29 October 2019
An afternoon in the cathedral
and Cormac’s Chapel on
top of the Rock of Cashel
One the journey from Askeaton to Dublin earlier this week [28 October 2019], two of us stopped to visit the Rock of Cashel, also known as Cashel of the Kings and as Saint Patrick’s Rock.
At one time, Cashel was regarded as the jewel among Irish church buildings. As a child, this was one of the favourite places to bring us to break the long journey between Cappoquin and Dublin, and those childhood visits to Cashel fostered an early appreciation of church history, archaeology and architecture.
The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular archaeological sites, a prominent green hill, banded with limestone outcrops, rising from a grassy plain and bristling with ancient fortifications. It is a five-minute stroll from the centre of Cashel up to the Rock, which offers dramatic views that stretch out across the countryside of the Golden Vale, the Suir Valley and much of Co Tipperary.
Although little remains of the early structures, Cashel still is one of the most remarkable collections of Celtic art and mediaeval architecture anywhere in Europe, and in their architecture the buildings display both Hiberno-Romanseque and Germanic influences.
According to myth and lore, the Rock of Cashel was formed in the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 30 km north of Cashel, when Saint Patrick is said to have banished Satan from a cave, with the Rock landing in Cashel. Saint Patrick is said to have converted the King of Munster at Cashel in the fifth century.
According to these traditions, Saint Patrick baptised King Aengus at Cashel. During this Baptism, supposedly on the site of Saint Patrick’s Cross, it is said, the sharp point of Saint Patrick’s crozier pieced the foot of Aengus, but the young King of Munster believed this was an essential part of the ceremony and suffered in silence throughout the service.
However, the Rock of Cashel was probably a centre of power from the fourth century, and by the fifth century the Eóganacht dynasty, descended from Eógan Mór, had come to prominence in the region. For several hundred years, the Rock of Cashel was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster.
Over time, the Eóganacht dynasties spread throughout Munster, and until the tenth century, Eóganacht kings alone were eligible to be chosen as Kings of Munster. A number of these Kings of Cashel also held senior Church posts simultaneously.
However, the Eóganacht rulers were ousted from Cashel in the tenth century by the Kings of Dál Cais, then based in Killaloe, Co Clare. Brian Boru succeeded his brother King of Cashel in 978, and he later became the first King of Munster to be acclaimed as High King of Ireland when he became king at Tara in 1002. He was killed at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
His descendant, Muirchertach Ua Briain, King of Munster, donated his fortress on the Rock of Cashel to the Church in 1101. At one and the same time, he advanced his credibility as a promoter of Church reforms and deprived his rivals in the Eóganacht dynasty of their ancient royal seat as Kings of Munster.
By then, Cashel had a large cathedral. Its status was enhanced at the Synod of Ráith Breasaill in 1111, when Ireland was divided into territorial dioceses, Cashel become the seat of the Archbishops of Cashel and the centre of one of the southern ecclesiastical provinces. At the Synod of Kells in 1152, Cashel became the primatial see of the Province of Munster.
Although the Rock of Cashel was the seat of the High Kings of Munster, there is little structural evidence of their presence here, and the majority of the buildings on the plateau date from the 12th and 13th centuries or later.
This spectacular group of mediaeval buildings on top of the outcrop of limestone include: the 12th century Round Tower; the Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel; the 13th century Gothic cathedral; the 15th century castle; and the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral.
The site also includes a High Cross and graves of historical interest.
1, The Round Tower:
The Round Tower is the oldest and tallest of the buildings on the Rock and dates from ca 1101. It is well preserved, is 28 metres high, and is complete right up to its conical roof.
The entrance is 3.7 metre above the ground because of the shallow foundation that is typical of round towers.
The tower was built using the dry stone method. Modern conservationists have filled in some of the tower with mortar for safety reasons.
2, Cormac’s Chapel:
Cormac’s Chapel is one of the earliest and finest churches in Ireland built in the Romanesque style. The story of this church is rooted in the disputes between the dynasties competing for political control of Munster in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Despite the political strength of the family of Brian Boru, a branch of the Eóganacht dynasty, the Mac Cárthaigh or MacCarthy family, based in Desmond or South Munster, regain some power in the early 12th century, and Cormac Mac Cárthaigh made Cashel his new power base.
