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November 6, 2011

Joy of Travel: Visiting the Rock of Cashel at Ireland

McALESTER — On day four of our trip to Ireland we departed Dublin and headed out for the Rock of Cashel, which turned out to be one of the most stunning, impressive historical sites I’ve ever experienced.

As we drove across the flat, fertile plain of the River Suir in the heart of the old province of Munster, the massive Rock of Cashel (aka St. Patrick’s Rock) rose up in front of us. It’s been documented as making a breathtaking impression here for over 1,600 years.

Beginning back in the fifth century, it was the seat of the Kings of Munster, whose kingdom extended over southern Ireland. Conall Corc was the founder of the Cashel Kingship. St. Patrick himself is said to have baptized the son of Conall Corc (Nio Froich) at Cashel.

The Kings of Munster were all part of the Eoganacht dynasty. Munster kings were often also bishops, and had no moral dilemma raiding and pillaging church properties in other territories.

In 1101, Muircheartach Ua Briain, King of Cashel and contender for the high kingship of Ireland, handed the Rock of Cashel over to the church. It became the seat of the archbishop. It flourished as a religious center until a siege by a Cromwellian army in 1647 culminated in the massacre of its 3,000 occupants.

In 1647, Murrough O’Brien and the garrison of the Confederate Catholic Troops stormed Cashel on behalf of the English Parliament. The clerics along with the townspeople hid within the walls of the cathedral. They were slaughtered. In fact, all of the passages, even the altars, chapels, sacristies, bell-tower steps and seats were so thickly covered with corpses, one could not walk without stepping on a dead body. Cromwell arrived and made his headquarters there for a time.

The round tower on the rock dates back to 1101. The entrance to this tower is about 10 feet off of the ground. There were two reasons for this. First, a door at the base of such a massive stone tower would have weakened the strength and stability of its foundation. Second, a door 10 feet off the ground enabled the area inhabitants to climb inside the tower via a ladder, then haul up the ladder and seal the entrance. This provided safety from invaders.

We went inside a small chapel where I noticed something that surprised me. Frescoes. Cormac’s Chapel, built in the new Romanesque style, was consecrated in 1134 and decorated with frescoes. Cromwell’s army did as much damage to the inside of the chapel as they could, so few frescoes remain. They even carved their names into the rock walls of the chapel with their knives, quite legibly I might add.

In between the tower and the chapel are the remains of a massive 13th century gothic cathedral. Oddly enough there are residential towers at its west end, which were the domestic quarters of the archbishop. The entire west end of the cathedral is blocked from the sun by this residential structure, making the interior of the cathedral dark and cold during the afternoon hours.

There are a huge variety of stone carved heads used on capitals, label stops and corbels both inside and outside the building. It is assumed they represent some of the people living in the area during the construction years 1230-1290. There are many grave slabs, including the tomb of Milar Magrath.

In 1571, Queen Elizabeth appointed Miler Magrath as Archbishop of Cashel. Miler, previously a Catholic priest, had renounced his faith, married (twice) and fathered almost 100 children (many illegitimate). On his deathbed he converted back to Catholicism.

On the very edge of the massive rock there is a 15th century row of buildings that were home to the Vicars Choral. These have been completely restored and now house a museum and the gift shop, as well as a room for audio-visual presentations. A 12th century St. Patrick’s Cross is housed in the museum. A replica of this cross stands in between the Vicars Choral housing and the cathedral. It is said if you can stand and wrap your arms around it and grasp your hands together, while standing on one leg, you’ll be married within the year.

The Rock of Cashel afforded us a view for miles of gorgeous green fields, woodlands and homes. The village of Cashel offers a few great restaurants and overnight accommodations.

We were all mesmerized by the history, massive structures and incredible views from the Rock of Cashel. If you are ever in Ireland, don’t miss visiting it.

Joy Gawf-Crutchfield is the owner of The Joy of Travel travel agency. For more information visit www.thejoyoftravel.us or contact her at joy@joyoftravel.us or 888-JOY-4041 (888-569-4041).

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