Face to face with ‘Penal Crosses’

On a recent unscheduled trip to County Donegal, I was honoured to be shown a pair of 18th Century ‘Penal Crosses’. I had not seen anything like these ‘up close’ and was totally intrigued by these fascinating  pieces of Irish folk art.

So what are ‘Penal Crosses’? The ‘Penal Laws’ referred to  a series of  statutes aimed at diminishing the power and influence of religions other than the established church, and were enacted in various forms from 1695 on. In England the established church was the Anglican Church, while in Ireland it was the Church of Ireland. Presbyterians for example were also subject to the  Penal Laws, but in Ireland it was the Catholics who were most oppressed by the laws that covered almost every aspect of life including employment, ownership of weapons, intermarriage, education, religious practices and clergy. The practice of the Catholic religion continued during these ‘Penal Times’ with priests saying Mass in safe houses and in discreet places, with few devotional objects on display. The ‘Penal Cross’ was a carved crucifix, with short cross arms, evolved it is said, to enable a priest to hide it in his sleeve.

1-IMG_0883The crosses were often crudely carved, yet there is a remarkable similarity between all known examples with the figure of Christ always carved in high relief.  The ‘head’ below the feet is often carved in high relief as well. All of the crosses have carved symbols of the Crucifixion on front and back. On the example above to the right (as we look at the photograph) of the figure, is a representation of the ladder used to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, and on the opposite side is  the spear or lance.

2-IMG_0882On the reverse is carved the year 1766, with the insignia IHS (a symbol for the name of Jesus) on the transom, and a  cross rising from the centre of  the letter ‘H’. These two features are typical on the reverse of the majority, (if not all) penal crosses, the date being the year in which the cross was carved. Penal crosses of this type have suspension loops at the top to allow for hanging or possibly wearing.

3-IMG_0884The second cross is more sophisticated than the first, and bears much more of the iconography of the passion and crucifixion than the other. The carved figure of the crucified Christ is quite shiny  (possibly from being touched?), and as is usual, is in high relief. The top of this cross  has the acronym INRI, meaning Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

I have had to research the remaining symbols, and found that there are about a dozen images of medieval iconography that appear on penal crosses, some having a few, others having all the images. Some of these images date back to early Christianity, but many appeared originally on tombs and on religious artifacts such as chalices from the 15th century on.

On the cross above a number of symbols are carved on the front.  1) Above Christ’s head are three stars, indicating the sun, moon and stars,representing the total eclipse that took place at the time of the Crucifixion. 2. On the left arm of the cross(left of the photograph) is the Vinegar Jug. 3)Attached to the opposite arm of the figure are the cords which were used to tie him to the pillar 4) Below this, the pincers used to extract the nails.  5)To the right of the torso is the hammer used to drive the nails. 6)Below that is the ladder used to take down the body. 7) On the opposite side is the spear used to pierce Christ’s side. (These latter two  are also depicted on the simpler penal cross above) 8) A carved  head below the feet, which may be either a skull or a cherub – in this case it appears to be a skull; below the skull are crossbones; and 9) at the bottom is a cock. This cock is interesting – could it be the cock that crew three times at Christ’s betrayal? The cock that is most often depicted at the bottom of Penal crosses is a cock above a pot, known as the ‘Cock and the Pot’ and is a reference to a story in the  apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus.

This interesting explanation of the Cock and the Pot comes from anamchara blog:

Based on an anecdote in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate, a famous story of Judas gets tweaked in Irish folklore as related in the Irish Leabhar Breac.

In the darkened streets stumbled a weeping Judas, distraught at betraying Christ.  Wracked with guilt, he had returned the 30 pieces of silver to the temple officials and now was going home.  Opening the door to his house, he smelled his wife’s cooking; she was roasting a cock over the fire.  Food was the furthest thing from his mind, however, and he asked her, “Wife, get me a rope so I may hang myself; my Lord, my friend, Jesus of Nazareth is betrayed by me!”  The woman had no love for Jesus; she was as cynical as her husband toward the Galilean.  “Do you hear me?” he shouted.  “Get me the rope, for I am sure he will rise as he said in three days.”

