Majestically perched 200 feet high on an outcropping of limestone overlooking miles of fertile lowland plains known as the Golden Vale, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most impressive landmarks, having been a seat of kings, a home to bishops, and according to ancient manuscripts, a Sidhe Dhruim (fairy ridge). As with many Irish antiquities, the historical backdrop is a wonderful blend of fact and fiction in an atmosphere that seems to feed this dichotomy. We can believe, for example, that St. Patrick might well have baptized the King of Munster here in the 5th century and, in doing so, inadvertently stabbed the king’s foot with his staff—and the king, thinking this was some bizarre ritual in Christian conversion, didn’t utter a sound until the ceremony ended. We can also believe that in 978 the legendary Brian Boru was crowned the High King of Ireland at this site, uniting the four provinces* of Ireland for the first (and last) time in history. However, when it is said that the Rock of Cashel was created by the devil taking a bite out of nearby Devils Bit Mountain and then spitting it out in Cashel because he broke his tooth, well… belief isn’t really the point.
As for the facts, the Rock of Cashel was indeed the principal stronghold of the Kings of Munster* from the 4th -12th centuries, and in 1101 was given to the church. The round tower, the oldest of the existing structures, was built ten years later, followed by Cormac’s Chapel, consecrated in 1134.
The chapel is said to be the earliest in Ireland that was built in the Romanesque style (characterized by round arches), housing Ireland’s earliest frescos that had been whitewashed during the reformation and uncovered in the 1980’s. The chapel also houses a splendidly carved stone sarcophagus believed to be the resting place of a 12th century king.
The cathedral and Hall of Victors Choral were built in the later Gothic style (characterized by pointed arches) in the 13th and 15th centuries respectively. Interestingly, inside the cathedral are tiny windows set high on the wall, through which lepers, separated from the congregation, could hear mass.
Today, the visitor center/museum in the Hall of Vicars displays an original medieval tapestry of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—as well as stone carvings excavated from the site, including an elephant carrying a castle (signifying strength) and crested griffins (eagle/lion signifying the dual nature of Christ, God/man).
This awe-inspiring gem in the heart of County Tipperary is a 2-hour car ride from Dublin and definitely ranks in this blogger’s top five Irish sites. After the tour, sit on the grass amid the high Celtic crosses, garnering the same views kings enjoyed over centuries.
* The four provinces of Ireland were once separate kingdoms: Ulster (north), Connaught (west), Leinster (east) and Munster (south). Today, they are seen mostly in a sporting context, with Ireland’s four professional rugby teams named for each province.