Penal cross

Contributed by Armagh County Museum

The story of the crucifixion has inspired the imagination of artists for generations and in Ireland during the 18th century it found expression in wooden carved crosses.

These 'penal' crosses take their name from a series of laws passed to suppress the Catholic population. It restricted the types of jobs they were able to apply for, made land ownership difficult and impeded worship. The production of the crosses coincided with the enforcement of these laws as in this example dated to 1791 and found near Loughgall, Co Armagh.

Penal crosses appear to have been produced by wood carvers working in the neighbourhood of Lough Derg, Co Donegal. This is a site of pilgrimage, with associations to St Patrick, were the crosses would have been bought as a souvenir of the journey.

Among the symbols shown on the crosses is an interesting one of a bird and bucket! This occurs below the feet of Christ. The bird, usually referred to as a 'cock' is associated with the biblical story of Judas. His wife, who was cooking the bird in the bucket, remarked that the chances of Jesus rising from the dead were about the same as the cock leaping for the pot - which it apparently then did!

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