It’s over a thousand years out of date and made of cardboard rather than stone, but the people of Ireland’s most remote inhabited island have finally earned their cross.
The 6.5-meter sculpture reached Tory Island, a windswept rock nine miles off the northwest coast of Ireland, on Wednesday, arguably restoring the tainted honor of a patron saint .
According to legend, Saint Columba promised a huge stone Christian cross to Tory Island in the 6th century, but he ended up planting it on the mainland. It still towers over the ruins of Ray Church in County Donegal, a formidable feat of ancient engineering and a reminder to islanders of a broken promise.
Sarah Lewtas, born in England, and Brian Lacey, an Irish historian, teamed up to deliver the cardboard replica – made of Bible pages – to Tory with the support of the local population, which numbers just over a hundred people. “You couldn’t do anything on Tory Island without them,” Lacey said.
Residents unloaded the cross and carried it across the island. Some were puzzled but the mood was celebratory, Lacey said.
He and Lewtas spoke at a ceremony after the cross was buried in some sort of grave. Building permit requirements and Atlantic wind and rain militated against his erection, but Tory can still claim to have a version of the cross in Ray.
A variety of St. John’s wort – an herb considered a cure for depression – should be planted on the site. The medieval monk Columba, known in Ireland as Colmcille, is said to have carried the herb under his armpit, earning him the nickname Ascaill CholmcilleArmpit of Colmcille.
According to tradition, the monk, who spread Christianity to parts of Ireland and Scotland, promised the stone cross as a gift to newly converted Tory islanders. Made from a slab of schist with quartz veins and nodules, at 6.5 meters high it was the tallest such cross in Ireland and Britain, said Lacey, an archaeologist and historian specializing in medieval times.
Before delivering the gift, however, Columba realized he had left his precious Bible in a remote location on the continent. He promised the cross to anyone who collected the Bible and kept it dry. Another monk, Fionán, did so – and claimed the cross, which was planted in Ray.
The story is a myth, Lacey said. He dates the cross to around 800, two centuries after Columba’s death.
Lewtas, a sculptor who lives in Donegal, began constructing the cardboard version last year at a series of events marking the 1,500th anniversary of Columba’s birth. She called the saint a living fable that was part of Donegal’s psyche.
The cross will not be completely submerged – a small mound will mark the spot. “It feels like completion,” Lewtas said.