The beautiful, restored Abbey of Holycross is special for many reasons, not least because it has a relic of the True Cross enshrined there. It also contains unique architectural features, beautiful ribbed vaulting, superb stone carving, the oldest church bell in Ireland and all tied in with a thick coating of folklore and myth.
It is connected too, with the ups and downs of Irish history - its wars, economic booms and bursts, persecutions, intrigue, corruption and recovery.
King Dónal Mór Ó Briain, a descendant of Brian Boru, was the founder of the Cistercian Monastery of Holycross in 1182 AD. He was a formidable and ruthless ruler who meted out a brand of justice that would put many despots in the shade. One folk story illustrates this very well. It is written in the Triumphalia, a manuscript compiled in the Abbey in 1640 AD.
The story tells how the old placename for the area came about. In Dónal Mórs time the area was known as Cell Uachtair Lamhann meaning The Cell (or Church) of the Eight Hands.
The story goes that a holy hermit living in a cell there was attacked by four bandits who demanded the treasures of the monastery from him. He swore that no such treasures were stored there and that he was just a poor hermit.
They then ordered him to work a sign to show his miraculous powers but he begged them not to tempt the Lord. They threatened to kill him if he did not work a miracle. Just then a large tree, growing close-by, lowered its branches to the ground of its own accord. They, in their disbelief and arrogance, tried to push the branches back up but their hands got stuck fast to the tree. The boughs rose high into the air with the four robbers dangling from them. Just then the King of Limerick, Dónal Mór Ó Briain, was passing by. He saw the unusual sight and enquired from the hermit what had happened. When he heard the story of the attempted robbery he ﬂew into a rage and cut off the hands of the four robbers leaving eight hands on the tree and four bodies on the ground. From then on until the name was changed to Holycross the area was called Ceall Ochtar Lámhan, meaning The Cell (or Church) of the Eight Hands.
If you would like to hear more folklore stories or view the treasures of the Abbey itself you are welcome to join one of the free tours every Wednesday at 2 pm, every Saturday at 11 am and every Sunday at 2.30 pm.
Times will change to adapt to any religious events taking place in the Abbey.
The tours are conducted by trained volunteers supported by Holycross Community Network. Of course, we can arrange tours outside these times for individuals or groups. For more information phone 086 1665869 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Free tours are from now until Easter only.