It was a typical day in our Irish summer; glorious sunshine followed by torrential showers. It was the day when US-based daughter and her American husband said they would love to see the High Crosses at Ahenny: she for the umpteenth time, he for the first, and five-year-old son would come along too.
To me, Ahenny and its associated sites of Killamery, Kilkeeran, Kilfane, are magical places. They nestle in the quietly beautiful country of the Tipperary/Kilkenny border, in the shadow of Slievenamon. With the exception of Killamery, all are located off main roads. Locating the sites presents a challenge in map-reading. It is easy to get lost. This is the hidden Ireland, with hidden treasures.
Five-year-old was accompanied by his currently favourite toy, a small, hand-held helicopter. When wound-up with a key, the blades rotated, and it emitted a low purring sound. It flew upstairs to bed with him every night and flew downstairs again to breakfast every morning.
The sun was shining when we reached Ahenny. Though I cannot now count the number of times I have seen the two High Crosses, each new visit is always heart-stirring. They stand almost in the centre of the old monastic site, amongst gently sloping fields, against a distant backdrop of the Comeragh foothills. And they have stood there, through all the vicissitudes of time, weather and history since the 8th century.
Their survival, almost intact, (there is a piece of the shaft missing from one of the crosses) is attributable to the respect and esteem of the local community, through good times and bad. Ahenny is an area of traditional farming, with traditional farmhouses and buildings, and with the exception of the occasional modern bungalow, has changed little throughout the centuries.
In addition to their quiet over-view and protection of their special places over the years, the local communities have now made access much easier. All of the sites on the Tipperary/Kilkenny border have been cleared of brambles, grass has been cut, and a level of maintenance has been achieved without, in any way, interfering with the integrity of the sites.
On that recent visit, the grown-ups stood and marvelled, as grown-ups do, at the achievements of those ancient sculptors. Was there a special school of artists in early Christian times on this borderland? They have left us no written record of their technology. Was there a centre for tool-making? How long did it take to train an apprentice? Whence their knowledge of engineering, which enabled these solid blocks of sandstone to withstand storms and gales for, at least, 1200 years?
Five-year-old did not evince the slightest interest in the crosses. The cows grazing in the fields were much more engaging. And, besides, ancient burial grounds were an ideal locale for flying a helicopter. Held in one hand over his head, with blades whirring and sound effects augmented by his own burr-burring, the toy climbed and dived, soared skywards and crash-landed.
Curmudgeonly old grandparents exchanged knowing-looks and hoped the generations of people buried in this sacred place would forgive this intrusion into their quiet sleep.
And then the day did its Irish summer thing. The sun disappeared. Sudden gusts of a south-westerly wind brought a heavy thunderous downpour. We fled to the only shelter available - two old Yew trees, and with helicopter safely stashed in the lower branches, continued our adult talk.
While the Ahenny crosses are amongst the earliest in the High Cross collection in early Christian Ireland, it is thought these may have been preceded by some form of monument in wood. The Tipperary/Kilkenny border monuments also represent a particular form of decoration, a variety of geometrical motifs so similar to the illustrations in the Book of Kells, that they might well be contemporary with that unique Irish treasure.
The sites and their proximity to each other may also represent an occupancy which long preceded Christianity in Ireland. In both Killamery and Kilkeeran, there are ancient phallic pagan symbols. These present a fascinating mixture of the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the earthy.
The rain ceased as suddenly as it began, but it was almost a visual aid in the dilemma of the conservation of the High Crosses, and the other historical monuments still in situ in their original sites. Experts tell us that these have not only suffered from exposure to the weather down the centuries but are now particularly vulnerable because of modern air pollution. Again, experts say that the Tipperary/Kilkenny border monuments have deteriorated significantly in recent times.
The proposed solution is the removal of the crosses to a museum and replacement on the sites by replicas. Since much of the charm of the crosses lies in their endurance and survival in the places in which they originated, and where they have been cherished and protected, the choice will not be an easy one.
We had almost re-traced our steps, on a now rain-sodden path, to the roadway, when five-year-old declared there was a crisis. One of the rotating blades had become detached from the body of the helicopter. We returned to the burial grounds for what seemed a hopeless search - a needle in a bundle of straw - but the re-appearing brassy sun made our task easy. It shone brightly on the red and silver plastic blade lying underneath the Yew trees. Reconnections were made. Happiness restored.
Daughter and I made our slow way to the parked car, standing frequently to look back at the High Crosses of Ahenny. “These places are part of our DNA,” she said, and I knew what she meant. Then we took out the map, counted the number of left and right turns to our next stop on this Tipperary/Kilkenny border trail. We were going to Kilkeeran, and the helicopter was coming with us, too.