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Rock of Cashel

One of the main places you'll want to see when visiting Ireland is the Rock of Cashel  in County Tipperary, Ireland's most important medieval site. This glorious ruin has great historical and architectural significance and is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Ireland. The Rock of Cashel is a fascinating destination for history and architecture enthusiasts, offering a glimpse into Ireland's medieval past and providing breathtaking views of the Irish countryside.

From a distance, it is a surprising and wonderful pile rising on three hundred feet of rock in the middle of an immense, empty plain, like some gigantic magic palace suspended in air.

The Rock of Cashel is the ruins of an ancient church that goes back over a thousand years when you get to the foundations. It started as a fort and a castle and the church was built in the 13th century; now it's a wonderful Gothic ruin, one of the highlights of a trip to Ireland, Rock of Cashel.

The picturesque complex has a character of its own. It's one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art and medieval architecture to be found anywhere in Europe, a unique historic Cathedral, castle, palace, graveyard and round tower.

The group of ancient buildings stands high above the town of Cashel, a typical Irish village with colorful shops along the main streets. And just on the other side of town, you'll drive along and get some views of the Cathedral up on the hill as you pull into the convenient visitor parking area. From there it's a short walk up to the Cathedral complex, which sits on top of this massive natural rock outcrop, thus giving it the name Rock of Cashel, which is a slightly misleading label for the complex. There is much more here than a rock. It's a complex of five major ancient buildings, all of which you are going to see in the tour.

When you enter and stand under the great central arch of the old Cathedral you'll experience an ancient site of thrilling grandeur. For the complete visit you'll want to walk all the way around the periphery of the building complex, through the evocative graveyard with its ancient tombstones and Celtic crosses. The picturesque tombs and crosses in the graveyard will entrance you. These intricately carved crosses depict biblical scenes and are important examples of early Christian art in Ireland.

As you walk along outside and look around you realize a spectacular landscape is waiting for you. The vista unfolds across miles of green fields and rolling hills, especially on such a fine and clear sunny day in a place that's often rainy.

At your feet lies the Vale of Tipperary. It's an expanse of greenest green stretching unbroken over some of the fairest and most fertile land in Ireland. There is no other historic place of its kind in Ireland situated quite like it, overlooking as good a landscape as the human eye can gaze upon.

After soaking up the delights of that grand vista you want to walk back inside the Cathedral for a good look at the interior architecture, and it helps to have that local guide telling you about it. The Rock of Cashel has a visitor center that provides guides and information about the site's history, architecture, and significance. It offers audio-visual presentations and exhibits that enhance the visitor experience. You'll gain further insight from the local guides.  

"Now just behind you, then, you have the bell tower of the Cathedral. It was simply where the bill of the Cathedral was rung. And this building is also known as a Cloigtheach or the bell house or bell tower, and you can see it's quite tall, 92 feet (28 meters) in all. And from up here would've been stored the large bell. It's about 850 years old, and it's the oldest building here on the site today."

"We would have been told, growing up, that these towers were built for protection and for this and that, which is not true. It was a bell tower. They would've gone up, and it's the same thing you would find in a Muslim mosque, the call, when they do the call to prayer from the top. You go up there, you ring the bell, because nobody has a watch, nobody knows when church is or what time of day it is. So you go up and you ring a bell. And you see those four windows, north, south, east and west, and they ring in every direction."

"Now you'll notice around this area that is being used as a cemetery for quite a number of years, and anybody from the town of Cashel, or indeed the surrounding areas actually had burial rights up here on the rock until 1913."

"St. Patrick's Cathedral dates back to the 13th century, and this one is Gothic in style, clearly seen by the pointed arches around the building. And the pointed arches are meant to symbolize being near or closer to God. Now these windows over here were typical of the style of windows used in the 13th century. There called lancet windows, and there would've been three more here behind me, that they were actually blown down during the storm. Now you'll notice the Cathedral here is in the shape of a crucifix, or its cruciform in plan, and it took 65 years in all to build."

Cashel's historical importance dates back much farther than the foundation of its Cathedral. Long before the church came to Cashel the pagans held their barbarous rites and ceremonies on this rock. In the middle of the fifth century, St. Patrick arrived here in the course  of  his extraordinary mission through  Ireland. It is said that St.  Patrick, converted and baptized King Angus and founded the first Irish Christian church on the Rock of Cashel. After that it was owned and occupied by the church and was seat of the Archbishop.

From the fourth century to the 12th century Cashel was the residence of the kings of Munster, which was the southern half of Ireland. After that it became church property. Sometimes when visiting a church you get lucky and run into some music, like we did with a boys choir from Germany, the youth choir of St. Magdalena, near Nuremberg."

It was attacked damaged and rebuilt several times in its history, most notably in 1495 when it was burned down, and then rebuilt, and then attacked again in 1647 by the English troops loyal to Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. But the biggest destruction was done by its own Archbishop Price in 1744, who removed the roof and converted the whole church into a ruin.

That Archbishop was a rather decadent man who loved easy luxury, yet this church was located most inconveniently on top of the steep hill. The only way the Archbishop could get to it was to walk. He then spent a lot of money trying to build a carriage road up to the rock, but he finally gave up. Then he built a new Cathedral in the town, which was easier for him to reach.

Incredible as it may seem since he couldn't remove the big church, Bishop Price determined to destroy it, and ordered government soldiers to tear the roof off and knock down the vaulting. His decision to remove the roof from what had been the jewel among Irish church buildings was severely criticized.

Ironically, what remained has become a primary tourist destination, a ruin but stately and beautiful, perhaps even more attractive because of its evocative grandeur of what had proudly functioned as one of Ireland's greatest cathedrals.

These ancient stone walls still stand and form the center of this group of celebrated ruins, which are unparalleled in Ireland for picturesque beauty and antiquarian interests. It's a noble remnant of the early pointed Gothic with many fascinating relics.

Your tour continues with more walking around on the grounds and admiring different angles on the outside of the structure and visiting inside the small museum. Then you'll come across Cormack Chapel, a Romanesque structure from the 12th-century, and is known for its intricate carvings and beautiful frescoes. It is considered one of the finest examples of medieval Irish architecture..

The small museum is in a 15th-century barrel-vaulted building formerly used as residence and dining facilities for the church. Its main treasurer is at the far end, the Cross of St. Patrick, which depicts Christ in the center as the main figure and to one side, it's believed to be that of St. Patrick. Also displayed here are various carvings and artifacts of the period. Next to it is the Hall of the Vicars, a main living space for the priests.

That completes our in-depth look at the Rock of Cashel, also known as Cashel of the Kings, and St. Patrick's Rock.

Hopefully you'll have a little more time at the end to enjoy those vistas across the Vale of Tipperary, with a second or third look to help appreciate the magnificence of this major attraction.

Pulling ourselves away from all the fun and departing we take another drive through the small town of Cashel. There are some lovely shops and restaurants here so this could be a very good place for you to take a break when you're done with your visit to the historic sites up on the hill. Have some tea or enjoy some retail therapy looking for locally made handcrafts.