The high cross at Carndonagh is also known as the Donagh or St. Patrick’s Cross. It is located on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal, see the photo to the left. This cross is part of a group of crosses that Peter Harbison identifies as the Northern or Ulster Group. The group includes crosses at Arboe, Armagh, Camus, Donaghmore/Tyrone, Galloon and others. (Harbison, 1992, p. 373)
In the Northern Group, Christ is typically shown wearing “a colobium-like garment which comes to just below the knees.” (Harbison, 1992, p. 274) [In Roman usage, the colobium was typically a sleeveless tunic.] This is true of the Carndonagh Cross, though the garment appears to have sleeves. The Carndonagh Cross is, however, different from many of the crosses in the group in having the crucifixion scene on the shaft of the cross rather than the head.
It is also typical of the Northern group of crosses for the two theives crucified with Jesus to be shown on the arms of the cross. With the crucifixion placed on the shaft of the cross that is certainly not the case with the Carndonagh Cross. It is possible, however, that the thieves do appear.
Tradition suggests that a church or monastery was founded in the fifth century by Saint Patrick or one of his followers. Little beyond this tradition is known about the origins or history of the monastery at Carndonagh. Indeed, the supposition there was a monastery there seems to be based in large part on the presence of the Carndonagh Cross. The majority of the Irish High Crosses are related to a monastery. Their presence suggests the monastery in question had achieved a level of prosperity and importance.
Dating the Cross
There is some debate about the dating of the Carndonagh Cross. Estimates range from the 7th to the 10th century. As you will find below, some scholars claim a 7th or 8th century date for the cross. The best example is Francoise Henry. Her dating is reflected in a number of online sites including Megalithicireland.com; Megalithomania.com; tourdonegal.com; and discoveringireland.com. Others, including Peter Harbison and Robert Stevenson lean toward a late 9th or 10th century date. Based on an early date, Henry saw the Carndonagh Cross as one of the earliest of the Irish High Crosses. This distinction is lost if the cross is dated to the 9th or 10th century. Some of the points in the discussion are mentioned below. You can, of course, draw your own conclusions.
The dating of the Carndonagh Cross has frequently been related to the dating of the Fahan Mura Cross Slab.