Monday, June 15, 2015

The Rock of Cashel: Marvel from Medieval Ireland

by E. M. Powell

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 visited on a recent research trip, 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

References:
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)

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E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers.
Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

The next novel in the series, The Lord of Ireland, in which Sir Benedict Palmer is sent on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in 2016. Find out more at www.empowell.com.
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2 comments:

  1. This was a wonderful post! I had no idea that the round tower was unique to Ireland. I've always had a thing about Ireland and always enjoy reading more history about that evocative country. Lovely pictures, and such interesting exploration of the history of the rock and the development of the church in Ireland. Thank you for this informative post.

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    Replies
    1. Many thanks, Elizabeth. I really enjoyed being able to share some of this magnificent site. As research trips go, it wasn't hard work!

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