The Seat of the Kings of Munster: A History (Rock of Cashel)
In a previous post I mentioned passing St. Declan’s Way while cycling in county Waterford. This is a Pilgrimage Trial that extends from the coastal town of Ardmore in county Waterford to the Rock of Cashel in county Tipperary. Typical of Ireland, it is by no means a straight line and goes through certain places on the way (it’s a long way to Tipper…..okay, I’ll stop now).
“It follows the route that Declan took when going to Cashel to meet Saint Patrick in the fifth century. In turn, it is the way that Pilgrims have taken to visit Saint Declan’s monastery, holy well and grave in Ardmore for the past one and a half thousand years.”
It starts at the Well and monastic site dedicated to Declan in Ardmore, County Waterford and travels through Aglish, Cappoquin, Lismore, Mount Melleray, across the Knockmealdown Mountains into county Tipperary where you travel through Goatenbridge, Ardfinnan, Cahir, and finally to the base of the Rock where Patrick supposedly preached to the masses at the time. All the towns mentioned here have medieval Norman and monastic foundations. The monastic ruins in Ardmore date to the 12th Century and so do the ecclesiastic building upon the Rock of Cashel. The Viking settlements of Cork and Waterford which are on both sides of Ardmore even predate them, so the above folklore quote has a very big hole in it speaking from a historical evidence point of view. But in saying that, Cashel has a very rich history of regal splendour, architecture, and deep sadness that comes from great horror and tragedy.
“Patrick came across the Devil in a cave in the mountains and a spiritual struggle ensued. Defeated the Devil bit a piece of the mountain and spat it at Patrick before retreating. The rock landed 20 miles away and became the Christian conversion platform of Patrick.”
I arrived here as a day out for my partner and myself as the seoíge was staying with her cousin for the Bank Holiday weekend. The weather was terrible, and it was bucketing down from the heavens all the way from Cork up the country. Found a small museum which was very interesting, and it shed light on different areas of the history of Cashel from the Bronze Age, medieval times, the Great Famine, right up to Elizebeth II’s visit. Their collection was impressive for a small building from Bronze Age Bog Butter (4000 years old), a single menhir rescued from nearby Queensfield, Giant Elk skulls, medieval ecclesiastic paraphernalia, a genuine Blueshirt uniform, genuine RIC uniform, the original Gorta Mór anniversary painting for the Choctaw tribal visit to Dublin Castle in 1995, among many others. The museum was once the old Famine Workhouse building as well. But I will get to that later.
“During his reign, Óengus mac Nad Froích, was converted to Christianity by Patrick on the mount of Cashel. During the baptism, Patrick planted his Crozier into the ground but it passed through the Rí’s foot. Óengus remained silent and endured it throughout the entire rite. Patrick was horrified at what he had done but the Rí said he thought it was part of the ceremony.”
Cashel was the ruling seat of the Munster Ard Rí of the Eóganacht Dynasty from at least the 7th Century right up until the 10th Century. They lost their right to rule by the Dál Cais . This remained until the Rí Muirchertach Ua Briain donated the site to the church in 1101. The first building was built by Conall Corc, the Rí of Munster between the 4th and 5th Century. The Rock is an elevated site, and you can clearly see why it was strategically chosen as the view is fantastic from all sides and can be easily defended against the rival Tuatha’s of Leinster (in particular, neighbouring Osraige which kept changing hands until possibly the 9th Century). Brian ‘Boru’ mac Cennétig, the famous Ard Rí of Ireland was crowned there in 978. The donation of the site to the church was politically motivated. Brian Boru’s grandson, Muirchertach, was still of the Dál Cais. This ensured that the Eóganacht could never try to raise a sword to reclaim what was once theirs.
Two of the earliest structures that survive today are the Round Tower and Cormac’s chapel which were constructed in the 12th Century. The chapel has Romanesque style architecture. Three friaries were also built in the neighbouring vicinity. The Benedictines, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans. The Benedictines were ousted by the Cistercians at a later date (I don’t know the reason why).
The cathedral was builit in the 12th Century in a cruciform layout. The central tower was built in the 14th Century and the residential castle was constructed in the 15th Century. Walking through the ruin gives you an idea of the amount of workmanship that was put into its construction. The gothic arches are still striking and the immense barrel-vaulted ceiling of the central point of the cruciform is a testimony to the engineering of the time. You can still make out the different layers of lime plaster in patches and there is still a preserved piece of Celtic style ecclesiastic wall art still there. Some mural carvings have been restored. There are burial plots of long-passed venerated clerics inside the building and outside amongst all the high crosses are even burials dating to a few years ago. In the far end corner is a burial area belonging to a prominent family. The Scully’s paid for a very impressive carved high cross and had it erected in 1867. During the 1975 renovations, a lightening rod was attached to it. In 1976, lightening stuck the cross and destroyed the top of it. The fallen part is still at the foot of the hill outside the grounds.
Up until the 1600’s, ownership of Irish land was 80% Irish Catholics. Cromwell came to Ireland and the Irish Confederate wars began. As an aftermath this percentage changed dramatically to 10%. In 1647, a descendant of Brian Boru, Murrough O’Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin brought English parliamentarian troops to Cashel. The Catholic population fled to the walled cathedral grounds and O’Brien’s troops laid siege. He demanded immediate surrender and a fee of 3 thousand pounds. He also demanded that the bishop Theobald Stapleton surrender personally stripped naked of his vestments. Stapleton refused to shed his clothes and O’Brien had him burned alive. He also ordered the slaughter of most of the surrendered populace who were men, women, and children. Legend claims that the number was as high as 3000. The area where the slaughter took place is named Bóthar na Mairbh or Road of the Dead.
During an Gort Mhór (the Great famine) of 1845-52, a workhouse was in Cashel built (where the museum now stands) for the starving evictees. During this time, the Irish population declined and to this day has never reached the same level as it was then. The decrease was due to emigration, starvation, and also disease. One of the main causes of fatalities from disease was from the workhouses. The idea of the workhouse was to provide meagre sustenance in exchange for hard labour which could also contribute to death from exhaustion. The people were packed like sardines in a small hall. Because of such large populations in a tight space, disease would spread like wildfire and would be extremely fatal to both the malnourished and injured.
That is as much history of Cashel as I can give without delving too much and literally boring the pants off you. If you ever have the chance to visit, remember the fact that this rock was once the seat of kings and that the famed ‘Lion of Ireland’ was coronated here. Be inspired by the engineering feats and the fine craftsmanship regardless of creed. But also remember the tragedy of the death and suffering of the innocent regardless of creed.
Seán Ó Tuama.