Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel (also known as Cashel of the Kings) in County Tipperary is home to the ruins of a great Celtic cathedral.

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History of the Rock of Cashel

Legend associates the Rock of Cashel with St. Patrick, but the name comes from Caiseal, meaning "stone fort," and the hill was originally the residence of the kings of Munster. Excavations have revealed some evidence of burials and church buildings from the 9th or 10th century, but it was in the early 12th century that the Rock began to be developed into a major Christian center.

In 1101, Muirchertach O Briain, king of Munster, gave the Rock of Cashel to the church. A round tower, which still stands today, was erected shortly after this. A decade later, in 1111, Cashel became the seat of an archbishop. (At the time there was only one other archbishop in Ireland, located in Armagh.) The original cathedral was located where the choir of the present one now stands, but nothing is known of it.

Cormac's Chapel, a magnificent little Romanesque church that still survives today, was consecrated in 1134, probably for Benedictine monks. The town of Cashel at the foot of the rock was founded by the archbishop sometime before 1218 and a Dominican priory was established in 1243. The present cathedral was erected in the 13th century as well.

The frescoes in Cormac's Chapel, which are the oldest Romanesque wall paintings in Ireland, were covered with whitewash at the Reformation (16th century) and remained hidden until the 1980s.

What to See at the Rock of Cashel

Visitors enter the Rock of Cashel complex through the Hall of the Vicars Choral, built in the 15th century. The vicars choral were laymen (sometimes minor canons) appointed to assist in chanting the cathedral services. The Hall was restored in connection with the European Architectural Heritage Year (1975) and contains a small museum of artifacts excavated on the Rock of Cashel.

The earliest and most lofty of the Cashel edifices is the round tower next to the cathedral's north transept. It originally faced the west end of the 12th-century cathedral. Rising 28 m (90 feet) high and dating from shortly after 1100, it is a well-preserved example with six floors. Only the roof has been rebuilt, in the 19th century.

The Chapel of King Cormac or Cormac's Chapel was consecrated in 1134 and is the most important building, historically and architecturally speaking, at Cashel. Begun in 1127, it is a very sophisticated structure, unlike most Irish Romanesque churches which are very simple in plan with limited decoration. It has two square towers flanking the east end of the nave, which may suggest Germanic influences or may be an adaptation of the Irish round tower.

The exterior of Cormac's Chapel is beautifully decorated with typical Romanesque details such as repeating blind arches and carved corbels. The south portal has two zigzag arches and a tympanum with a relief of an animal. The north portal has a gabled porch, indicating it was the main entrance before the cathedral was built up against the north side of the chapel.

The chapel's interior contains the oldest and most important Romanesque wall paintings in Ireland. The oldest, dating from about 1134, consist mainly of masonry patterns and can be made out in places on the lower walls. The remaining paintings date from c.1160-70 and are visible on the upper walls and vault. These depict narrative scenes such as the Nativity, and their sophistication suggests the artists were from England or Normandy.

At the west end of the chapel is a beautifully-carved sarcophagus that may be the tomb of Cormac himself, or maybe his brother and predecessor, Tadhg (d.1124). Its decoration is in the Hiberno-Scandinavia Urnes style of the early 12th century, featuring interlaced beasts and serpents. The sarcophagus probably originally stood in the 12th-century cathedral, which no longer survives. The tomb was discovered in the north transept of the present cathedral in the 19th century.

The cathedral, built between 1235 and 1270, is an aisleless (and roofless) building of cruciform plan with a central tower. The nave is much shorter than the choir and clearly was never completed.

The short nave was reduced a bit more in the 15th century, when a five-story castle (tower-house) was added to the west end as a residence for the archbishop. The castle was accessed on the second floor from the passage in the nave walls.

The most attractive elements are the transepts (c.1270), with triple lancet windows. On the east side of the transepts are square chapels, two on each side, all with piscinae and three with tomb niches. The north transept contains late medieval tombs and grave slabs found at the site.