King Cormac Mac Carthaigh began building Cormac’s Chapel in 1127, and the chapel was consecrated in 1134. It is a sophisticated structure, with vaulted ceilings and wide arches, drawing on contemporary European architecture and infusing unique native elements.
The Irish Abbot of Regensburg, Dirmicius of Regensburg, sent two of his carpenters to help in the building project, and the twin towers on either side of the junction of its nave and chancel are strongly suggestive of their Germanic influence.
The chapel consists of a nave and chancel, with projecting towers on the north and south walls of the nave. There are doors in the north and south walls of the nave, and the nave and chancel have connecting attic chambers or crofts above their vaulted ceilings.
The chapel has many unusual features that find parallels in England and on Continental Europe. These include the string courses and blind arcades on the internal and external walls, which are seen mist clearly on the south-facing sandstone façade.
Another Romanesque feature is the arched doorway of three orders, with an animal carved on the tympanum.
The south door is not as impressive as the larger, more ornate original main entrance doorway on the north side. The carved tympanum above the north door shows a large lion being hunted by small centaur with a bow and arrow and wearing a Norman-style helmet. This entrance originally faced onto an open space, but it was later hemmed in by the cathedral.
Inside, above the blind arcading in the nave, there is a plain barrel-vaulted roof with ribs. Towards the east end of the nave, openings in north and south walls lead into the towers. The spiral stairs in the south wall leads up to the crofts above. The larger and more ornate opening on the north side leads into the ground floor room of the north tower, which may have served as a side chapel.
Light originally poured into the chapel from three windows at the west end, but they were later blocked partly by the south transept of the cathedral.
The chancel is almost square in plan, with an externally projecting altar recess at the east end. The chancel arch, of four orders, has finely carved pillars and capitals.
The chapel has some of the earliest and best-preserved Irish frescoes from their time. These include a possible depiction of the Visit of the Magi, and another of the Baptism of Christ. Much of the colour was obscured for centuries and only became visible after painstaking cleaning and conservation work in the 1980s and 1990s.
The ornate but damaged sarcophagus at the west end of the chapel is decorated with inter-twined beasts and snakes in a Scandinavian style. It dates from the same period as the chapel, but it was moved from the cathedral to the chapel in 1875.
Cormac’s Chapel was built primarily of sandstone. This became water-logged over the centuries, damaging the interior frescoes. Restoration and preservation required the chapel be completely enclosed in a rain-proof structure with interior dehumidifiers to dry out the stone.
3, The Cathedral:
The first cathedral may have been built on the site in the early 12th century and rebuilt by Domnall Mór O Brien in 1169. But no remains of this cathedral survive: it was demolished in the early 13th century to make way for a new cathedral, built between 1230 and 1270. This is a large, cruciform, Gothic church without aisles but with a central tower and terminating at the west in a massive residential castle.
The cathedral was fitted in crudely between three earlier features: the Round Tower, Cormac’s Chapel, and a rock-cut well. There are no surviving records of the building of the cathedral in the 13th century, and the evidence for its dating comes from its architectural details.
Archbishop Marianus Ua Briain (1224-1238), or his successor, Archbishop David mac Cellaig Ó Gilla Pátraic (1238-1253) probably began building the choir, which may have been completed by Archbishop David Mac Carwill (1253-1289).
Archbishop Richard O Hedian (1406-1440) was probably responsible for major alterations to the cathedral in the first half of the 15th century, when parapets were added as well as the tower at the west end of the nave. An extensive collection of stone heads was used on capitals, label stops and corbels both inside and outside the building.
The High Altar was placed at the east end of the Choir. The lower section of the of the three-light east window is all that survives at the East End. The style of the tall lancet windows on the north and south walls help to date this part of the building to the 1230s. Between the tops of these windows are small quatrefoil windows.
The original carved stone in the choir is of sandstone, in contrast to the limestone used for the fine carving in the later, remaining part of the cathedral.
The south wall of the choir has a piscina, the remains of a damaged sedilia, and the wall tomb of the notorious pluralist Miler Magrath, Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor (1565-1680), and Church of Ireland Archbishop of Cashel (1570-1622), Bishop of Clogher (1570-1571), Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (1582-1589, 1592-1608), and Bishop of Killala and Achonry (1613-1622), as well as holding 77 livings or parishes.
The east walls in both the North Transept and South Transept have large, three-light windows, which were lowered in height in the 15th century. There are two chapels off the east side of the North Transept, each with an east gable and a two-light window. The chapels on the east side of South Transept are shallower, restricted in size because of the Cormac’s Chapel to the east of this transept.
