Ireland is a magical place; the perfect backdrop for folklore and legend woven together seamlessly with fact. One of the most spectacular places in Ireland, the Rock of Cashel’s history is as rich and incredible as its appearance.
What I love about Irish history is you have the ‘hard history’ as I like to call it – who lived there, what hands it passed through, when it was built and by whom. Then you have folklore history. Tales that are epic and grand that could be true – you’ll never know. The Rock of Cashel has an abundance of both so let’s get started.
Brief Rock of Cashel History
This historical site has many names: The Castle of Kings, St. Patrick’s Rock and Rock of Cashel. None are incorrect, it’s just that legend associates it with St. Patrick, cashel comes from the Gaelic word caiseal, meaning ‘stone fort’ and it was also the residence of the Kings of Munster. All three names are applicable, they just come from different points in its history.
The Rock of Cashel probably existed in some form as early as the 4th or 5th century when the Eóganacht family ruled the area, especially because it’s said that St. Patrick visited the Rock of Cashel around 450 when he baptized King Aengus. Excavation of the site shows burial grounds and church buildings from around the 9th or 10th only, but chances are the buildings from as far back as the 5th century no longer exist.
Starting out as the seat of a kingdom, the Kings of Munster took over the land and the Rock in the 8th century and used it for inaugurations and as their personal residence.
Like many historical spots and castles in Ireland, it became part of the church when Muirchertach Ua Briain, King of Munster and the self-declared High King of Ireland, gave the Rock to the church as a gift in 1101. The main question that arises is why did he give it away? I know I sure wouldn’t. However, the reason for this was, unsurprisingly, political.
Our self-proclaimed High King of Ireland knew that his rivals, the McCarthy Clan, were rising in power and he also knew that the Rock of Cashel was both a strategic and symbolic spot: making it a prime target. He knew keeping the Rock would mean the McCarthy’s would try and take power, so to avoid that he gave it to the church.
The McCarthy’s were far less likely to make an advancement on the fort if it was in the hands of the church (you have to remember Ireland was and is a very religious place) because taking something from the church would have been immensely frowned upon in the eyes of the public. However, this gift wasn’t just to deter the McCarthy’s from taking it for themselves, but it was also a strategy by Muirchertach Ua Briain to actually gain public respect.
That’s not all though, as Muirchertach Ua Briain was a bishop as well as king (seriously, talk about having your hand in all the cookie jars). Because of this affiliation, he knew he’d still retain some power over it, making the gesture an incredibly smart move. He died not long after that in 1119.
Over the next few hundred years, the Rock of Cashel became the ecclesiastical capital for all of Ireland and the church added buildings such as the Round Tower, Cormac’s Chapel and the Cathedral (all which still stand today).
Sadly, this all ended during the Irish Confederate Wars (also known as the Eleven Years’ War) when more than 3,000 members of the city and clergy burned alive in the Cathedral while attempting to take shelter from the enemy in 1647.
Talk about an abrupt ending, right? The fort pretty much sat there in ruins until historians and tourists began to take an interest in it and today it’s being restored to its former glory.
Legend History of the Rock of Cashel
Of course, the history of the Rock of Cashel isn’t complete without discussing the legend behind it. At the time, Ireland was known as the end of the known world with an intricate system of tunnels and caves leading from hell to Earth. In these caves and tunnels, both Satan himself and other creatures from hell passed through frequently.
While I would not be too keen to come across any of them, St. Patrick on the other hand was set on ridding the caves of these hellish creatures. He succeeded in getting rid of all the ghouls and heathens, except for the devil who proved much harder to catch.
On a tip from an old man in the village, St. Patrick found there was a foul stench coming from a cave high on a hill so he set off to battle with Satan, because I guess nothing else smelled like sulfur in those days. Clearly, St. Patrick won (what kind of story would this be if he didn’t), banished Satan from the cave and he was so angry he fled, bit off part of the mountain, broke his tooth, and spat the rock back out – landing on the other side of the valley and creating the Rock of Cashel.
The gap in the mountain that Satan supposedly took a bite out of is now called the Devil’s Bit and can be seen from the Rock of Cashel and throughout most of the area. This legend may not be Rock of Cashel facts, but it’s still a great story and much more fun to think about than the whole city burning alive.
What to See in the Rock of Cashel
If you’ve made it this far – thank you for sticking with it! The Rock of Cashel is made up of several beautiful buildings, each with its own interesting history. Some might say it’s just an old building, but when you think about it, you’re walking on the same ground as St. Patrick and ancient Irish kings. That’s pretty cool.
The Round Tower
I can’t explain why, but this was one of my favorite parts of the whole site. It’s still in such magnificent shape, despite being built in the early 1100s and only the roof has been replaced over the years. The Rock of Cashel is so dramatic on its own though, that this is one of the few places in the country where the Round Tower isn’t the primary focus.
This impressive chapel was finished in 1134 and was named after King Cormac Mac Carthaig. The most impressive part of this building is the ceiling, which is vaulted and painted. This particular painted ceiling, also known as frescoes, is one of the best preserved in Ireland from its time period.
What makes this especially unique is the traditional European architecture of the design fused with some German elements, such as the two square towers flanking either side.
Finished in 1270, this expansive space was clearly never finished because of the varying heights of the nave compared to other buildings in the complex.
The most striking things here are the three lancet windows and round window on the top. I can only imagine what it looked like in its glory days.
Hall of the Vicars Choral
Built in the 15th century, this is the first place you walk through when entering the Rock of Cashel and it starts you off well. This is where the vicars choral would sing – typically lay men who assisted in chanting during services at the cathedral.
Although the rest of the grounds are essentially well-preserved ruins, the Vicars Choral is not a ruin at all since it was built much later.
It also houses the original Latin Cross, also known as St. Patrick’s Cross. It’s shaped as a bishop (probably St. Patrick), standing on an animal’s head holding a crozier. Since this dates back to the 12th century, some parts of it are missing (you can see the arm on one side is gone), but it’s incredible we still have it all.
A graveyard has never looked so good as it does at the Rock of Cashel. There are many high crosses, also known as Celtic crosses, and weathered with age, they’re hauntingly beautiful. It’s well worth a quick wander.
How to Visit the Rock of Cashel
Have I convinced you yet that this place is totally awesome and worth your time? I hope I have. If you want to visit the Rock of Cashel, here are some things you should know before you go.
Where is it?
The Rock of Cashel is in County Tipperary in the town of Cashel. Unfortunately, there’s no really easy way to get there if you don’t plan to drive.
How much does it cost?
The Rock of Cashel is pretty cheap by tourist standards, with just €8 for an adult and €4 for a child or student.
When can I visit the Rock of Cashel?
It’s open all year round! The only days it’s closed are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You should note that if you’re traveling as a group, you will need to book ahead rather than show up the day of.
The Rock of Cashel was honestly one of the most spectacular sights that I saw in Ireland, even of the entire Ireland bucket list, and I would go back in a heartbeat. Have you been to the Rock of Cashel? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!