“Nonsense,” said his wife.  “There’s as much chance of Jesus rising from the dead as there is of this dead, plucked, and cooked rooster jumping out of this pot.”  At this moment, the cock jumped from the pot, clapped his wings–all refeathered now– and crowed three times crying “Mac na hOighe Slan–The son of the Virgin is safe/risen!”

And that is why on the Irish crucifixes, particularly those made in penal times when the Irish were persecuted for their Catholic faith, underneath the crucified body of the Lord is a pot with a rooster standing over it, announcing the resurrection.


On the reverse, this Penal Cross is dated 1725, and again bears the IHS symbol with a cross rising from the letter ‘H’. The triangular configuration below the IHS symbol is a representation of the three nails used in the  crucifixion. This triangular representation of the three nails is quite common on penal Crucifixes

Dr Tony Lewis (1911 – 1986) carried out a study of penal crosses, examining the 129 specimens recorded by the National Museum of Ireland. His conclusions are interesting:

Firstly he dismissed as ‘historically naive and factually baseless’ the romantic notion that the arms were made deliberately short in order to be concealed in a sleeve, stating that the real reason for the shortness of the arms was because each crucifix was carved from a solid piece of wood.

Pilgrims at Lough Derg Station Island c.1890. Image Wikimedia Commons
Pilgrims at Lough Derg Station Island c.1890. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, he concluded that these crucifixes formed part of the ‘ritual of pilgrimage’  between the 15th and 18th centuries, and that such crosses were for sale in the locality of the Lough Derg Pilgrimage Island, County Donegal, up to the mid 19th Century. He found that the uniformity of style and technique indicated a single centre of manufacture, and that centre was Lough Derg in County Donegal.

He further  found that the crucifixes were consistently dated over a period of one and a half centuries, and the date represents the year in which the crucifix was bought, used in devotional exercise and taken home as a dated souvenir of pilgrimage.

Pilgrims being rowed to Lough Derg in 1876  by W.F . Wakeman. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Pilgrims being rowed to Lough Derg in 1876 by W.F.Wakeman. (Image Wikimedia Commons)

Research by P.O’Gallachair, published in 1965 adds weight to the Lewis theory by examining the 1792 O’Donnell Crucifix. On July 12 1795, 90 pilgrims out of a total of 93 on a boat crossing Lough Derg to the Penitential Island drowned  when their boat sank. A Miss O’Donnell’s body was recovered with a ‘penal cross’ tightly clasped in her hand. The Cross was dated 1792, the conclusion being that she was revisiting the Penitential Site carrying a Cross that she had purchased on an earlier pilgrimage.

It was a very special experience for me to see and touch objects that were revered and treasured in my local area between 250 and 290 years ago, the like of which I  had not seen before. I cannot help but wonder: Who carved them? Who owned them? What stories could they tell? What lives did they comfort? What tragedies did they witness?  What homes did they protect? And of course, were they ever hidden in a sleeve?

We will never know.

I am very much indebted to Moira Hughes, Raphoe Diocesan Archive, St Eunan’s, Letterkenny  for the  kindness, patience and generosity shown to me on my recent visit. 

Sources/Further reading:

”Penal” Crucifixes, A.T Lucas & H.G Tempest , Journal of County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol 13,No 2, (1954), pp. 145 – 174

Pilgrim Crucifixes of Lough Derg, P.Ó Gallachair, Clogher Record, vol 5, No 3, (1965) pp. 296 – 306 Clogher Historical Society

Penal Crosses found in Co. Carlow: the significance of 18th and 19th century devotional crucifixes in early modern Ireland. Nugent, L. 2013.  Carloviana Vol 65 pp 84-88


National Museum of Ireland

National Science Museum,Maynooth


Filed under Ireland, Irish Countryside, Irish Culture, Irish Heritage, Irish History, Irish Traditions

29 responses to “Face to face with ‘Penal Crosses’

  1. I would be every bit as humbled and in awe as you were seeing these Penal Crosses, to think they had survived all these years and you were actually able to see and touch them… what a privilege..

