The priest who stole Cong’s famous cross

 The Cross of Cong - believed to have once contained a splinter of the True Cross

The Cross of Cong - believed to have once contained a splinter of the True Cross

The Cross of Cong, one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical treasures, was reputedly made at Cloncraff monastary, Co Roscommon. Its unsurpassed craftsmanship was inspired by its relic, a splinter of the wood of the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Of course it is unrealistic to imagine that such a splinter could have survived two millennia, nevertheless in medieval times, and until relatively recently, such physical remains were believed to be true. Legend relates that the True Cross was found by St Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land about AD 326. What was believed to be a relic of the True Cross was probably brought to Ireland by a Crusader in the 12th century, and was given to Turlough O’Connor, High King of Ireland.

The Cross of Cong was designed for processional use, although it may have been mostly used as an altar cross. It has an oak core which is covered with plates of cast bronze. A large polished rock crystal on the front of the cross at the junction of the arms and shaft was intended to protect the relic, which does not survive*

How the Cross, sometimes called An Bacall Buidhe (the Yellow Staff ), and other such treasures, survived the plundering of Cromwellian soldiers and robbers and tricksters through the centuries can only be wondered at. It is probable that people hid many of these treasures in their homes or other safe places. Apart from hundreds of religious artefacts, there are simply thousands of saints recognised by the Catholic Church, though the names and histories of some of these holy men and women have been lost to history. But In Ireland we are lucky to have St Patrick about whom we know a great deal thanks to his autobiographical Confessio. The faithful could hardly wait until the poor man died before they were taking bits and pieces from his body and clothes for relics. As his teeth fell out they were snatched up, and given as sacred objects to make early Christian churches more attractive for a deeply spiritual and suspicious people, who had recently set aside their gods of nature, and embraced a more intangible Christ.

An old holy tooth was just the sort of tangibility they could understand. At least one church, Cill Fiacail (‘The church of the tooth’ ) near the town of Tipperary, bears testimony to this bizarre but common practice. However, few relics of saints could compare to a relic of the True Cross, if indeed it ever existed.

Irish manuscripts

About the year 1820, a man named Reilly, said to be a native of Sligo, went about Cong in Co Mayo, claiming to have the good saint’s tooth in a little shrine. He was making a tidy sum “performing cures upon man and beast”. Ladies and ewes were said to hold the relic “with special regard”, and anyone who saw or touched the tooth were the better for it.

One day the rather eccentric Rev Patrick Prendergast, the last Lord Abbot of Cong (the ruins of Cong Abbey are among the most beautiful in Ireland ), met Reilly and asked if he would show him the Fiachal-Phádraig. “Whose is this?” said the abbot. “It belonged,” said Reilly, “to the canons of Cong.” “Then,” said the abbot, “I am the last of the Augustinian canons * of that monastery, so I’ll keep it!” Much to Reilly’s horror, the abbot rode off with the relic under his arm.

The old abbot, although a good scholar and worthy man, was notoriously careless with his relics and historic bits and pieces that he collected over the years. He had a valuable collection of leather bound ancient Irish manuscripts. He went out one day leaving a tailor working in his house. The tailor saw the books, thought the quality of the vellum was fine, and sliced the covers into strips to use as ‘measures’.

Abbot’s treasures

It is highly likely that William Wilde, later to become the famous eye and ear surgeon and antiquarian, born at KiIkeevin, Castlerea, Co Roscommon, the youngest of three sons, who accompanied his father, a country doctor, on his calls, surely visited Prendergast, the last abbot of Cong Abbey. Wilde later described him as ‘a very kind, courteous, white-haired old man’.

The abbot must have showed the Wildes some of his treasures because years later Sir William (knighted for his extraordinary achievements, and who had developed a strong interest in the folklore and topography of the west of Ireland ), revisited the elderly abbot. Legend tells us that Wilde, who apart from his medical achievements, was also a distinguished member of the Royal Irish Academy, was prompted by a story he had heard that the abbot had leant St Patrick’s tooth to a Mrs Blake who kept it in her home at Cong, but who had sent it to the Blakes of Menlo when one of the family became ill. Wilde became alarmed that ancient shrines were being hawked about.

This time Wilde was astounded by all the treasures he was shown. There was the Cathach of the O’Donnells (a heavily gilt silver box, reputed to have contained a copy of the Vulgate of St Jerome, and carried into battle to ensure victory for the O’Donnells ); a box containing Fuil-an-Ríogh (a cloth dipped in the blood of the executed King Charles 1, believed to have healing powers ); there was the St Patrick’s tooth in a shrine, safe and sound. But William was amazed to see stuck at the back of a cupboard, the priceless Cross of Cong.

Loyalty of the church

Fr. Prendergast had discovered the cross hidden in an old oak chest kept in a house in the village, where it was said to have been kept since about the mid-17th century (the time of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland ). Fr. Prendergast then kept the cross in his house, at ‘Abbotstown’, located on a farm in the townland of Ballymagibbon (or Ballymacgibbon ), which is close to Cong.

