• The great stone font at Aghowle, Co. Wicklow

    Immediately east of St Finden’s Cross at Aghowle is a large block of granite (1.3m long and 73cm wide). The stone is earthfast and it is clear that it originally stood much higher than its present 43cm. It is unshaped, except along one side which has been given quite a flat face – notably the rim is lower along this side of the stone. The basin is trough-like and measures 84cm x 47cm across at the top, and 55cm deep. The upper sides of the basin are straight, but the lower sides, including the ends, slope gradually towards a narrow base, providing a V-shaped profile across the short-axis. There is no drain hole. Given the lack of drain hole, the basin is rarely without water, and according to John O’Donovan “the water ... is believed to be blessed and able to cure headaches etc, for as the stone retains the blessing of St. Fenden, it imparts it to every drop of rain water which falls into it” (Corlett & Medlycott 2000, 41).

    It is generally accepted that the use of fonts within churches became firmly established during the twelfth century in Ireland, reflecting the move to a parochial and diocesan organisation of the church and more importantly the changes in liturgical conventions that this brought. In particular, the twelfth century reforms required that the sacraments should take place in a fixed baptistery that should be inside a church. As suggested by Whitfield (2007) and more recently by Ó Carragáin (2010, 207), this certainly implies that earlier fonts may have been portable, or at least were located outside the church. This may be relevant in the context of the large trough-like font at Aghowle which is presently situated beside the St Finden's Cross. Firstly there is a question about whether or not this was used for baptism. If it is accepted that it was used for baptism, there is still a question about its date, which is impossible to resolve given that there is no way of actually dating this object. However, it is notably different from medieval fonts in this region, and it seems safe to assume that it is pre-Norman in date, and maybe significantly earlier. Indeed, it is possible that it is actually in situ. At present it is not possible to confirm this, but if this is the case, then it raises the interesting question about whether or not it is actually earlier or perhaps roughly contemporary with the high cross, which itself may date to between AD 900-1000. While there is no conclusive evidence to confirm any of these suggestions, the granite trough beside the cross at Aghowle is likely to represent a font, and is also likely to represent an example of an outdoor font of early Christian date, making this one of the earliest surviving examples from anywhere in the country. The proximity of the font to St Finden’s Cross is likely to be significant, and suggests that the baptismal rites were deliberately associated with the high cross itself. This raises the question regarding high crosses elsewhere in the country and whether these monuments had a very direct role with ceremonies such as baptism.

    Christiaan Corlett & John Medlycott (eds), 2000, The Ordnance Survey Letters Wicklow.

    Niamh Whitfield, 2007, ‘A suggested function for the holy well’, in Text, Image and Interpretation (A. Minnis & J. Roberts eds), 495-514.

    Tomás Ó Carragáin, 2010, Churches in early medieval Ireland.

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