Location – In Cashel town, on Moor Lane, just off the main Dublin Road. Easily accessible from the M8.
OS: S 07480 40940
Description and History – Volumes could be written about the Rock of Cashel. It has a history stretching back over 1500 years, and its importance to the history of Ireland throughout that period is significant. Therefore, to do it justice in a blog post is a difficult task. The history of the site will be dealt with here, and the architecture of each individual site will be dealt with separately, by clicking below.
The early history of Cashel is intertwined with myth to such an extent that to separate them is nearly impossible. Traditionally the site became occupied in the late 4th or early 5th century when Conall Corc founded the Munster kingship at Cashel. He was a descendant of Eogan Mor, the son of Ailill Olum. The descendants of Eogan Mor were known as the Eoganacht and they were the traditional kings of Cashel and Munster until the 10th century. They were also among the first lines of kings to become Christianised when Christianity took root in Munster in the 5th century. Here again we stray in the realm of folklore and myth. Several sources recount a story of St. Patrick visiting the Rock of Cashel to baptise King Oengus. During the ceremony St. Patrick drove the spike of his crozier into the ground and accidentally drove it through the king’s foot. St. Patrick didn’t notice, and the king suffered in silence believing it be part of the ceremony. The story differs depending on the source, and all are written several centuries after the life of Patrick and Oengus. However, as with most folklore there is a kernel of truth and the Eoganacht did become Christianised early on and many of the kings of Munster were also clerics. The Eoganacht grew in power throughout the 5th to 10th centuries and were second only to the Ui Neill kingship of Tara. The power of the Eoganacht began to wane in the early 10th century following King Cormac mac Cuilennain’s defeat at the hands of the King of Tara during the Battle of Ballaghmoon in Kildare in 908AD. This, coupled with increasing Viking influence in the Munster, chipped away at the power of the Eoganacht until they were ousted by the Dal Cais, who originated in Clare around Killaloe. One of the early Dal Cais Kings of Munster was Brian Boru who was crowned king at the Rock in 978. He is, of course, well known for becoming the High King of Ireland who would go on to defeat the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 – a battle in which he would himself die. However, it is his great-grandson who is much more important to the history of the Rock of Cashel.
Muircheartach Ua Briain did not inherit the power of his great-grandfather but, nevertheless, rose to power and became the King of Munster and he possibly had some form of residence at the Rock of Cashel in 1091, although there is no archaeological evidence to support this. In 1101 a Synod was convened at Cashel and Muircheartach handed the site over the church as “a gift to religion that no king had ever given before him.” It is at this point that the Rock of Cashel as we know it begins to take shape. There may have been religious buildings at the Rock of Cashel prior to this point, and part of a base of a high cross dating to the 9th century has been found there.
Muircheartach’s ‘gift’, however, was less about religious piety and more about political maneuvering. The 12th century was a time of great political, societal, and religious change. The church was changing, reforming, and becoming more powerful. Such a gift to the church ensured Muircheartach’s future involvement in such reforms, and helped to secure his political power. This is evident in the fact that in the same year as this ‘gift’ Muircheartach attempted, unsuccessfully, to subdue Ulster and his armies burned and looted churches along the way, putting monks to death. The round tower is generally to held to have been built around 1101 or shortly after (fuller descriptions of each building can be found by clicking the links at the bottom of this article).
After Muircheartach’s death in 1119 Munster experienced another political shift. O’Brien power began to wain and the Eoganacht made a surprising return to power at Cashel under the leadership of the McCarthy family. The McCarthys were able to reclaim their ancestral home at Cashel and in 1127 Cormac McCarthy commissioned Cormac’s Chapel which was consecrated in 1134. The McCarthys return to power was relatively short lived, however, and the O’Briens soon found themselves back in power. The arrival of the Normans would signal a significant shift in Irish politics, and Cashel was not immune to this.
While the Norman’s arrived in Ireland in 1169, Henry II did not set foot on Ireland until October 1171. Shortly after his arrival in Waterford Henry met Domhnall Mor O’Brien, King of Thomond, in the vicinity of Golden, near Cashel. Here Domhnall recognised the authority Henry in Ireland. Henry then travelled to Cashel where he called a synod on the 6th November. In attendance at this synod were the archbishops of Cashel, Dublin, and Tuam, along with many other bishops. With the backing of the Pope, Alexander III, matters concerning marriage, church law, the independence of the church, church rites, and the payment of tithes were all discussed and reformed. All of this was set against the backdrop of the shifting political situation in Ireland at the time and inevitably tied to it. The synod was as much political in nature as it was religious.
In the 13th century construction began on St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which probably replaced an early 12th century Cathedral. It is not entirely clear who is responsible for the initial construction of the Cathedral, but most agree that it was likely Marianus O’Brien, who served as Archbishop of Cashel from 1223-1237. It likely replaced an earlier Cathedral constructed around 1169 by Domhnall Mor O’Brien, the King of Thomond. Construction probably began in the early 1230s. The building was not, however, finished until the 1280s during the time of David McCarvill who served as archbishop between 1254 and 1289. The reason for this long construction period is unclear, but was likely due to financial issues. Although Cashel was under Norman control during this period, Archbishops still came from Irish families.
