The setting for centuries of bitter feuds between Irish royal houses, the Rock of Cashel rears up from the fertile plain of the Golden Vale and dominates the landscape for miles around.
Follow in the footsteps of kings and queens, saints and soldiers, as you ascend the hill from the picturesque market town of Cashel towards this spectacular group of medieval buildings that appear to grow out of the grassy outcrop of limestone on which they sit.
Once there, you will discover the castle, cathedral, chapel, and round tower – buildings and artefacts dating back 1,500 years which embody the impregnability of the Rock.
St Patrick banished Satan
According to local myth, it was originally part of the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 30km to the north. But when St Patrick banished Satan from a cave on the mountain, the conflict resulted in the Rock flying through the air and landing in Cashel.
Indeed, the Rock is often called St Patrick’s Rock and the saint reputedly converted King Aenghus to Christianity here in the 5th Century. Cashel has always been a symbol of royal and religious power.
For the next 500 years, it was the seat of the Eóganacht dynasty of Kings of Munster, gentle and sophisticated rulers, who mostly used political and economic skills, rather than military might, to achieve their status. In time though, family feuds weakened them.
Mathgamain Boruma (Boru) took over but his rule was short-lived. He was murdered by a rival and soon after his brother, Brian Boru, future High King of Ireland, assumed overlordship of Cashel by force of arms.
Some two centuries later, the Rock of Cashel was given to the Bishop of Limerick, and in 1134 the church known as Cormac’s Chapel, named after Cormac III, King of Munster, was consecrated. A highlight of the Chapel are its frescoes, which are the oldest Romanesque wall paintings in Ireland. They were covered with whitewash during the Reformation in the 16th Century and forgotten about until they were rediscovered in the 1980s.
It was also around the time of the Reformation that the Rock came under the control of arguably the most colourful of the clergymen who have called Cashel home: the controversial Archbishop of Cashel, Miler Magrath.
At a time of polarised religious sentiment, Magrath he managed to simultaneously be a Catholic and a Protestant bishop who managed to alienate both sects; a Franciscan friar with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience who was also a married man with nine children and was accused of corruption and double-dealing; and a church leader who informed on and denounced his peers and other public figures.
Somehow he still managed to live to the ripe old age of 100. On his his tomb in St Patrick’s Cathedral is his epitaph, written by Macgrath himself and which perhaps alludes to him having a foot in both religious camps. It includes the lines: “Here where I am placed I am not. I am not where I am not. Nor am I in both places, but I am in each.”
Some believe that the character of Magrath in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake owes something to the reputation of Miler Magrath.
There were dark times for the clergy came on the Rock, none more so than in 1647 when, during the Irish Confederate Wars, Cashel was sacked by English Parliamentarian troops under Murrough O’Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin. More than 1,000
Irish Confederate troops and civilians, including several prominent clerics, were massacred, however the site continued to be used by the Church.
Experience incredible stories
Today the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions. Visitors enter via the restored 15th-century Hall of the Vicars Choral, named for the eight laymen (sometimes minor canons) who were appointed to assist in chanting the cathedral services.
Their number was later reduced to five, who appointed ‘singing-men’ as their deputies, a practice which continued into the 19th Century, long after the roof had been removed from the cathedral by Arthur Price, the Anglican Archbishop of Cashel. His decision was widely condemned, as the cathedral was seen as a jewel amongst Irish church buildings.
Exploring solo or listening to the lively narrations of a guide, your experience of the Rock of Cashel will encompass the 12th-century St Patrick’s Cross, Round Tower and outstanding Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel, the 13th-century Gothic cathedral, and 15th-century castle.
Throughout your Rock of Cashel experience, you are accompanied by audio-visual shows and exhibitions which bring centuries of the Rock’s incredible stories to life.