The Rock of Cashel rises high above the Plain of Tipperary and was the ancient seat of the kings of Munster (300 to 1100 CE). This is where St. Patrick baptized King Aengus about 450 CE. It is said that St. Patrick, being somewhat preoccupied with the ceremony, accidentally speared the foot of King Aengus with his crosier staff while administering the baptismal sacrament. The king, however, thought that this was simply a part of the painful process of becoming a Christian and said nothing.
For hundreds of years the local clans fought for control of this strategic locale. In 1101, Murtagh O’Brien gave the Rock to the Catholic Church. This political move not only increased his influence with the church, but more importantly it prevented the powerful McCarthy clan, his primary rival, from regaining possession of the Rock.
Under Catholic control, this ancient site evolved into an ecclesiastical center as stone chapels and a cathedral replaced the early iron-age stone fort. Today, the architecture demonstrates three Christian architectural styles: early Christian (as seen in the round tower and St. Patrick’s high cross), Romanesque (as seen in Cormac’s Chapel), and Gothic (the main Cathedral). (Note: photos of the Cathedral are in a separate diary)
Hall of the Vicars Choral:
This is the newest building at the Rock of Cashel and was constructed in the early 1400s. It was home to the minor clerics appointed to sing during the cathedral services. The photographs below show the interior of this hall, including some of the original furniture. The walls were whitewashed with a lime-based substance which reflected more light and also acted as a natural disinfectant. The window seats gave the vicars good light for reading.
Shown above is the ancient garbage disposal—slop, waste water, and other waste was simple tossed into the shut and flowed outside.
St. Patrick’s Cross:
In the 12th century, a large cross was carved to celebrate the handing over of the Rock to the Catholic Church. Typically, Irish high crosses use a ring around the cross’ head to support the arms and to symbolize the sun. Using this symbol helped make Christianity more palatable for the sun-worshiping non-Christians in Ireland. However, the St. Patrick’s Cross at the Rock of Cashel uses the Latin design: the weight of the arms is supported by two vertical beams on each side of the main shaft. These two beams symbolize the two criminals who were crucified beside Christ.
Shown above is a typical Irish high cross in the foreground and a replica of the St. Patrick’s cross. A replica is currently displayed here because the centuries of wind and rain have eroded the detail in the original cross.
Shown above is the actual St. Patrick’s cross which is now displayed inside.
Cormac’s Chapel, consecrated in 1134 by King Cormac MacCarthy, was Ireland’s first Romanesque Church. The Romanesque style is reflected in the floor plan and in its use of columns and rounded arches which give an impression of massiveness and strength. Romanesque churches are like dark fortresses with thick walls, few windows, and minimal decoration. The sandstone for the church was quarried some 12 miles away and it is said that the sandstone blocks were passed from hand-to-hand from the quarry site to the building site.
Just inside the chapel today is an empty stone sarcophagus. While no one today really knows whose body was originally placed in the sarcophagus, there are many who feel that it once held the body of the brother of King Cormac MacCarthy. The damaged front relief is carved in the Scandinavian Urnes styles.
The chapel has a round vaulted ceiling with support ribs. The chancel arch is studded with fist-sized heads. The lower heads are more grotesque, while those nearing the top are more serene as they are closer to God. The arch is off-center, symbolizing Christ’s head drooping to the side as he died on the cross. Cormac’s Chapel was among the first Irish buildings to be embellished with sculpture and it marks the beginning of the Hiberno-Romanesque architecture.
There are faint frescos on the ceiling. During the reformation, the frescos were whitewashed as such ornamentation was considered vain by the Protestants.
A major conservation project is now underway at Cormac’s Chapel. A temporary roof and access scaffold has been erected over the chapel to facilitate the conservation works. The sandstone fabric of the chapel and the conserved wall painting fragments are deteriorating as a result of water penetrating the building envelope and the unstable internal microclimate. The conservation measures are intended to achieve a stable microclimate for long-term conservation.
Round towers made from stone are unique to Ireland and were often an important structure in the monastic communities. The round towers are a dramatic architectural innovation of the early middle ages. The towers are surmounted by conical stone caps. The top chamber usually has four windows. The doorways were usually raised well off the ground, accessible only by an external staircase or ladder. They are a pronounced batter, that is, the diameter decreases as the structure rises.
A round tower is a good place to hide valuables and to hide in case of an emergency. While many writers feel that they were often used as lookout points to warn the monks of impending attacks by Viking raiders, their primary use was that of a bell tower. Punctuality was crucial in the monasteries and to maintain discipline the bell had to be audible. Those who arrived late at the daily offices were liable to be punished. As the monastic centers became larger, hearing the bell became a problem. A tower extended the range of the bell and also served as a symbol of the importance of regular observance. It is generally assumed that the aistreoir, the official in charge of timekeeping, climbed to the top of the tower and then rang a handbell out of each of the four windows.
The tower on the Rock of Cashel is 92 feet tall and has walls that are over 3 feet thick. It was built in the 12th century. The interior of the tower once contained wooden floors connected by ladders.
Construction of this round tower must have been an adventurous undertaking on the part of the Irish masons. Constructing the gentle taper required a great deal of skill. In addition, the stones were discretely shaped to match the curve of the circumference. And then there were the problems associated with its height. The stones had to be lifted into place with a reliable system of cranes, jibs, and pulleys. This meant that there also had to be some sort of external, temporary scaffold.
The graveyard on the Rock of Cashel is still active, but only those put on a waiting list by their ancestors in 1930 can be currently buried there. When these people have died and been buried there, the graveyard will be considered full.
In the fields below the Rock of Cashel are the ruins of the 13th century Hore Abbey. This was once the home to Cistercian monks who wore simple gray robes.
Here are some photographs of the countryside taken from the Rock.