Tuesday, July 14

The Rock of Cashel: Marvel from Medieval Ireland

There are historical sites that are interesting. There are historical sites that are spectacular. And then there are historical sites that are an icon of the country in which they are located. It is in to the latter category that the Rock of Cashel in Co. Tipperary in the Republic of Ireland falls.

The Rock of Cashel
I've gone back to the land of my birth for my latest medieval thriller, The Lord of Ireland. I visited on a research trip in April 2015 (a hard job, but someone's got to do it!) which is when the photos in this post were taken. You might be surprised to see scaffolding on here. No, it isn't a medieval building project that has seriously overrun- I shall explain later.

The Rock of Cashel is also known as Saint Patrick's Rock.  The rock itself is an impressive prominent hill of karst limestone. This being Ireland, there is of course a far more imaginative description of what the rock is. Legend has it that the Devil took a bite out of the mountain opposite, and then dropped the rock from his jaws onto the plain. That's a lot more exciting then geology, but perhaps not quite as reliable.

Devil's Bit
Given the commanding position of the Rock, it is hardly surprising that the over-kings of Munster adopted it as their seat of power for hundreds of years. It is here that Saint Patrick is alleged to have converted the King of Munster, Aenghus, to Christianity in the 5th century AD. There is of course no proof of this. We do have a law tract from around 700 A.D. which refers to the King of Cashel controlling other Munster kings.

It was a king of Munster, Muirchertach Ua Briain, who gifted the Rock to the church in 1101. No buildings survive from the reign of the kings. The magnificent buildings that still stand are ecclesiastical and were constructed in the medieval period.

The Round Tower
The Round Tower is an architectural design that is unique to Ireland. The tower on the Rock is its oldest building. Originally a bell tower, it dates from around 1100.

Exterior of Cormac's Chapel
Next oldest is Cormac’s Chapel, built by a King of Desmond (part of Munster) and consecrated in 1134. It is the first example of Romanesque architecture in Ireland. It is Cormac's Chapel that is currently shrouded in scaffolding. Its stone roof has had to endure almost 900 years of Irish rain (and that's a lot of rain), and an urgent conservation project is under way. Basically, it's being dried out and I was told that's likely to be a seven year job in total.

Interior of Cormac's Chapel
Fortunately, you can still enter the Chapel with a guide. It is stunningly beautiful. Carved stone faces look down from the ceilings and the remains of brightly-painted frescoes which would have made the interior glow with colour can still be seen.

Ceiling of Cormac's Chapel
The twelfth century saw radical reform of the church in Ireland and the Synods (ecclesiastical councils) were held at Cashel. The first Synod in 1101 attempted to address marriage practices of the native Irish, which were deemed to be immoral. The second Synod of Cashel was held in 1171/72, under the auspices of Henry II and with the full backing of the Pope.

Carved Stone Sarcophagus
Henry had already added Ireland to his dominions. In 1171, he came in person (the first king of England to ever come to Ireland) and he stayed at Cashel for part of his visit. The Synod passed legislation to do with marriage, the payment of tithes, freed the church from lay control and introduced clerical privilege. In short, the Irish church was to operate in exactly the same way as the Church in England. The Irish Church, in existence for 700 years since the time of Saint Patrick, was ended on the very rock that bears his name.

The cathedral was built in the thirteenth century and added to over the centuries. Some sources claim that a cathedral was built here in 1169, and then replaced.

Exterior of Cathedral's South Transept
The Hall of the Vicars Choral was added by an archbishop in the fifteenth century. The Vicars Choral were a group of men appointed to sing during cathedral services and consisted of a mix of clergy and laity. Their quarters have been impressively restored.

The Hall of the Vicars Choral- Interior
The Rock of Cashel is of course deservedly one of the most visited sites on the Republic of Ireland, attracting around a quarter of a million visitors a year. One of those visitor's signatures is on display.

Elizabeth R
Yes, it's the signature of Queen Elizabeth II. Her State Visit to Ireland was the first made by a British monarch since the founding of the State in 1922. Her visit was a hugely important step in further reconciling the troubled history between the two countries. How apt that her visit included Cashel, the ancient seat of the Irish kings.

Celtic Cross at Cashel

All photos are copyright E.M. Powell 2015.
Duffy, Seán, Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave/Macmillan (1997)
Flanagan, Marie Therese, The Transformation of the Irish Church in the Twelfth Century, Boydell Press (2010)
Manning, Conleth, Rock of Cashel, OPW- The Office of Public Works/Oifig na nOibreacha
Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí, Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200, Longman (1995)
O'Keefe, Tadhg, Medieval Ireland: An Archaeology, Tempus Publishing Ltd. (2000)
Note: I originally posted a version of this article on English Historical Fiction Authors on June 15th 2015.

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