Viewed from afar, the Rock of Cashel is a captivating sight, a freak and solitary lump of limestone, reflecting the light in diverse ways throughout the day and topped by a collection of walls, towers, turrets and crenellations of Gormenghast proportions. It might seem heretical to suggest so, but this vista is actually the best thing about the Rock, since, despite its staggering location and much-trumpeted billing, when you get there the site is actually far less atmospheric than other notable ecclesiastical complexes, not least Kells Priory and Quin Abbey. Nonetheless, despite the swarms of coach-tour-borne tourists, there’s plenty to see and much to marvel at.
The Hall of the Vicars Choral
Once inside, the Rock’s first sight is the fifteenth-century Hall of the Vicars Choral, which used to house the choir charged with singing at the cathedral’s services. Its upper floor features a minstrels’ gallery as well as a fine, eighteenth-century Flemish tapestry showing Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba, while the lower houses the original, twelfth-century St Patrick’s Cross (the one outside – on the cross’s original spot – is a replica). Badly worn, it bears a carving of Christ on one side and the saint on the other, and is unusual in not having a ring around the cross head. Next door is the Dormitory of the Vicars Choral where a twenty-minute video, Strongholds of the Faith, is shown throughout the day.
Directly opposite is Cormac’s Chapel, perhaps the most atmospheric of Ireland’s Romanesque churches (though its external appearance will be marred by scaffolding until at least 2013). Its appealing south facade of brown sandstone, decorated with the typical blind arcades of the period, stands in warm contrast to the grey limestone used elsewhere on the Rock and in most Irish churches. In the chancel you’ll find some very rare surviving examples of medieval Irish paintwork. The most complete fragment, on the south wall, shows part of the baptism of Christ, while the ceiling features scenes relating to the Magi – though you wouldn’t know it unless you were told. The elaborate chancel arch beyond, which is strangely off-centre to the nave, features vivid sculpted heads of people and animals. Although the adjacent cathedral obstructs the chapel’s north door, formerly its main entrance, it’s still possible to go out and have a look at a lively carving of a robust lion being hunted by a centaur, equipped with a bow and arrow and a Norman-type helmet.
Constructed on the site of the earlier establishment between 1230 and 1270, the huge Gothic cathedral is typically Anglo-Norman in form, with pointed arches and loftily set lancet windows. It also features some smaller quatrefoil casements, as well as a nave unusually shorter than the choir, caused by the construction of a tower on the west side, built for the archbishops’ accommodation and refuge during the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Abutting the cathedral’s north transept, the Round Tower is the Rock’s earliest building, dating from the beginning of the twelfth century. It’s nearly 30 metres high but cannot be climbed, so you’ll have to make do with the fine views of the lush countryside around the Rock from ground level.
The rise of the Rock
The rise of the Rock
According to legend, the Rock first rose to political prominence in the fourth or fifth century AD, when a major fortress was established by the descendants of Eógan Mór who went on to establish a dynasty of kings-cum-bishops reigning over this part of Munster. The Eóganacht were ousted from Cashel in 978 by the Dál Cais line from Killaloe in County Clare, Brian Boru becoming the overlord of Cashel, and subsequently achieving dominance over Ireland in 1002. His descendant, Murtagh, granted the Rock to the Church in 1101 and, some fifty years later, when the papacy established four archbishoprics in Ireland, one of which was at Cashel, an early medieval cathedral was built here. By then, however, the Eóganacht had regained control under Cormac Mac Cárthaigh, who built the adjoining Cormac’s Chapel, finished in 1134. The whole site was sacked by Cromwell’s forces in 1647, but was still used by the Church of Ireland until 1749 when cathedral status was granted to St John’s Church on John Street.