The arches of the crossing date from the 13th century. The ribbed vault in the centre was rebuilt in 1875. The upper part of the tower and the parapets at the top of the tower walls date from the period when the cathedral was remodelled in the 15th century.
The cathedral nave is unusually short, compared with the lengthy choir, although a longer nave may have been planned, with north and south doors midway along the nave.
4, The Castle:
The castle or residential tower was built in the 15th or 16th century, and involved almost the total rebuilding of the walls. This structure occupies the space of the whole west end of the original nave.
The porch on the south side provides the main entrance to the cathedral, and has a groin-vaulted ceiling.
There may have been a corresponding porch on the north side, but it has not survived.
5, The Hall of the Vicars Choral:
Archbishop Richard O Hedian (1406-1440), who carried out major alterations to the cathedral in the 15th century, also endowed the Vicars Choral with lands and built their hall on the south side of the cathedral in first half of the 15th century.
The vicars choral were minor canons and sometimes laymen who assisted in singing the liturgies in the cathedral. Originally the cathedral in Cashel had eight vicars choral. They were later reduced in number to five honorary vicars choral who appointed singing-men as their deputies, a system that continued until 1836.
The upper level of the hall comprised the main living toom of the vicars choral, with a large fireplace in the south wall.
The Hall was restored by the Office of Public Works in 1975 as part of the European Architectural Heritage Year, and is now used as the visitors’ entrance. The vaulted undercroft beneath the hall contains a collection of stone sculpture from the Rock, and the original, 12th century, Saint Patrick’s Cross to protect it from the weather.
6, The Crosses:
Although the original Saint Patrick’s Cross is in the Vicars’ Hall, a replica stands between the Hall of the Vicars Choral and the cathedral. This cross is unusual as an Irish High Cross because it does not have a ring around the cross and because it has subsidiary supports at each side of the cross.
On one side is a figure of the Crucified Christ, clad in a full-length robe. On the other side is a bishop or an abbot. It was once believed that the base of the cross was used as the inauguration stone of the Kings of Cashel, but the base was quarried and worked along the cross.
Scully’s Cross, one of the largest and most famous high crosses on the Rock, was originally eretced in 1867 to commemorate the Scully family. It was destroyed in 1976 when lightning struck a metal rod that ran the length of the cross. The remains of the top of the cross now lie at the base, beside the rock wall.
During the Irish Confederate Wars in the mid-17th century, Cashel was sacked by Parliamentarian troops under Murrough O'Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin, in 1647 The Irish Confederate troops there were massacred, as were the Catholic clergy, including Theobald Stapleton. Inchiquin’s troops looted or destroyed many important religious artefacts.
The chancel was repaired in 1667, and the tower was reroofed in 1674. Cormac’s Chapel was used as the Chapter House, and its upper floors were used as a school.
Archbishop Theophilus Bolton (1733-1744) attempted some restoration work, and the cathedral continued to be used by the Church of Ireland until 1749. However, the site was abandoned and the main roof of the cathedral was removed by Arthur Price, Archbishop of Cashel (1744-1752) in 1749. His decision to remove the roof has been criticised ever since.
Saint John’s Church in Cashel town then became the cathedral of the Diocese of Cashel and is now known as the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Patrick’s Rock, although Price’s successor, Archbishop John Whitcomb (1752-1753) was enthroned in both cathedrals.
At the reorganisation of the Church of Ireland in the early 19th century, the Archbishops of Cashel became the Bishops of Cashel, and the its metropolitan status was transferred to Dublin.
The old cathedral on the Rock remained party roofed for a time, but it gradually fell into decay. By 1848, the roof and residential tower had collapsed, and most of the gable of the choir had fallen.
At the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, Cashel, like many other disused church ruins and sites, became state property, and the first conservation work was carried out in 1875.
The Hall of the Vicars Choral was excavated, reroofed and restored in 1975, and the dormitory was restored in the 1980s. Conservation work, including the wall paintings in the chancel, continues in Cormac’s Chapel.
The entire plateau on which the buildings and graveyard lie is walled. In the grounds around the buildings an extensive graveyard includes a number of high crosses. Today, what remains of the Rock of Cashel has become a tourist attraction, with an audiovisual show and exhibitions. Queen Elizabeth II visited the Rock of Cashel during her visit to Ireland in 2011.