The Rock of Cashel is a 60 metre high limestone outcrop crowned by a cluster of ruined ecclesiastical buildings. The rock is located in the ancient Irish province of Munster, at the edge of the town of Cashel. It rises above "the golden vale" - the flat and fertile plane that surrounds it - dominating the approach for miles in every direction.
The rock was the historic seat of the ancient chiefs of Munster, and was alternatively known as "Cashel of the Kings". The name "Cashel" is believed to originate from the Gaelic "caiseal", or "stone fort".
It is claimed that in 450AD, St Patrick visited the rock, and baptised the local king, Aenghus. A story tells how the king's foot was pierced by the spike of Patrick's crosier.
Said Patrick, "Why didst thou not tell this to me?"
"It seemed to me," saith Oengus, "that it was a rite of the faith."
"Thou shalt have its reward," said Patrick: "thy successor," that is, the seed of Oengus and Ailill, son of Natfraich, "shall not die of a wound from to-day for ever."
No one is King of Cashel until Patrick installs him, and confers ecclesiastical rank upon him; and twenty-seven kings of the race of Ailill and Oengus ruled in Cashel under a crosier until the time of Cenn-gecan (slain A.D. 897).
In 976AD, Brian Boru succeeded to the throne of Munster. He fortified Cashel around 990AD and was later crowned there when he gained the high kingship of Ireland.
In 1101AD, a convocation was held at which King Murtough O'Brien granted the Rock of Cashel to the church, "for the use of the religious in Ireland in general". He dedicating it to God and St Patrick, and Maelmuire O'Dunan became the first Archbishop of Cashel, and Cashel an archiepiscopal see.
The first ecclesiastical building was erected by Cormac MacCarthy in 1127AD. He built the church on the rock which is today known as "Cormac's Chapel". This was consecrated in 1134AD, when a synod of nobles and clergy gathered to witness it's inauguration.
The round tower dates from a similar time, but the exact year of its construction is not certain. Opinions vary regarding its purpose (and the purpose of other such round towers), with some believing that it served as a watch-post and a place of refuge, whilst others favour the theory that the tower served as a belfry.
In 1169AD, a larger church was founded beside Cormac's Chapel. Nothing of this first cathedral now remains, and the cruciform building that can be seen today dates from between 1235-1270AD. Further expansion was undertaken in the fifteenth century, when the Hall of the Vicars Choral was constructed to provide accommodation for the laymen and minor canons who assisted with the chanting of services within the cathedral.
In 1494AD, the cathedral was burnt by Gerald, Earl of Kildare. When called before Henry VII to account for his actions, he defended himself on the grounds that he had been seeking the death of his enemy, Archbishop David Creaghe, who he believed to be hiding within the cathedral.
The building was restored, and continued to serve as a centre of worship for a further 150 years. Then in 1647AD, the notorious Lord Inchiquin led Cromwellian forces in an attack upon the town of Cashel. Over 3,000 men, women and children were slaughtered, many of whom had sought shelter in the cathedral, which Inchiquin put to the torch.
Presumably, some form of restoration must have taken place, although the timing and extent of this work is not clear. It is known that the cathedral continued to serve as a place of worship until the mid 18th Century, when Archbishop Price obtained an Act of Parliament allowing him to relocate the cathedral to the town. Tradition holds that this was because he was unable to reach the gates of the original church in his carriage, and was disinclined to walk. The cathedral on the rock subsequently had its roof stripped for its lead, and the building was finally left to fall into ruin and decay.
Today, the Rock of Cashel still provides an incredible spectacle. The round tower, Cormac's Chapel and the Hall of the Vicar's Choral survive intact and the roofless ruin of the gothic cathedral is also largely complete. Taken as a whole, the brooding cluster of buildings that crown the rock form an impressive and atmospheric medieval complex of unique character. This is an extremely rich and diverse site with a palpable and compelling sense of history.