The archbishopric of Richard O’Hedian (1406-1440) saw the last major building work carried out on the Rock. He greatly altered St. Patrick’s Cathedral by adding the dominating bell tower, and by attaching a residential tower to the western end of the Cathedral. Also, he is responsible for the construction of the Hall of the Vicar’s Choral which housed the 8-man choir that would have sung in the Cathedral.
In 1490 the Cathedral was reportedly attacked by Gearoid Mor Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, who was having a feud at the time with the Archbishop. The Cathedral was burned and Gearoid Mor was summoned by Henry VII to explain his actions. Fitzgerald said to the king that he would not have burned the building had he known the archbishop was not within. His honesty impressed Henry and he appointed Fitzgerald as Lord Deputy of Ireland saying, “All Ireland cannot govern this Earl, then let this Earl govern all Ireland.” If the Cathedral was indeed burned, no traces can be seen today. Some have speculated that the entire account is a fabrication of 16th century historian Sandyhurst.
In 1529 King Henry VIII split with the Church of Rome and the Reformation was in full swing in Europe. This was to have huge ramifications in Ireland, but Cashel continued to have Catholic archbishops until 1561. Then the Cathedral became Anglican with an Anglican archbishop, although Rome continued to appoint their own rival archbishops.
A notable Anglican archbishop from this period is Miler McGrath who was archbishop of Cashel from 1571 until his death at age 100 in 1622. He encapsulated this period of religious uncertainty. He had been a Franciscan Friar before becoming the Catholic Bishop of Down in 1565. He accepted royal supremacy in 1567 and became a protestant. From his poor beginnings as a friar he ended up having nearly 7 church incomes. He married twice in his life and had many illegitimate children, earning the epithet the ‘scoundrel of Cashel.’ It is said that on his deathbed, he reconciled to Rome. His tomb can be seen today in the choir of the Cathedral.
The Cathedral was attacked again in 1647 during the Irish Confederate Wars, and this was to prove a bloody affair. The rebellion had begun in 1641 and Cashel fell into Catholic hands and several English settlers in the town were killed, others were gathered together, stripped naked and forced to walk through the streets. In September 1647 English Parliamentarian forces reached Cashel after taking Cahir. An army of about 3000 soldiers under the leadership of Baron Inchiquin approached the town.
Inchiquin had a fearsome reputation and was known as Inchiquin of the Burnings as he would burn the lands and the properties of people who did not submit to his army, convert and become Anglicans. As his forces approached Cashel people fled to the Rock for refuge. It is estimated that around 1000 people took refuge in the Cathedral – a mixture of confederate troops, townspeople, and clergy. This, however, did not stop Inchiquin. On the 13th September he attacked the Rock and his troops quickly breached the outside walls and laid siege to the Cathedral with the 1000 people trapped inside. Inchiquin’s troops gained access through the southern transept’s windows and proceeded to massacre the 1000 people trapped inside not discriminating between soldiers, civilians, and clergy.
Only a handful of people escaped this massacre and it is from them that we get eyewitness accounts of what happened that day. The Parliamentarian troops then plundered the Cathedral. The troops destroyed as much as they could, including scraping the paintings from the walls with their swords. It is rumoured the Inchiquin took the Archbishop’s mitre and put it on, parading up and down and Cathedral mockingly declaring himself to be new Archbishop of Cashel. Fr. Andrew Sall wrote: “The large crucifix that towered above the entrance to the choir had its head, hands and feet cut off, the organ was broken, and the bells, whose chimes cheered our soldiers as they fought, were deprived of their clappers and their beautiful tone…All the passages, even the altars, chapels, sacristies, bell-tower steps, and seats were so thickly covered with corpses, that one could not walk a step without treading on a dead body.”
Baron Inchiquin’s name was Murrough O’Brien and he was a direct descendant of Brian Boru who had been crowned as the King of Munster at the Rock of Cashel in 978AD. Within a year Inchiquin had quit the Parliamentarian cause in favour of the Royalists. When the Royalists were eventually defeated he fled to France and converted to Catholicism, the faith of his ancestors. Following the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II, Inchiquin returned to Ireland and was made an Earl. He lived out the rest of his days peacefully in Ireland and died in 1674 and was interred in the O’Brien tomb in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick – but he will forever be associated with the massacre at the Rock of Cashel.
Repair works on the buildings were carried out later in the 17th century, and again in 1730, but the site was ultimately abandoned in the late 1740s by Archbishop Arthur Price. The buildings slowly fell into ruin, and Archdeacon Cotton wrote of the accumulated debris in the Cathedral, and the partial collapse of the residential tower and east gable of the choir in 1848. In 1869, the Cathedral, along with the other four buildings at the Rock of Cashel, was taken into state care and became Ireland’s first national monument, with initial work being carried out in 1875. It is now under the care of the Office of Public Works.
The graveyard that surround the main buildings is still in use, although a register was created in the 1930s of living Cashel residents who could still be buried at the Rock, and the list of people who hold the right to be buried there is inevitably dwindling. Within the graveyard is the impressive Scully monument, constructed in the late 19th century. It was originally a full high cross design but was shattered by lightening in 1976.
The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most recognisable collection of medieval buildings, and is a must for anyone to visit if they have an interest in Irish history.
Click below to read more about the architecture of each building and see more pictures:
Difficulty – There is ample car parking at the bottom of the hill, for a fee, and the walk up can be difficult. Once on site it is fairly easy to move around.
For more sites in Co. Tipperary, click here.
For more ecclesiastical sites, click here.