William did his best to persuade the abbot to let him take the Cross to the safe keeping of the National Museum. Already, there was damage to the Cross. Sir William could see that the crystal containing the relic was missing. But the Abbot would not hear of the Cross being moved. The Cross was part of the history of Cong, it was tangible evidence of the loyalty of the church down through the centuries. It contained a piece of wood from the cross on which the Redeemer was crucified, and was displayed every Christmas and Easter attracting thousands of people from the surrounding townlands to see it and hear Mass. Sir William left empty handed.

When the abbot died renewed efforts were made to persuade his successor Father Waldron to part with the Cross. But it took a further 10 years and a storm which damaged the roof of the church in Cong, before Fr Waldron let it go. Rather than have the cost of the repair to the roof borne by his poor parishioners, Fr Waldron accepted £100 from the National Museum in exchange for the Cross.

Smashed the case

When Fr Waldron died he was succeeded in 1869 by the famous champion of tenant farmers in Co Mayo, Fr Patrick Lavelle. Fr Pat understood the anger and frustration of the people at the loss of their Cross, and the importance of local religious objects of devotion. When his arguments for the return of the Cross to Cong was politely rejected by the museum, he took his trap to Claremorris, the train to the Broadstone Terminus, a cab to the museum in Kildare Street, walked in, and in broad daylight smashed the case containing the Cross. He walked out with it under his coat.

Those who knew this litigious and fire-brand of a priest, were not surprised at his assault on the museum. Patrick Lavelle, born near Westport, Co Mayo, into a comfortable farming family, was educated in St Jarlath’s College, Tuam, and trained for the priesthood in Maynooth (1844 ) was a ferocious champion of the Catholic community, and the sworn enemy of landlords.

In the relentless ‘Battle for Souls’ throughout the Great Famine years, and after, he was handed the perfect soft-target for his hot-tempered personality, when as parish priest of Partry, a small rural parish on the west shore of Lough Mask, his landlord was none other than the Protestant bishop of Tuam, Thomas S Plunket. Plunket apparently, insisted that the children of his Catholic tenants should be sent to the schools maintained by the Protestant Irish Church Missions.

Urged on by Archbishop McHale, Lavelle denounced from his pulpit those families who followed their landlord’s dictum, and physically intimidated those who persisted. He wrote a series of letters to the national and local papers deploring this state of affairs, which led to a national debate. His statements were raised in parliament and published abroad. He threatened local scripture-readers, employed by the Society, to such an extent that he was fined for a ‘breach of the peace’ at the Ballinrobe petty sessions.

It was claimed that ‘the recurrent conflict between Catholics and Protestants ceased only during Lavelle’s absence in Britain where he visited to collect funds,’ He opened several Catholic schools to counter those of the Protestants. Lavelle became a household name throughout Ireland. ***

As regards the robbery of the Cross from the National Museum, he did not get very far. He was followed out into the street where a mighty argument ensued. The police were called, and the Cross was returned to the museum. Fr Pat, however, returned to a tremendous welcome in Cong. He was not successful in bringing their ‘precious relic’ home, but he made the point, that, despite the manner of its keeping, certain religious objects represent the living presence of God in a community, and are probably better left there.

Next week: More on the extraordinary Sir William Wilde and his association with the west.


* The inscription on the sides of the cross identifies Toirrdelbach Ua Conchobair (Turlough O’Connor ) as the patron and Máel Ísú mac Bratáin Uí Echach as the craftsman. Two prominent churchmen are also mentioned. The inscription, which is in Irish, is framed by two identical lines in Latin that translate as ‘By this cross is covered the cross on which the creator of the world suffered’.

A supposed fragment of True Cross held by Waterford Cathedral was tested by Oxford University radiocarbon experts in 2016 and found to date from the 11th century. Forging of relics for sale or to promote religious tourism (pilgrimage ) was common during the medieval period but so was the creation of third-class relics by touching mundane items to those believed to be holy, in the belief some of its spiritual power would be transferred by the process. Over time, many such third-class relics came to be taken as the original articles they had once touched.

** Prendergast not only re-discovered the Cross of Cong, he appears to have been responsible for the return to Ireland of the Cathach of St. Columba from Belgium in the early 19th century. Abbot Prendergast, who had lived through the reigns of the four Georges, died in 1829. He belonged to the Augustinian canons, separate from the regular Augustinians. The Augustinian canons were united with the Lateran Congregation. Probably as a result of the dissolution on the monasteries, Prendergast was entitled to sit in the House of Lords, London. The title and its privileges, ended with his death.

*** After practically a lifetime fighting for the rights of tenants, defying the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, who had forbidden priests to support Fenian movements, canvassing for catholic politicians (even more bizarrely acting for the French authorities in the Franco-Prussian war (1870 -71 ), by buying 5,000 cavalry horses ); he nevertheless settled into a comfortable old age. Sir Arthur Guinness of Ashford presented the tireless priest with a residence at Pidgeon Park, just outside Cong village, and 13 acres of free grazing at Caherduff.

Lavelle died aged 61 years in 1886, and his funeral was attended by Sir Arthur, Catholic priests and Protestant clergy, but not by Archbishop MacEvilly of Tuam (who succeeded McHale ) as they couldn’t stand the sight of each other, living or dead.

Sources include an essay on Patrick Lavelle, by CJ Woods, Dictionary of Irish Biography, and The Corrib Country, by Richard Hayward, first published 1943.

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