Up an down the country one finds derelict monuments, stone or other objects which on investigation are reminders of the futile attempts made from time to time to honour the memory of some great man, or some inspiring event or episode in the history of our country. When the objects of which these are reminders were first attempted there was the usual enthusiasm, appeals, speeches, committees formed to open up subscription lists, but soon this all evaporated and the responsibilities undertaken neglected or abandoned, and these objects are now a memory of the past.
Such is the story behind the big stone, which, for the past fifty years, lies on the public road at Dunlo Hill, Ballinasloe. This stone, in the form of a cross, is twenty feet long by 6½ feet wide, 1½ feet thick, and it weights ten tons. Many visitors to the town from time to time, and especially during fair week, have often enquired as to its original purpose and have expressed a wish to know its history. It has been the object of intense curiosity for years, and even to many local people its true history is unknown.
Imbued with a natural curiosity and hearing many queries from time to time about this huge rough carved cross, I set out to find out the story behind it, and I am able to give for the first time, the authentic facts concerning it. I interviewed Mr. Thomas Beegan, proprietor of monumental works in Dunlo Hill, outside whose door the stone has laid for almost half a century. Mr. Beegan had the full story from his late father, who was also a monumental sculptor and who had a special commission regarding the stone or cross. Mr. Thomas Beegan holds a copy, obtained from his father, of the original plans and design in the form of engraving which was to go on the cross.
"The cross," said Mr. Beegan, "was originally intended to be placed over the reputed spot in Aughrim battle field where St. Ruth is said to have fallen from the result of a cannon ball from the Williamite army in the historic battle of Aughrim. People in the locality," he added, "will point out the spot where there is a tree known locally as St. Ruth's tree." But to return to Mr. Beegan's story. He told me that fifty years ago a national movement was set on foot to have a huge cross carved in Ballinasloe and later placed over St. Ruth's grave. The movement spread all over the country, the object being to open a national fund to defray expenses. At the people concerned with the project were hopeful of getting big subscriptions from France, and it was confidently expected that the subscriptions would be generous. Public meetings were called, committees were formed, enthusiasm was at its height, and the first step in the big project was inaugurated. His father, who was the principal monumental sculptor in the district at the time, and having access to Ballinasloe quarries famous for lime-stone deposits, was commissioned to execute the work. The drawings and plans for the finished design were made by Mr. Kempter, a well known architect and draughtsman, and Mr. Beegan and his staff set to work. The stone was quarried, taken to the house of Mr. Beegan on a huge truck, and deposited on the roadside, where the work began. It was cut down to its present proportions, from fifteen tons, and the sculptors worked for a considerable time at intervals carving it into shape; the design was to be an elaborately interlaced Celtic one.
Then enthusiasm in the project began to ease off. Mr. Beegan applied for some funds to continue the work, but alas, it was then found that there was little or nothing in the funds, that the home, as well as the French subscriptions, were almost negligible, and that there was nothing to draw from. Work ceased, and there the cross remains, partly finished to this day, a silent testimony to the blunders of the founders of the project.
The Parnell Split
The Parnell spilt, Mr. Beegan said, had also something to do with it. The country was divided into two camps about this time, and people became uninterested in St. Ruth or Aughrim's famous fields, and gradually they became more and more unenthusiastic, and the twelve month's work on the cross was never paid for.
But matters did not end there. In 1921, following the Great War, a national movement was on foot - this time to commemorate the memory of the thousands of Irishmen who lost their lives in the World War, to take the form of a national memorial in Glasnevin. A representative of this new movement visited Ballinasloe, saw the cross, and had a talk with Mr. Beegan. The sum of £150 was offered for the cross, which might be used as a memorial, but Mr. Beegan said he refused this offer as, he added, he held his father's commission to execute the work if it ever was to be done for Aughrim, and he had a special command also from his father that the cross was only to be used for its original purpose." I believe that the original purpose of placing the cross either on St. Ruth's grave of Sarsfield's will again surface, and that the cross will eventually be used for this purpose," added Mr. Beegan, "and naturally it this happens, I am the person to execute the work." Asked about what happened to the "Glasnevin movement" proposal in 1921, he said that the civil war in 1921 and 1922 also killed that project.
I was reluctant to leave Mr. Beegan without eliciting his opinion regarding the possibility of the cross ever being placed over St. Ruth in Aughrim, four short miles from Ballinasloe, and asked if he had any immediate hopes of such. "Well," said Mr. Beegan, "it is hard to say. There is a new national resurgence in the country now and something may yet inspire the nation to honour and commemorate the memory of St. Ruth or Sarsfield. There was another man here about twelve months ago also enquiring about the cross; something was written in the way of letters to the newspapers. Photographs," I believe, "were used in some magazines, but the full history of it was never told before.
"There may be a hope yet, with the new revival in Irish history, now being dramatised so frequently over the radio that some nationally representative body may some day have the original design executed on the cross and have it placed over the grave of General St. Ruth in Aughrim. We have," he added, "from time to time reconstructed scenes from Radio Athlone of the prowess of Red Hugh O'Donnell, Shane O'Neill, Michael Dwyer and other Irish national heroes and, perhaps, all this may inspire some one to have Sarsfield's or St. Ruth's memory permanently commemorated by a national memorial. I am holding the original plans, any way, and I am only too willing to execute the original order if I am commanded to do so."
Mr. Beegan, before I left, showed me a beautiful Celtic design, a facsimile of the cross of Clonmacnoise, which he executed and which is now over the grave of the late Earl of Clancarty's father in Highgate cemetery in London. The stone was quarried in Ballinasloe, where the work on the cross was also done before it was exported to London. He also showed me many beautiful designs executed in Ballinasloe and sent to many parts of the country and to England.
Such is the story of the "Big Stone," as it is called in Ballinasloe, which has so often excited curiosity and which has remained in its present position for close for fifty years.
(St. Ruth's Cross (referred to as the "Big Stone" above) as it now stands near Aughrim. The cross was erected at its present location in the 1960s by a committee headed by Tadhg Mac Lochlainn. Photo contributed by Susan Finnerty)
[Source: The Connacht Tribune, 9 October 1937. Transcribed and submitted by Damian Mac Con Uladh, November 2003]