Holy Year Cross

Bere Island Holy Year Cross
Helen Riddell
Building the Holy Year Cross
BIPG Archives

The Bere Island Holy Year Cross, which stands on one of the island’s highest points,  was funded and built by the island people at home and away to commemorate the Holy Year of 1950.  Fr Quane, the island parish priest at the time said the Holy Year Cross would “stand above the great bay and harbour as a memorial to all those born on the island.”

The cross cost  £300 (approximately €380) to build and was funded with donations from islanders living at home and abroad.  A plaque at the base of the cross reflects this.   Mass is celebrated at the Holy Year Cross on the August Bank Holiday weekend, with many of the island diaspora returning for the occasion.

Islander, John Joe O’Sullivan wrote this recollection of the building of the Holy Year Cross.

The Building of the Bere Island Holy Year Cross
By John Joe O’Sullivan

The year 1950 was designated as a Holy Year by the Holy Father.  This generated a lot of interest throughout Ireland on erecting a Holy Year Cross to mark the occasion.  Few, if any, took on the challenge to build a cross of top of a mountain, as we in Bere Island did.

At the time I was a teenager, living right at the bottom of that mountain, so obviously I had a front row seat and I became fully wrapped up in the challenge.  Bere Island in 1950 was a far cry from what we take for granted today.  Roads were unpaved, car ferries were non-existent.  Tractors, cars or anything mechanical, had not as yet reached Bere Island.

With our Parish Priest, Father Quane, at the helm the idea was launched.  A committee was formed but before there was much traction, the Holy Year 1950 was pretty much at an end.  The decision was made to erect a temporary replica of the real cross before the end of 1950 to be followed up with the real cross in 1951.


On St. Stephen’s Day 1950 the replica – a smaller wooden cross – was put together and stood up on top of Knocknanallig.  That structure was probably 10 or 12 feet tall.  It didn’t quite hold up to the winter gales up there but the committee, with Bere Islanders now united behind them, moved ahead undaunted.

Everyone was eager to volunteer their labour but, of course, the question of money had to be addressed.  An outlay of the plan was put together which included reaching out to the many people who were born and raised on Bere Island but were now living elsewhere, many in far off lands.  The appeal worked.  Sufficient monies arrived to cover the hard costs,  mainly cement.  With the volunteer labour the plan would work.

An architect was engaged.  The committee members had meetings with him in Bantry.  The plans were drawn up.  Think about it, in 1950, with tools and machinery limited to pick, shovel, crowbar and wheelbarrow, Bere Islanders were undaunted by the enormous task of building this huge cross on top of a granite peak.  Bill Moriarty, a Bere Island native, was chosen as the contractor.  What a challenge to take on!


Construction underway

Work started in early summer 1951.  There were many challenges.  First a makeshift horse and cart road had to be cut between the existing mountain road and the cross site.  A concrete platform (still visible today) was laid down for mixing the concrete.  Another road was cut to a bog, to procure water, but the biggest logistics challenge lay ahead.  The seashore at Lahan was scooped out, as the source of gravel and sand for the concrete.  The big question was, how to transport this to the top of the mountain.  First it had to be collected and manhandled up to Lahan Road from the high tide line.


Construction challenges

The committee undertook the dangerous task of getting a lorry on to a barge in Castletownbere via a rickety plank gangway,  (the lorry was probably larger than the barge!)  and off again, in Bere Island.  Then came a big hiccup.  The strand at Lahan is in direct view of the cross site and probably a mile away as the crow flies.  Everyone had doubts as to whether the lorry would negotiate the huge elevation and the winding road up to the cross, but the full stop came, when the lorry got stuck attempting to make the sharp right turn at the top of Giles’ height; below Michael Dennehy’s house.  After much scratching of heads etc. that route had to be abandoned and the lorry was routed east to Robinson’s cross and around the low road, adding miles to the journey.

