Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rock of Cashel - Tipperary

The Rock of Cashel is a splendid sight, a limestone outcropping rising 200 ft. above the Tipperary plain of southern Ireland. This is one of the great historic sites of Ireland, important for both ecclesiastical and royal reasons. From 370 to 1101 it was the seat of the Kings of Munster, who ruled over vast swaths of the south. Most famously, it was visited by St. Patrick in 450, when he converted and baptized Aengus, King of Munster.

The great king and hero Brian Boru was crowned in Cashel in the eleventh century; he later became king of all Ireland. In 1101 Cashel was handed over to the Church and became an ecclesiastical site of the highest order; its bishops behaved and lived like kings. Cashel continued in this role until the time of Cromwell, when the cathedral was destroyed in 1647. The people who had taken refuge there were killed; several thousand people died that day. A century later its decaying buildings, costly to maintain, were abandoned in favor of St. John's church in the village below. The former bishop's palace (c. 1732) in the town now serves as a luxury hotel (photo below).

This picturesque complex of medieval ruins is one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art and architecture to be found anywhere in Europe. The walled area includes a round tower (circa 1100), Romanesque chapel, 13th century Gothic cathedral and a 15th century castle, as well as the whole craggy and wonderfully atmospheric ensemble in its venerable state of ruin.

The Round Tower is in excellent condition, the best preserved in Ireland. It is made of sandstone and stands 92 ft. high. The doorway stands 12 ft. above the ground. These round towers are a building form unique to Ireland. They were built as bell towers but frequently served as treasuries and places of refuge. For security, sets of ladders were used in place of stairs; once a ladder was used to reach the elevated entrance, those inside would pull up the ladder so that others would have no means of reaching them. The same ladder would then be used to access each of the interior levels.

Cashel (pop. 3,000) lies on the main route from Dublin to Cork, less than a three-hour drive southwest of Dublin. NOTE: Scaffolding and restoration work currently spoil a visit to the Rock of Cashel (as of June, 2010).

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