The Rock of Cashel – Home of Celtic Kings

For so many visitors, The Rock of Cashel is perceived as superlative ruins overlooking the Golden Vale, a fertile rich area of farmland.

Deeper consideration reveals that it was, of course, a home, a fortified magnificent home to the Kings of Munster who ruled over an area comprising the whole south of the island of Ireland.

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Perched upon a limestone promontory, the site naturally appealed given its prominence across the fertile plains of Munster.

It was also easily defendable, always an important consideration when basing your centre of power.

The MacMutfraichs

The first family to make their home at The Rock of Cashel were the MacMutfraich’s who built what is thought to be the first settlement here in the 4th century. The pagan High King of Munster, Aengus MacMutfraich, was reputably converted St. Patrick to Christianity here in around 450AD. Hence, today, The Rock of Cashel is sometimes referred to as St. Patrick’s Rock.

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The O’Briens

Jump forward a few centuries and the next significant family to take over are the O’Briens. In 990, their leader, Brian Boru, was crowned High King of Ireland, the first unifying king of Ireland.

Move into the 11th century and we discover that King Muircheartach O’Brien gifted The Rock of Cashel to the church. So now, The Rock moved from royal ownership to become an ecclesiastical site. Today, most of the buildings you will see on you visit emanate from that period.

The Archbishops

Then, the Rock became home to the Diocese of Cashel with the first archbishop,  Mael Isu Ua hAinmere, is thought to take up residence in 1111.

Cormac’s Chapel which you can enter on your visit was consecrated in 1134. The magnificent Round Tower was probably built around the same period.

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Every archbishop needs a cathedral and the one you will see on site today was built between 1235 and 1270.

Again, let’s fast forward to the 15th century when the then archbishop had a castle built for himself. When you visit, ask your guide to point out the five-story castle which was added on the west-end of the cathedral.

The Reformation

Now, it becomes a little complicated. In the 14th century, Protestantism begins to develop in Europe. In summary, this was a movement, known as The Reformation, attributed to Martin Luther to reform the catholic church.

Closer to Ireland, Protestantism takes hold in Britain. This was largely due to King Henry VIII wishing to seek a divorce from his then wife, Catherine of Aragon. This was declined by The Pope which prompted Henry to establish his own church, The Church of England. Of course, there were other considerations which are beyond the scope of this journal. Just keep in mind that Irish political and social life has always been influenced by developments primarily in Britain, but also across Europe.

Henry’s decision to suppress the Catholic Church and establish the Anglican Church had huge implications for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

For The Rock of Cashel, it meant the transfer from Catholicism to Anglicism when the first protestant bishop, James MacCawell, took up residence in 1567.

Cromwellian Forces

The mid 17th century was a tumultuous period in Ireland as indeed it was in Britain. In 1649, King Charles I had been executed. Oliver Cromwell assumed the position of Lord Lieutenant of the English Parliament. He was determined to bring Ireland under his control and a brutal campaign ensued around Ireland.

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With the imminent arrival of Cromwellian forces in Cashel, over 1,000 townspeople sought refuge at The Rock of Cashel. All the townspeople were massacred and the Rock was set alight.

From then on, The Rock of Cashel went into decline and the ruins you see today remain from that time.

Bishop Bolton

Fast forward again, this time to 1730 when Archbishop Theopilus Bolton built the Cashel Palace. The Palace has been a hotel since the early 1960s; at the time of writing, it is undergoing refurbishment.

Rock of Cashel Palace Hotel

Moving into his sumptuous palace, the Rock of Cashel was eventually deconsecrated and a new cathedral was built in the town centre.

Recommendations:

  • While visitors are welcome to wander around the site, we recommend visitors take a guided tour with one of the guides onsite.
  • For visitors who would prefer a customised private tour, this can be arranged through us combining it with a private visit to a local manor house or castle.

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