This slowed down the process and contributed to the lorry continuously overheating and loosing water.  Again, Bere Islanders came to the rescue.  At strategic points along the route, neighbors provided a creamery can filled with water.  With our house last, at the bottom of the mountain our filled creamery can was loaded on to the lorry to assure there was enough water to make the steep trip to the top.  This grinding and smoky old lorry stood up to the task day after day.  Since school was out we used to cast lots for turns to enjoy an exciting, though bumpy and dusty lorry ride back down the mountain.

The gravel etc. was dumped on the mountain road.  Now the task of moving it the last half mile, along the mountain top, to the site, fell on the Bere Island volunteers.  At that time there was an abundance of horse drawn carts.  Neighbours took turns to coax those old horses to pull the carts up that steep mountain road, to load up that gravel and move it along that rocky road to the cross site.  Despite all this backbreaking work thus far, the gravel and sand were still not ready to be processed into cement.  Coming as it did from the ocean the salt had to be washed out of it.  Barrels were carried to the site and were constantly being filled with fresh water from the bog hole, to assist with this washing and of course, later, for mixing the cement.

An amazing achievement

Thanks to the volunteer workers the task of building our cross, inch by inch, moved along, and by summer’s end the shape of the cross was becoming visible from all points of Bere Island.  This was an enormous achievement, considering the primitive tools at hand on this mountain top in 1950-51.  No electricity, no generators, no rock breakers, simply nothing mechanical,  this was an amazing accomplishment by the contractor and the architect but hats off to the hard work of our Bere Island forbearers, who volunteered so generously of their time.  Had they not stepped forward, that landmark would not be there today.

Who were they?  Our fathers, grandfathers, every able-bodied man and women too, from all Bere Island townlands.  We also salute our cousins who left Bere Island, many of them in far off lands, and who sent the Pounds, the Dollars, etc. that paid for the materials – steel, cement etc. above and beyond the volunteer labour.  Our sincere thanks to everyone who, in any way, contributed time and effort, overcoming many obstacles and steering this to a well guided conclusion.


Driving a hard bargain

However, this  didn’t all happen without some good old Bere Island bargaining.  Just a few years ago, up at one of the annual masses at the cross, I got to talking to one of the old timers, since passed on, who was deeply involved in all the planning.  Having paid off the bills, bargained down no doubt, he and another committee member arranged to meet the architect, to settle his bill.  They were geared to bargain, as the funds had now run pretty dry.  The architect, no doubt, detecting their tactics, started the conversation by saying “Well, I appreciate you coming, but I know why two of you came.  Don’t worry.  I too have a soul to be saved.  If Bere Islanders were so generous to give of their time, I can be too.  My services will be free.”

God bless him and God bless all who gave of their time, most of them now passed on, God rest their souls.  They are remembered on the inscription at the base of the cross.  “Erected By The People of Bere Island.  At home and abroad.  Holy Year 1950”.    Say a prayer to their generosity next time you are up there.

Inaugural Mass

Mission accomplished.  Arrangements were made for celebration of Mass at the cross in September 1951.  One of Bere Island’s own, Father Bob Murphy, was the proud celebrant.  I remember it well. Everyone in Bere Island was up there and the.  weather was perfect.  Father Bob gave a rousing sermon, recognizing the volunteers, everyone who contributed.  He lifted our spirits, making everyone feel proud to have Bere Island blood.  His final words “Be Proud of your homeland.  Never, never deny where you came from.”

Today, thanks again to those who volunteer of their time, Bere Islanders can pay tribute to our forbearers at the  annual celebration of Mass on the hilltop.  Like anything worth preserving there are upkeep needs – the road up the mountain, the lighting system, the lightning conductor, the repainting of the structure.  When the time comes for volunteering or contributing please remember the generosity, the enthusiasm of those who made this dream possible so that we can proudly pass that legacy on to the next generation.  Oilean Beara Abu!


John Joe O’Sullivan has contributed to our Bere Island Oral History Project, his stories can be heard here 

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