The Celtic Cross Symbol and its Meaning: What You Need To Know

Its history, meaning and everything else you need to know

celtic cros symbol
Photo left: Bjoern Alberts (Shutterstock) Right: via Tourism Ireland
The now-iconic Celtic Cross symbol is one of the most recognisable of the many Celtic symbols designed by the Celts.

The Celtic Cross, sometimes referred to as the ‘Irish Cross’ or the ‘Irish High Cross’, has been present in Ireland from the early Middle Ages.

Although you’ll find many of the earliest Celtic High Crosses in Kilkenny and Laois, Celtic Cross designs can be found scattered right the way across Ireland.

In the guide below, you’ll discover the history of this symbol, its origin, the meaning behind it and what it symbolizes.

Celtic Cross History and Origin

Celtic Cross Ireland
Photo by the brilliant Gareth Wray

The Celtic Cross is one of the most famous and easily identifiable of the many Irish and Celtic symbols.

Now, it’s worth mentioning from the get-go that, like the Celts, the Celtic Cross wasn’t Irish… well, it may not have been, anyway!

The Celts were a group of tribes that were based all around Europe – it’s likely that the Celtic Cross design came from elsewhere.

Some of the earliest Celtic Cross symbols in Ireland date back to the 8th or 9th century and can be found in the ancient kingdom known as the Western Ossory which occupied part of Kilkenny and Laois. 

Designs

Originally, Celtic Crosses would have been made from wood or metal and they were probably much smaller than the surviving stone carved pillars.

In the Middle Ages, many Celtic Cross symbols were carved into rock, but over time they were developed and built as independent standing stones or monoliths.

The St. Patrick Celtic Cross Link

One theory about the Irish Celtic Cross is that it was “high-jacked” by St Patrick when he brought his Christian teachings to Ireland.

Some believe that when St. Patrick arrived in Ireland he noticed that the cross was already part of the Irish culture.

It’s believed, again by some, that he used the Irish Cross as he was able to link it with his Christian teachings, providing a sense of familiarity to his new/potential converts.

The Last 100 Years

In the mid-19th century, the Celtic Cross symbol had a huge rise in popularity. It was increasingly used to symbolize not just a religious belief but also a strong Celtic identity.

Scriptural Celtic Crosses date back to the 9th century and can be found around North Leinster and Kells.

In modern culture, the Celtic Cross symbol is as popular and relevant as ever. It frequently features on carvings, artworks and in tattoo designs.

Celtic Cross Meaning

Celtic Cross Meaning
Photo by Peter Moloney

There are many legends and theories about the meaning of the Celtic Cross. One Celtic Cross meaning is that the four ‘arms’ represent the four cardinal directions of the earth.

The main cardinal points on a compass are north, south, east, and west. Another meaning of the Celtic Cross could be that it represents the four elements:

  • Earth
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Air

The four quadrants may also represent the four seasons or the four stages of the day: morning, midday, evening and midnight. 

What the Celtic Cross Symbolizes

Since the Christian era, the Celtic Cross has a meaning connected to the Christian faith and the iconic cross of Christ.

However, it equally is relevant to pagan beliefs and the Celtic culture, making it a symbol that can be interpreted however the user chooses to do so.

Whatever the original meaning of the Celtic Cross symbol, it has since been used to reflect many different beliefs and principles and is a symbol of both culture and faith.

Where to Find an Irish Celtic Cross

celtic cross symbol and meaning
Photo by Brian Morrison

If you’re visiting Ireland and looking to see an Irish Celtic Cross, your chances of finding one are pretty high.

Ireland is home to over 300 ancient Celtic Crosses, many of which are made of sturdy stone and can be found on former monastic sites.

These decorative High Crosses were used to mark boundaries and graves and may have been the place for gatherings, also.

Most were carved between the 9th and 12th centuries, and then the tradition died out. So where can you see a Celtic Cross in Ireland?

  • The Celtic Cross of The Scriptures at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly
  • The High Crosses at Monasterboice, Co. Louth
  • Tall Cross at Monasterboice
  • Granite High Crosses at Graignamanagh, Co. Kilkenny
  • High Cross at Drumcliff, Co. Sligo

Jewellery and Celtic Cross Tattoos

If you’re looking to buy a piece of jewellery in the shape of this symbol, or if you’re taking the plunge and getting a Celtic Cross tattoo, try and not make the mistake of using the similar Sun Cross.

The difference is that the Sun Cross is a circle which fully contains the horizontal and vertical lines of the cross inside. In the Celtic Cross symbol, the cross extends beyond the circle in all four directions.

Discover many more ancient symbols in our guide to Celtic symbols and meanings.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Would love to add Moone High Cross (Co. Kildare) and Dysert O’Dea High Cross (County Clare) to your list! There are so many!! Love your blog – great information! Thanks!

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