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Selection of penal crosses goes on display for anniversary programme at NMI - Country Life

Image: Karen Cox

A selection of 21 penal crosses, ranging from the early 18th to the middle of the 19th century, has been taken out of storage and put on temporary display until the end of October at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo.

The display is part of FOLK21, a year-long programme to mark the 21st anniversary of the Irish Folklife Collection at Turlough Park, Castlebar.
Penal crosses have been described as one of the few examples of Irish folk art. The crosses were likely carved and sold to pilgrims in the vicinity of Lough Derg, Co. Donegal. The dates carved onto the crosses recorded the year a pilgrimage was undertaken.
As they came into the National Museum of Ireland’s collections, the details for each cross were recorded on index cards and a selection of these cards is also on display.
“Strictly speaking, they should be called penal crucifixes but as can be seen from the cards, even within the Museum, there were changes over time in the terminology used to describe these objects,” explained Clodagh Doyle, Keeper of the Irish Folklife Collection. “Although mistakenly thought to be associated with the Penal Law era, penal crosses was the term used in folk tradition. Today, due to research by A.T. Lucas, we could call them Lough Derg crucifixes, but we continue to use the term penal cross.”
Similarities can be seen in the inscriptions on the crosses. They also have certain symbols in common – although these are not always present in every instance. The symbols of the Passion of Christ that are usual include a ladder, a spear, a cock-in-a-pot, scourges, pincers, a hammer and three nails.
Ms Doyle said the Museum is delighted to display objects from the museum stores throughout 2022, as this is a significant year in the history of the National Museum of Ireland.

We moved the Irish Folklife Collection objects into our new Mayo home 21 years ago this September, creating the only branch of the National Museum of Ireland outside of Dublin. Our museum storage is like an Aladdin’s Cave of treasures so throughout the year, we are taking out objects associated with each of the seasons. For autumn, we are displaying 21 penal crosses because this time of year was very much a time for pilgrimage, patterns (communal visits to holy sites) and prayer in folk tradition in Ireland. Many people went on pilgrimage to famous sites such as Croagh Patrick and Knock in Co. Mayo. The Lough Derg pilgrimage in Co. Donegal, where these crosses originated, was as internationally popular in Europe in medieval times, as Santiago de Compostela.”

The crosses will be on display until the end of October. They will be replaced with a selection of 21 storage vessels over the winter season to conclude the FOLK21 programme.
The National Museum of Ireland - Country Life has welcomed more than 2 million visitors since opening its doors in 2001. Home to the Irish Folklife Collection, the Museum is located in Turlough Park, which was formally the home of the Fitzgerald family. Mayo County Council purchased Turlough Park House and gardens in 1991 and the site was then selected in 1995 for a new branch of the National Museum of Ireland to display the Irish Folklife Collection.
The OPW developed modern, award-winning exhibition galleries next to Turlough Park House and the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life opened to the public on 9 September 2001.

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