he returned to Cong a hero because of his attempt to bring the precious treasure home. During his years in the West of Ireland, Fr Lavelle fought hard against the oppression of landlords over tenants and his actions saw him brought before the courts many times. He died in 1887 and was buried in Cong Abbey.
There were two other treasures discovered in the old chest by Dean Waldron. These were the Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Tooth and the Cathach, or as it was sometimes called the Battle Book of the O’Donnells. The Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Tooth was made of wood and was decorated with plates similar in design to the Cross of Cong. The Cathach is a box beautifully decorated in gold, silver and brass and is inset with jewels. It was supposed to have housed the Saint Colmcille copy of the Vulgate Psalms recorded by Saint Jerome. These were carried into battle by the O’Donnell clan to ensure victory over their enemies. Saint Colmcille was a member of the O’Donnell family. At some stage the Cathach was taken to mainland Europe and by 1723 had found its way to a Belgian monastery. It remained there until 1816, when the treasure was taken to Cong by Sir Neal O’Donnell.
Another relic that was in the possession of Patrick Prendergast was known as the ‘Fuil na Riot’ meaning the King’s Blood. This was a piece of white linen which was said to be stained with the blood of King Charles I after his execution in 1649. It was supposed to have had healing powers for curing ailments known as the ‘King’s Evil’. Many people arrived at the Abbot’s home to be touched by the cloth in the hope of curing their illnesses. There was a belief that there was a cure hereditary through the Royal House of Stuart. This could have also originated because it was believed that kings of England were appointed through the divine intervention of God. However, there is another very different story associated with the cloth. This version informs us that it was a portion of the towel that Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus, thus the ‘Blood of the King’. It was because of this that the sacred cloth carries the cures for the ailments of mankind. It was brought to Ireland by an illustrious member of the Blake family following the crusades. This item was split and is in now in private collections.
The Cross of Cong, the Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Tooth and the Cathach all form part of the National Museum of Ireland collection today.