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A Visit to Ireland: Part 2) the Rock of Cashel

Rock-of-Cashel-2013-002 Residential Tower and Naive

There are few places in Ireland with a richer history than the Rock of Cashel.   Situated at the edge of the town of Cashel, the rock is a huge outcropping on top of which rests a complex of old buildings situated some 60m (200ft) above the rich green farmland of County Tipperary.

A brief history of the Rock of Cashel:

It was from this rocky prominence that the Irish Kings of Munster ruled for more than 700 years (370 to 1101 A.D.).  St. Patrick visited the Rock of Cashel and baptized King Aengus around 450 A.D.  Legend has it the saint accidentally impaled the King’s foot with the base of his crosier staff.  The king, in great pain, thought this was all part of the ritual of becoming a Christian and didn’t complain.  In 1101 A.D. the Rock was handed to the Church and over the centuries it evolved as a place of ministry and worship.  Those buildings you see on it today reflect the Christian period of its history.  There’s really nothing remaining of the ringed rock fortress of the Kings of Munster.

What you can see when you visit the Rock of Cashel:

1)  Hall of Vicars Choral.  After a short but steep climb uphill, you’ll enter the complex through the Hall of Vicars and pay a modest admission (well worth the cost of a few Euros). This is the newest building on the Rock, dating to the early 15th century.  It derived its name because it was the residence to those clergy who sang in the choir.

Your admission will include a free tour, very recommended that you try to work this into your schedule.  The guides are typically Irish — witty, well informed and very personable.  Besides the usual material, they’ll point out a few hidden charms to the Rock of Cashel that you might not see on your own (even with the aid of a good guidebook).

From the ticket/gift shop area, you can descend to a small museum and see the original 12th century high cross of St. Patrick, very eroded but also very historic.   An exact copy sits outside on the Rock’s grounds.  A separate entrance takes you to the Vicars kitchen and their small chapel.

Chancel Arch, Cormac`s Chapel, Rock of Cashel

Chancel Arch, Cormac`s Chapel, Rock of Cashel

2) Cormac’s Chapel.  Ireland’s first Romanesque church and said to be its finest from this period, named for the king who consecrated it in 1134 A.D (King Cormac MacCarthy).

A multiyear restoration project of this church is underway with extensive unsightly exterior scaffolding outside providing an outer roof to allow the true roof of the chapel to dry out.  Centuries of moisture have adversely affected the roof and the artwork of the Chapel, so the need for preservation is clear.  But as a result, there’s not much to see from the outside.

But your visit inside is fascinating.  It’s a small, poorly lit interior but with an intimate ancient feel.  The most interesting part of the chapel is the chancel arch where you can see oddly shaped (pagan-like) heads decorating the ceiling.  There are remnants of the original frescoes still seen, remarkable that anything made of plaster survived so long in this wet climate.  More remarkable when you consider that the original frescoes had been whitewashed and that this whitewash had to be very carefully removed to reveal the bright colors of the original fresco work.   An empty sarcophagus rests at one end of the chapel which is etched with Viking influenced design, but who was laid to rest here is not known.

Round Tower, Cathedral and Celtic cemetery

Round Tower, Cathedral and Celtic cemetery

3) Cathedral and Bishop’s residence.  Gothic in design and very much in ruins.  The large cathedral was built in the 13th century and it’s tallest tower was converted to the bishop’s residence in the 1400s.

4)  Round Tower.  Representing early christian architecture, this was first structure built after the Church assumed ownership of the Rock.  It’s like other round towers you’ll find at monasteries around Ireland; it’s said these round towers are only to be found in Ireland (I’ve certainly never seen them anywhere else).  These towers provided lookouts, belltowers, and places of refuge in case or a raid.

Celtic High cross, cemetery at Cashel

Celtic High cross, cemetery at Cashel

5) Celtic Cemetery: The only part of the Rock that’s still actively used and in many ways its most evocative.  There are still a few people living who will be buried here, but when they’re gone the cemetery will be closed to further burials.  The scene is a beautiful one, with lichen encrusted Celtic crosses framed against the sky and green fields of County Tipperary.

6) St. Patrick’s High Cross.  Not much to see here anymore as this one’s a copy.  The original cross was erected to celebrate the 650th anniversary of the St. Patrick’s arrival here.  The duplicate does look like the weather worn original which is on display in the Hall of Vicars Choral.

There are about a quarter of a million people who visit the Rock each year.  Ireland was proud to have had Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Phillip visit the Rock of Cashel in 2011.  You’ll see photos and memorabilia of this visit in the Vickar’s Choral Museum.

It takes a minimum of two hours to visit the Rock, especially if you do a tour, and a full half day if you want to linger and look around at everything in detail.  At the base of the Rock is the Bru Boru Cultural Center, where you can learn more about the Rock’s history and it’s transition from a Rock Fort to a religious center.  And lying just beyond is a charming town that would make for a great overnight destination.

Remember to pack a jacket or windbreaker.  The breezes get pretty strong up on the Rock.  But it’s a very worthwhile destination.  Reading the following pamphlet will help you prepare yourself for your visit.

(Click on thumbnails to enlarge, right arrow to advance slideshow)

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