Tucked away in Ireland’s midsection is a crumbling, ancient center of political and church power surrounded by beautiful green countryside and a charming, vibrant village. A visit to history-soaked Cashel and its nearby Tipperary neighbors is perfect for a one-night short weekend for the traveler willing to go off the beaten tourist path.
The Rock of Cashel refers more to the hill than the cathedral and castle – just like Castle Rock in Edinburgh. What stands there today is a mix of old and not-as-old ruins of what was once the seat of high kings and archbishops. All of it is accessible by self-guided exploration or by guided tour. English tours operate frequently, so take advantage of the knowledgeable guide – included with admission fee.
Before the cathedral and castle were built, this strategic rise over the flat Central Irish plain was the fortified seat of the ancient kings of Munster – the kingdom covering much of South and Southwest Ireland. It was here that Saint Patrick is said to have baptized the seated king (he seemed to have baptized a lot of Pagan Irish kings in his time) and mainstreaming Christianity in the fifth century. The Rock site was later given to the church, and the modern cathedral was eventually built to fit the terrain of the Rock and the pre-existing structures.
Attached to the cathedral sanctuary, a heavily-guarded tower housed the archbishop, who needed the extra security. A large section of the top walls of this tower fell during the centuries of disuse and disrepair the cathedral suffered after it was abandoned in the eighteenth century.
The story of Saint Patrick and the Rock is one of his most well-known misadventures. According to legend, when Paddy was baptizing the king, he accidentally stabbed the hapless supplicant in the foot – penetrating all the way through the foot to the floor. The king, thinking the stabbing was all part of the deal, didn’t say a word. Many images of Patrick around Europe depict this image: a clueless Paddy praying over the kneeling king with his crozier sticking into a bloody foot.
To honor the visit of Patrick to the Rock, a large stone cross was built in the courtyard of the complex in the twelfth century. Much of the original cross has deteriorated in the harsh weather, so what remains of it has been moved indoors and a replica – reflecting the current condition of the original – stands in the courtyard today.
One of the best-preserved structures on the site is Cormac’s Chapel*. Even though it predates the now-ruined central chapel, its roof has withstood the elements since the 1100s, and it is still accessible and safe today. Its Romanesque dome was once covered with frescoes, which were largely destroyed not by the elements, but by Protestant Reformationists, scraping away what they saw as decadent and sinful flourishes.
*This sandstone building is currently undergoing a massive, years-long restoration and preservation project, thus the need for excessive scaffolding over much of the Rock of Cashel site today.
After an exploration around the rest of the Rock – checking out the cemetery, the round tower, and, if you have time, the video playing in and old dormitory – the town of Cashel is yours to explore. Just at the bottom of the Rock, near the parking lot, the iconic statue of the gleeful dancers at the Bru Boru Cultural Centre are worth a look and a photo before heading into Cashel’s Main Street.
Main Street Cashel is a moderate hill lined with fun shops, pubs, and restaurants. Halfway down the hill, check out the Tourist Information center in the Town Hall, with a free and informative exhibit of the history of the Rock and the village of Cashel. At the diorama, press the “English” button to listen to the narration and watch a moving spotlight highlight the various important features on the 3D model of the old city.
After dinner, Main Street is set up for a perfect micro (or macro) pub crawl. Enjoy the real simple pleasures of small-town Irish life with good conversation and cheaper-than-the-city pints of Guinness.
A visit to the historic Rock of Cashel is a perfect fit on any extended Ireland itinerary. Its location in the center of the island makes it an easy stopover on a cross-country car trip, and it is regularly served by an express bus service from either Dublin or Cork. Like so many other Irish sights and attractions, this charming village is accessible, convenient, and memorable.