Cooley Graveyard

Cooley Graveyard and High Cross

Interesting facts about Cooley Graveyard and High Cross as taken from Sean Beattie’s Ancient Monuments of Inishowen, North Donegal.

Cooley Cross, Moville, Co. Donegal
Cooley Cross

A monastic site to be visited is at Moville in the townland of Carrownaffe about two kilometres off the Moville-Derry Road. A signpost from the main Moville-Derry road points in the direction of the High Cross and Cooley graveyard.

The High Cross stands at the entrance to the graveyard and is plain and undecorated. The shaft of the cross sits in a socket cut into a large stone. The ring of the cross is pierced and there is a separate hole at the top of the cross which is cut at an angle. Hole-stones are an unusual feature on some Irish crosses such as the crosses at Bonamargy Friary, Layd at Cushendall, and cross fragments at Moone Abbey in County Kildare. In these cases, however, the hole is passed through the centre of the cross. A pillar stone at Castledermot in County Kildare contains a hole-stone incised through the engraved cross. A small hole also perforates the High Cross at Drumcliff. Many of these stones have been cut at an angle through the cross. It is thought that the perforation in the base of the Cooley Cross may have been a hole-stone in its own right. Recently it has been suggested that engaged couples joined hands through the hole in the cross as a good-luck gesture, but this speculation belongs to modern times.

The cross is 10 feet in height, and is without carving, but has a pierced ring and a hole, four inches in diameter, through the top. This hole is a curious feature. Dr. R.A.S. MacAlister thinks it may have contained a peg serving as a gnomon of a rudimentary sundial, the vertical shadow indicating the hour of noon. There is a cross with a similar hole in the graveyard at Mainistir Chiarain on the greater Aran Island where the vertical shadow line is mark. The base of Cooley cross is also peculiar. It is a large flat stone containing a rude representation of a human foot, traditionally ascribed to St. Patrick, and a perforation about four inches in diameter near one end, It may possibly have stood as a hole-stone itself before being used as a support for the cross.

Hole-stones dating back to pagan times are well known in different parts of Ireland, According to Bishop Montgomery, it is probable they were used for the making of vows. For example, couples about to marry joined hands through the hole; so any two persons would solemnly clinch an important bargain.

The modern graveyard site covers the former monastic grounds. The foundation was originally made by St Patrick before he crossed the Foyle and began his missionary work in Co Derry. On his way to Moville, he passed through Bredagh Glen about four kilometres away, which was an ancient tribal settlement and was ruled by Ailill. He also ordained the son of the chief called Aonghas. He carried out three ordinations in all and those who were ordained are sometimes referred to as the three Deacons. The name given to the monastery at Moville was Domhnach Bhile. The first part of the name fell into disuse and the second gave its name to the district and later to the parish and the town. The use of the word “Domhnach” in the name suggests that it was a foundation of importance to the followers of Patrick. The presence of the word “bile” in the name indicates that this was an important site of Druidic worship. A bridge across the river near the monastery was used by monks to get to Bredagh Glen and is said to be the oldest bridge in Ireland. One of the earliest abbots associated with the monastery is St. Finnian, who is still remembered today.

The Annals of the Four Masters make a number of references to this monastery. In 1098, Flaherty who was the son of Tighernach Bairrcach died while on pilgrimage. He is referred to as the successor of St. Finnian. A fierce battle took place near the monastery in 1167 and a chieftain who was described as a “pillar of magnificence of the north of Ireland” was slain. Two of his sons were killed the following day and another blinded. In the Early Middle Ages the monastery paid a tax of forty shillings and this information indicates this was a thriving place in the fourteenth century. However, difficult times could not be avoided and shortly afterwards, the Norman invaders laid claim to the lands of the monks, just as the Vikings had come up the Foyle in the ninth and tenth century in search of valuables such as gold and silver objects.

Records for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave the names of priests who worked in the church here. The most common names are McLaughlin, Gibbons, Duffy, Gormley, McColgan, and McBride. The lay patrons of the foundation were O’Dohertys and McLaughlins and the patron saint is St.Finnian. The rectors of Moville were also rectors at Culdaff.

One of the most interesting objects that has survived from the old monastery is the Bell of St. Finnian, which is said to be similar in size of the Bell of St. Boden of Culdaff. It was made of bronze. It is described as being twelve inches in height and oblong in shape.

As the monastery grew in importance, churches built of stone replaced the timbered structures of early monastic times. Today the remains of two churches can be seen in the old graveyard. A short wall belonging to one of the buildings survives and this church had two windows which looked out over the fertile Foyle valley which at that time was almost totally clad in trees, mostly oak. Part of the wall of the second can also be seen. The stone from both buildings was used in the construction of the graveyard wall and for the marking of local burial places.

One of the most interesting buildings to be seen here is the “Skull House”, a small stone structure with a stone roof closely modelled on the beehive huts of early monks. The interior is dark and there is a small door with a lintel. Until recently a large quantity of whitened bones could be seen inside. A similar structure can be seen in Glendalough and is known as St. Kevin’s Kitchen. There have also been suggestions that the original use of the mortuary was for an oratory.

There are three other markings of interest. Near the mortuary, there is a small stone inscribed with a cross; a wheeled cross may be seen on a slab fragment and a small stone cross which may be of modern origin.