Irish prayer beads

Irish prayer beads
Irish prayer beads

I said quite a while ago that I planned to put up some designs for Anglican prayer beads. I finally got my camera sorted out so here is the first one.

Design components:

  • Invitatory and cruciform beads: 8mm apple  green cats-eye beads
  • Week beads: 8 mm light apple green glass beads
  • Clear glass spacer beads used throughout. Celtic knot used as a three-way linker, no prayers assigned to it.
  • Irish penal cross
  • Double-sided medal with St Patrick on one side and St Bridget on the other.

The Irish penal cross dates from the early modern period in Ireland, roughly 17th century. It is called a penal cross because these were the penal times, when the practice of Irish Catholicism was suppressed and all too often backed up by prison sentences. Most surviving Irish penal crosses have a handmade look and vary in design because they were locally made.

The Irish penal cross is a type of icon crucifix. It usually has the same set of icons. There is not a lot of agreement on what some of the symbols mean because these things were obviously not written down during Penal Times.

Front icons:

  • spiked halo: doubles as a halo and a symbol for the crown of thorns
  • hammer: for the nails of the cross
  • jug or chalice: last supper (bottom of cross)
  • binding cords: represent the scourging
  • spear: piercing of Christ’s side (left side of bottom)
  • ladder: rung like steps on the right side of the cross represent a ladder to heaven
  • INRI: across the top of the cross represents the sign nailed to the cross by the Romans

Back icons:

  • cock and pot: variously said to be a butchered rooster that returns to life to crow the resurrection on Easter morning, or said to be related to a legend of Judas.
  • three spikes: three nails used to attach Christ to the cross, in the typical v-shaped icon. This makes me wonder if it doesn’t double as a symbol of the trinity.

The Rosary Workshop has a page of antique (and some modern) Irish penal rosaries here. It appears that this form of a cross did first appear before the ‘Penal Times’ but the reality is that they were popular during the penal times. English suppression of Irish Catholic practices made them more popular by not allowing other alternatives to flourish.

I don’t really know or understand why Anglicans avoid this particular cross. As Episcopalians we didn’t have anything to do with the suppression of Irish Catholicism. Some of us, including me, have Irish Catholic ancestors. For me, this is an ancestral cross as much as any Anglican cross. I suspect that Anglicans in the US also avoid this cross because they avoid crucifixes in general and with so many icons of the passion, it makes people uncomfortable. Well, the passion isn’t supposed to make you comfortable.

All combined I like this set of prayer beads for Lent. The penal cross with its symbolism of the passion is ideal for Lent and Holy Week. Yet, the light green color also reminds of spring. The medal of St Patrick and St Bridget are not only there because they are the co-patron saints of Ireland. St Bridget’s feast day is February 1 and usually proceeds Ash Wednesday by only a few weeks (a few days last year).  Before the calendar correction February 1 would have fallen two weeks later in the lunar year and the medieval Irish  associated St Bridget’s day with the birth of spring lambs, appropriate for the ‘Mary of the Gaels’. St Patrick’s feast day, March 17th, always falls during Lent without exception.


7 thoughts on “Irish prayer beads

  1. Sorry, I don’t supply them. They are easy to make though. Irish penal crosses can be found online or at a catholic supply store.

  2. I have an original penal cross dated 1742. It belonged to my Irish grandmother. I too would like to know what these are worth….I can only find prices on the reproductions.

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