Driving along the M8 motorway from Dublin down to Cork, it is impossible not to notice the amazing Rock of Cashel as you pass through County Tipperary. There should honestly be a warning sign because the towering beauty is extremely distracting for drivers! This is a sight not to be missed, and unsurprisingly it is extremely popular with tourists and can get very crowded.
Although it is universally known as The Rock of Cashel, this unique medieval complex is more formally named St. Patrick’s Rock. Patrick was a busy man who gets credit for converting Ireland to Christianity, and specifically he converted King Aenghus of Munster in the fifth century AD, long before the ancient buildings we admire today were built. Back then, the site was the seat of the High Kings of Munster. Patrick was a great man for recycling and reusing things, but in fairness it makes sense that he would convert a king at the king’s home, never mind the lack of churches available at the time he was busy with converting the nation.
The structures at the Rock of Cashel now date back to the 12th and 13th centuries and show the influence of both Hiberno-Romanesque and Germanic architecture. The oldest remaining structure at Cashel is the stunning round tower, which is believed to date back to 1101 when King Muircheartach Ua Briain gave the property to the Church. Cormac’s Chapel was consecrated in 1134, and visitors should be aware it is frequently closed due to ongoing restoration work. The massive Gothic cathedral was completed in 1270, and its tower was added in the 15th century. St. Patrick’s Cross, is one of the most beloved features of the Rock of Cashel. Dating to the 12th century, this high cross is unusual in that it does not have the ring around the center of the cross as Celtic crosses do. The original is now in the Vicar’s Choral, while a replica stands between the Vicar’s Choral and the cathedral.
The complex of structures looks massive when viewed from afar, and up close it is tightly packed. This is a lot of history and heritage packed into one stunning place. Strolling between the ancient walls is like walking back through Ireland’s early Christian history. Just a little bit of imagination is required to hear the swooshing sound of a king’s robes or the voices of an early congregation praying together.
The Rock is not all Cashel has to offer. The nearby Cashel Folk Village might not be the most organized or polished spot, and ‘village’ is an overstatement, but it is another walk back in time and most tourists give it rave reviews for the amount of information and insight into the past it provides. The area has its share of enchanting ruins, and Athassel Abbey a few miles outside of Cashel town is the largest medieval priory in Ireland. Quieter than the Rock, it offers a chance of strolling with some measure of solitude among the crumbling walls. It might be a long way to Tipperary, but it is well worth the journey through Ireland’s landscape to arrive in Ireland’s medieval past.