If you have a penchant for beautiful Medieval architecture and moody photo ops, then you will love the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, Ireland. It’s a site that can easily evoke both wonder and awe in even the most jaded of travellers.
So, why is the Rock of Cashel an important site, you may wonder? Well, much of what makes it a fascinating place to visit is mostly what can’t be seen – its lengthy and elaborate history.
The name Cashel comes from the Gaelic word Caiseal, or “stone fort”. Cashel was chosen as the royal seat of kingship by a man named Conall Corc sometime in the 5th Century. Conall was the founder of the Eóganachta Clan – an Irish dynasty that ruled southern Ireland (also known as Munster). Therefore, historians generally accept Conall Corc as the first historical king of Munster.
Conall Corc and subsequent members of his clan may have held kingship over Munster for centuries, but that doesn’t mean they were all-powerful. The system of kingship in Medieval Ireland was complex and hierarchical. Historically, Ireland was divided into numerous subkingdoms. Each small subkingdom had a king; several subkingdoms grouped together had a king above them; and then there was a High King, or feudal overlord. But even the so-called High King really only had control over the realm in which he lived. In fact, Ireland had approximately over 150 lesser and greater kings ruling over various regions and domains.
Usually, the title of king passed from father to son, but sometimes it would pass to another branch in the dynasty. For several centuries, the title of High King alternated between different branches of the Uí Néill dynasty. Meanwhile, members of the Eóganachta Clan ruled as lesser kings over Munster from the Irish Iron Age (approx. 500 BC) until the High Middle Ages. However, despite their long reign in the role of lesser kings, no member of the Eóganachta Clan ever reached the status of High King.
The Eóganachta Clan ruled over Munster until the 10th Century. Eventually, Brian Boru of the Dál gCais Clan became king of Munster. He quickly attempted to extend his control over neighboring provinces. Eventually he came into conflict with the ruling High King, Máel Sechnaill, from the the Clann Cholmáin branch of the Uí Néill dynasty. They battled back and forth for fifteen years, struggling to control their respective territories. Eventually, in 996, Brian Boru gained control of the Province of Leinster to the east. Máel Sechnaill realized that Brian was a force to be reckoned with. He acknowledged Brian’s authority over the southern provinces of Munster and Leinster, while he retained control over the northern half of Ireland.
But Brian Boru wasn’t looking for a truce. He wanted to be a true king. In 1000, Brian led an army against Máel Sechnaill’s home province of Meath. After two years of fighting, Máel Sechnaill surrendered his title to Brian Boru. After Brian Boru died in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, Máel Sechnaill regained the title of High King.
Fast forward slightly to 1086, when Muirchertach Ua Briain, great-grandson of Brian Boru, became king of Munster after his father’s death. He spent the next several years expanding his authority over the province of Leinster, and eventually declared himself High King in 1101.
That same year, Muirchertach Ua Briain gifted the Rock of Cashel to the Church of Ireland. This was strictly a political move on his part. The McCarthy’s, rivals for the kingship of Munster, were gaining power in the region. The Rock of Cashel would have been both a strategic and symbolic site for a takeover. So he gifted the site to the church to keep it out of enemy hands.
Unfortunately, no buildings remain from that fascinating kingship era. All of the buildings at the Rock of Cashel are post-1100 AD, and are ecclesiastical in nature. Still though. The stone buildings here date from the 10-16th Centuries!
The oldest surviving building at Cashel is the Round Tower (center of the photo below). It was built around 1100 AD, most likely as a watch tower. It’s approximately 28 meters in height and strikes an imposing figure. The Office of Public Works restored it to its former glory in 1874-1875. It’s built from the dry stone method, without the use of mortar.
Cormac’s Chapel, named after Cormac Mac Cárthaigh, the king of South Munster who commissioned it, was consecrated in 1134. The chapel was designed in early Irish Romanesque style, and is one of the best preserved of this style in all of Ireland. The chapel is punctuated by the square tower in the center of the picture below:
If you’re thinking that the name Mac Cárthaigh rings a bell, you would be right. This is the same Mac Cárthaigh (aka McCarthy) Clan who Muirchertach Ua Briain tried to prevent from overtaking the Rock of Cashel!
This is the interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the largest remaining structure at Cashel. It was built between 1235 and 1270 in an aisle-less cruciform style.
During the Irish Confederate Wars (1641 and 1653), the Cashel complex was besieged by Oliver Cromwell’s English Protestant Parliamentarian army. Close to 1,000 soldiers and civilians died, and the buildings were plundered for treasure.
By the time Archbishop Arthur Price arrived at Cashel in 1744, the cathedral was beginning to crumble. He tried to solicit funds to repair the cathedral, but the Irish and British parliaments refused to help. Instead, he requested, and received, permission to remove the roof of the old cathedral, which contained valuable lead. He sold the lead and used the funds to begin building a smaller cathedral, but died before it was completed.
This doorway leads out into the ancient cemetery grounds.
This massive chunk of stone came crashing down after a lightning strike during a storm. I think it’s easy to see why no one’s bothered to try to put it back.
Below is the Cross of St. Patrick, designed in the 12th Century in the Latin style. Originally the cross had two stone supports for the arms, one on either side, but only one remains. The side facing shows Christ on the crucifix, while the opposite side has the figure of a bishop, possibly St. Patrick himself. There are a few connections between St. Patrick and Cashel. In local lore, it was said that Cashel was once part of the Devil’s Bit, a mountain about 20 miles from this location. When St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave, a rock from the mountain landed here in Cashel. It’s also believed that Cashel was where St. Patrick converted King Aenghus to Christianity.
The cross was carved from sandstone, and is therefore very soft and vulnerable to exposure. It was bought indoors in the 1970s to prevent further weathering. A concrete replica stands outside on the original site.