The Donagh Cross

The Donagh Cross

Donagh Cross, Carndonagh, Co. Donegal
Donagh Cross

The position and amount exposed of the Donagh Cross and the two small pillar stones beside it, have varied during, at least, the last forty to a hundred years. When Maghtochair was writing over 100 years ago his rather inaccurate description makes it clear that the upper parts, at least, of the pillars were showing while subsequently, as could be seen by about 1930, the roadside bank on which they were situated completely covered the pillars and the corresponding part of the cross. It has been said that at some time prior to this the group had already been moved back in road-widening still to the north side of the road. By 1935 the Donagh Cross and pillars were completely exposed, mounted on a platform on the bank, about 3 ft above road level, and with a surround of tubular railings making photography of some of the carvings difficult. In the 1960’s further road-widening took place. The pillars, covered with sacking and hay, were removed to the field behind. The road was routed on either side of the cross which was left standing forlornly on its denuded pedestal. This position was abandoned and the group re-erected at ground level on the south or church, side of the road close to the east wall of the grave yard (one of the pillars was at first facing the wrong way but this was corrected). Finally for their protection, another platform was built on the same spit and the three stones raised upon it, and all facing the correct way, or at least as they had been in 1935. About 1966, after the group had been moved to the south or present (church) side of the road, people came from Dublin to remove the cross for an exhibition, and are said to have caused some damage to it; the local inhabitants resisted and managed to retain it. In its present position all the carvings can be clearly seen, except for a very small portion at the bottom of the three figure panel at the base of the east face, as the cross has been set slightly more deeply than previously. The west side of the Donagh Cross is difficult to photograph owing to its proximity to the churchyard wall, but it is now much easier to see and examine the pillar carvings.

As to the carvings themselves, for the most part they are too well-known, especially the east and west faces of the cross, to need description. The Donagh Cross is believed by some authorities to date from the last quarter of the 7th century and is important in the development of the cross form (a) the cross slab, where the carving of the cross is completely contained in the slab, to (b) that as at Fahan Mura where the rudimentary arms of the cross extend beyond the carvings, and beyond the stone itself until (c) it reaches the stage as in Carndonagh where the cross is completely free standing.

Except for a small carving, like a cupmark and concentric circle, on the upper central portion, the west face of the cross is entirely covered with closely entwined three strand interlacing. The east side has a cross of shallowly incised flowing single strand interlacing on its upper art, not unlike the flowing interlacing of the upper portion of the west side of St. Mura’s Cross at Fahan, except that the latter is triple stranded. Below each of the arms of the interlaced cross on the east side of the Donagh Cross is a group of three birds spinning round, as it were, on a pivot of their touching beaks. The very small areas below the outstretched arms of the central figure and above the heads of the two lower figures, are filled with tiny carving, one suggesting a horse-like animal, the other a writhing legless creature with a large eye. The south edge of the stone cross has a series of identical, small long robed carved figures, one above the other, with arms folded; the figures are interrupted by a neat two strand twist on the arm of the cross, with another figure above. The corresponding north edge is now too weathered to show much, if any, sign of carving.

Each pillar stone has a carving on all four sides, through some, presumably, are unfinished, e.g. David as a warrior (?) is outlined in pocking and another shows only a head, also in pocking, with the rest of the surface blank. Of the carving depicting a large parrot-like bird clutching a large fish in its claws, it is interesting to note that this bird, with its big eye and large curved beak, resembles the birds in the group of three mentioned above, and also the two birds with interlocked beaks facing each other in the triangular panel above the interlaced cross on the east side of St. Mura’s Cross. Of the carving of the seated figure playing a harp-like instrument (David ?), the artist cleverly fitted the profile of the face, and indeed the whole figure, the shape of the stone, in just the same way as the ‘Travelling Ecclesiastic’ fits into his stone in the Church of Ireland graveyard at Killadeas, Co Fermanagh.

Taken from The Heritage of Inishowen by Mabel R. Colhoun