Rock of Cashel: From 2,000-Year-Old Royal Stronghold to Symbol of Christian Power
Steeped in mythology and immersed in over two millennia of history, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites. Prior to the arrival of the Normans, the Rock of Cashel was the traditional seat of the kings of Munster, a large and powerful kingdom of Gaelic Ireland which ruled for over 1,000 years from at least the 1st century BC.
The Devil’s Bit
The word ‘cashel’ is said to be the anglicised version of ‘caiseal’, an Irish word meaning ‘castle’ or ‘fortress’, having its roots in the Latin ‘castellum’. The site, which is situated in County Tipperary, in the southern Irish province of Munster, is also known as the Cashel of the Kings or St. Patrick’s Rock. There is an interesting legend which describes how the Rock of Cashel came into being. According to this tale, St. Patrick had found the Devil in Ireland, and was chasing him. Desperate to escape from the clutches of the saint, the Devil took a bite out of a mountain so that he could escape into the earth through the gap. This place became known as the Devil’s Bit. Having escaped from St. Patrick, the Devil spat the rock out of his mouth. This landed in Tipperary, and became the Rock of Cashel.
The Rock of Cashel is so named as it is built upon a large pile of rocks, which legends say were spewed out by the Devil. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
St Patrick Converts a Kingdom
St. Patrick is also associated with the Rock of Cashel in another story. During the 4 th century, the Eóghanachta clan from Wales chose the Rock of Cashel as their base. The clan came to rule over the Kingdom of Munster, and it was St. Patrick who baptised one of their kings, King Aengus, thus converting the kingdom to Christianity. According to one story, the saint had accidentally placed his sharp-pointed crosier on the king’s foot, causing it to bleed. The king, however, thought that that was part of the ceremony as well.
Medieval ruins of Christian buildings sit atop the Rock of Cashel. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Irish King Takes Control
The Rock of Cashel remained in the hands of the Eóghanachta clan until the 10 th century, when it was lost to the O’Brien clan, who, at that time, was led by Brian Ború, an Irish hero king who ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland.
Possession of the rock changed once more in 1101, when Muircheartach O'Brien handed it over to the Church. This had been done in order to gain favour with the religious authorities of the land, who wielded great power, as well as to ease tensions between themselves and the Eóghanachta clan, as the latter were still attempting to regain ownership of the Rock of Cashel.
Inside the old cathedral on the Rock of Cashel. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Rock of Cashel is Handed to the Church
Over the centuries, various structures were built on the Rock of Cashel, some of which are still standing today. The oldest of these is a round tower, which was constructed shortly after the rock was donated to the Church. This tower is all that remains of the 12 th century cathedral.
The round tower is all that exists from the original 12 th century cathedral. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Another building from this period is Cormac’s Chapel, which was built in the Romanesque style. Amongst other things, this chapel is notable for its frescoes, the oldest and most important in Ireland, as well as a sarcophagus containing the remains either of Cormac himself, or of his brother’s. Many of the frescoes were damaged by the sandstone becoming waterlogged. To preserve the frescoes, a massive conservation effort was undertaken in which the entire chapel was covered and sealed and dehumidifiers were used to extract the moisture from inside the stones.
Inside the chapel on the Rock of Cashel (CC by SA 3.0)
Gothic Cathedral Remains as Lasting Legacy
Another cathedral was built during the 13 th century, and it is this Gothic structure that still stands on the site. The cathedral was spared from destruction when Cromwell led the English campaign against Ireland during the middle of the 17 th century, was continued to be in use for another century.
Lastly, there is the Hall of the Vicars Choral, which was constructed during the 15 th century. It was here that laymen were once appointed to assist with the chanting of cathedral services. It is said that their voices could be heard from great distances. In 1975, in conjunction with the European Architectural Heritage Year, the hall was restored, and today houses a small museum displaying the artifacts excavated on the Rock of Cashel.
Inside the Vicar’s chapel. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Slaughter on the Rock
In its 2,000-year history, the Rock of Cashel saw its fair share of bloody battles and invasions. But by far the most notorious atrocity that occurred on site was the Sack of Cashel in 1647. It occurred as part of the Irish Confederate Wars, an 11-year conflict which started between the native Irish Catholics and English and Scottish Protestant colonists, and ended with Royalists, Irish Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians fighting the ultimate winners, the English Parliament.
The town of Cashel was held by the Irish Catholic confederates. But in 1647, an English Protestant army arrived. Many of the local inhabitants fled the region, while hundreds retreated to the Rock of Cashel, still a powerful stronghold. The defenders of the churchyard offered to negotiate but that was refused and on 15 September, a full assault commenced. The attack was led by around 150 English officers, who fought their way over the walls and swarmed the building through the windows. Fighting raged inside the church for over half an hour, with most soldiers and citizens slaughtered. When only sixty Irish soldiers remained, they accepted a call to surrender and threw down their swords. Nevertheless, they were slaughtered as they descended the tower.
Over 1,000 were killed that day on the Rock of Cashel.
Standing on top of the spectacular Rock of Cashel today and looking out over the surrounding landscape, it is hard to imagine it was once the site of such a bloody event in history.
Top image: The church on top of Rock of Cashel, Ireland. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
By: Wu Mingren
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