  2. These penal crosses are beautiful! I love the story behind them, even if it is inaccurate. My husband collects crosses. If I ever see one of these, I will be sure to get him one.

  3. Wonderful!! Wonderful research and wonderful recounting of your experience–lucky you! The symbols fascinate me–I love to know how different peoples maintained their sense of self when subjugated.

    • To my shame I knew very little about them, but was delighted to get to discover them! Interesting too that the hordes of pilgrims went to Lough Derg unhindered during ‘Penal times’. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. A fascinating history lesson. Thank you for sharing both the images and the story behind them.

  5. Reblogged this on gallybeggar and commented:
    This is a bit of Irish history and folklore I was previously unaware of. What beautiful objects these crosses are. A great article.

  6. What a treat, SV, to see Penal Crosses up close. I had other images in mind, somehow. Great research, as always!

  7. Excellent post SV. I’d never come across these items before and I’m now very much the wiser. I’ve visited ‘Mass Rocks’ before, such as the one at Ballyvourney, and now I can picture what the celebrant and perhaps some of the worshippers might have been carrying.

    • Thank you! I found them fascinating and like to think that yes perhaps they may have been concealed in sleeves and carried to Mass Rocks! I was surprised to discover their origins! Thank you for dropping by!

  8. Lyn

    Thanks Angela, what an interesting discovery. I love the symbolism and your explanations.

  9. What an interesting post! I hadn’t heard of penal crosses. There seems to be so few fragments from peasant Catholics in Ireland of the 18th century since most of them were illiterate, so it’s interesting to read about these crosses and their markings that they carried with such faith and fervour.

  10. What a fascinating story of Catholicism in a difficult era. It must have been amazing to see and touch these wonderful relics of people’s devotion. Thanks for sharing them with is Angela.

  11. John Nangle

    I have shared this article on Old Irish Headstones on FB. The Passion symbols were used extensively on 18th century headstones in the south east of Ireland and also in the Carrick on Suir area. They were used on the chest tombs of the landlord class prior to the 1650s and can be seen in different monastic sites in Kilkenny.


    Just wanted to mention that after searching for authentic information about the Penal Crucifixes, I was only able to find, until now, information on websites that were submitted by its readers and combined to form a seemingly accurate article about these Crosses. While parts of these reports match your Silver Voice, there were a number of their findings that did not, and they are not Irish reporters. I’m grateful to have come across your first-hand information on viewing these precious relics and obtaining facts about their history!!

  13. D. Flynn

    To my shame, I only recently discovered the Penal Cross, While on holiday in Kerry I picked up one in a souvenir shop. I instantly felt a connection to it, love the idea that it was carried up the sleeve!!

  14. Caroline

    Hi. I bought a penal cross at a vintage shop in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh just 2 weeks ago. I thought it was from Mexico. Thanks to your article I now know the background. It has the cockerel & the skull. Really unique piece.

  15. Thank you so much for this wonderfully informative post. I make rosaries and chaplets and the like, and have a lovely bronze reproduction penal crucifix in one of my pieces; I’d read somewhere about the crosses being slipped up the sleeves, but I wanted to verify that. I’ve been looking for more information about the markings, as well, and you’ve helped me tremendously. Many thanks and blessings to you!

    • Hi there! Delighted that you found the post so helpful. It was fascinating for me to see these at first hand and to research what they were all about. Thank you so much for dropping by! Good wishes… Angela

  16. Daniel Blake

    Hello, How can someone authenticate the age of a penal cross. Mine has “1797” inscribed on the back. It is smaller (approx 4″ tall) and it has excellent wooden patina. I can only validate that it is over 90 years old, but how can I be sure that another ancestor didn’t pick it up as a souvenir in the 1800’s? … And yes, my ancestors are from the Donegal area.

    • Hi Daniel. I am not sure how it could be authenticated to be honest. It seems to be smaller than the norm, but may well have been a souvenir. I will make enquiries and see if I can find out how you might go about it. Are you in Ireland? You may contact me by email at thesilvervoice@ gmail.com.

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