The long choir is elevated at the east end and contains grave slabs dating mostly from the 16th century. The south wall of the choir contains a piscina, sedilia, and wall tomb of the late 16th-century archbishop Miler McGrath.

Throughout the structure, it is possible to discern the dates of the decorative elements based on the material used: the original 13th-century work is in sandstone, while later work is in limestone.

The grounds around the buildings are home to an extensive graveyard, which includes a number of beautiful high crosses. The entire plateau atop the rock is walled. Visible from the west side of the Rock are the desolate ruins of Hore Abbey, a Cistercian foundation of 1272.

Near the base of the hill in the town of Cashel is a ruined Dominican friary, which was founded by the archbishop in 1243, renovated after a fire in 1480, and dissolved in 1540. The monastic buildings have not survived but the church walls are mostly intact. Dating from the mid-13th century, the church is notable for nine lancet windows on the south wall of the choir, which are thought to be the earliest examples of a design seen at other Dominican foundations in the area (namely Athenry, Sligo, Ardfert and Ferns). The windows in the east wall, south transept and west gable date from the mid-15th century. The transept, added c.1270, is one of the earliest examples of the "preaching transepts" that became a common feature in medieval Dominican churches.

Quick Facts on the Rock of Cashel

Site Information
Names:Cashel of the Kings · Rock of Cashel
Country:Ireland
Categories:cathedrals; churches; scenic settings; high cross sites; ruins
Styles:Romanesque; Gothic
Dates:12th C
Status: ruins
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:52.522305° N, 7.881489° W
Address:Cashel, Ireland
Phone:062/61437
Hours:Mid-Jun to mid-Sep: daily 9am-7:30pm
Mid-Sep to mid-Mar: daily 9am-4:45pm
Mid-Mar to mid-Jun: daily 9am-5:30pm
Last admission 45 minutes before closing.
Lodging:View hotels near the Rock of Cashel
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

References

  1. Personal visit (August 29, 2007).
  2. Informational signs posted at the site.
  3. Andy Halpin and Conor Newman, Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press, 2006), 445-52.
  4. The Rock of Cashel - Historic Irish Castles
  5. Rock of Cashel - Comhaltas
  6. Rock of Cashel - All Ireland Travel
  7. Cashel - Catholic Encyclopedia
  8. St. Peter the Rock Cathedral Cashel - The United Dioceses of Cashel and Ossory

More Information

View of the Rock of Cashel from the west, near Hore Abbey. The rock is dominated by the 13th-century... © Holly Hayes
View of the cathedral (mid-13th century) and round tower (early 12th century) from northeast. Rock of Cashel,... © Holly Hayes
View of cathedral from south, with tower-house at the west end (left, 15th century) and south transept with... © Holly Hayes
South transept of the cathedral (13th century), with a glimpse of Cormac's Chapel (12th century) on the right.... © Holly Hayes
Interior of the cathedral, looking west. The cathedral was built 1235-70 and the tower-house at the west end... © Holly Hayes
West exterior of the cathedral, mid-13th century. The west end features a fortified tower-house added in the... © Holly Hayes
South exterior of Cormac's Chapel, consecrated in 1134. Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland. © Holly Hayes
Interior view of the north wall and north portal of Cormac's Chapel, consecrated in 1134. Rock of Cashel,... © Holly Hayes
© Holly Hayes
Apse vault in Cormac's Chapel (1134) with corbels and fragments of Romanesque frescoes (c.1160-70). The latter... © Holly Hayes
Apse vault in Cormac's Chapel (1134) with corbels and fragments of Romanesque frescoes (c.1160-70). The latter... © Holly Hayes
A beautifully-carved sarcophagus in Cormac's Chapel (1134) that may be the tomb of King Cormac himself, or... © Holly Hayes
Museum in the barrel-vaulted undercroft of the Hall of the Vicars Choral, displaying artifacts excavated at... © Holly Hayes

Map of the Rock of Cashel

Below is a location map and aerial view of the Rock of Cashel. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.