Strictly speaking, the Rock of Cashel is not a castle, but rather a fortified abbey. A “cashel” (or “cahir” or even the more fortified “dun”) is traditionally a fort made of stone, such as Dunluce Castle or the Dun Aeghosa fort of the Aran Islands (while a “rath” is a fort typically made of earth or wood), so the name is a bit repetitive. Ireland is full of ancient raths – possibly as many as 1 rath or ringfort per every 2km. Likely, the buildings that make up the Rock of Cashel were built on or near an earlier fort, hence the name.
The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most impressive, important and iconic structures. The site of the Rock of Cashel has been an important site for millennia, even before the arrival of the Normans to Ireland in 1169, almost exactly a century after the Battle of Hastings.
In fact, the Rock of Cashel was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster, an ancient Irish region encompassing southwest Ireland from the Rock of Cashel down to the southern coast of Cork, the rugged peninsulas of Kerry, sweeping up through Care. Being a place associated with royalty, it is no surprise that the Rock of Cashel was a fortified structure.
As the reputed site of an earlier Munster King’s baptism by none other than St Patrick, the site held a political as well as spiritual power. In 1101, the current King of Munster decided to donate the site to the Catholic Church in an effort to get into their good graces.
The original structures were mostly demolished, and the present buildings date to the 12th and 13th centuries, once the Church got ahold of the site. Possibly the most eye-catching and iconic part of the complex is the great Round Tower, which dates to about the time the Rock of Cashel fell into the hands of the Church. Incredibly, the Round Tower was built using “dry stone” construction – which means constructing a stone structure without the use of mortar!
Another fascinating site at the Rock of Cashel is Cormac’s Chapel, named for 12th century King Cormac. Intricate and beautiful, the vaulted ceilings and grand doorways and suburb frescoes (though some lost to the elements), the Chapel is a perfect blend of continental European and Irish features.
The final building worthy of attention is the 13th century Cathedral (completed about 1270), a grand structure with a large tower and connecting to the residential “castle.” A Hall of Vicars was added later, in the 1400s.
Like so many other religious buildings in Ireland, the Rock of Cashel was sacked in the 1600s by English parliamentarian troops – in 1647 to be exact. Protectors and clergy were massacred alike, the buildings and religious artefacts were raided and looted, and destroyed.
It fell into the hands of the Anglicans (i.e. protestants, supporters of the English Crown). The Anglican archbishop Arthur Price removed the roof in 1749 in order to avoid paying the roof tax – a horrible English concept in which you paid taxes on the square footage of roofed buildings. This meant that many owners of large buildings simply removed their roofs to avoid paying exorbitant rates, letting their buildings slowly fall into disrepair and ruin without the protection of their roofs.
There are many myths and stories surrounding the enigmatic St Patrick. Ireland’s most famous patron saint (the others are St Brigid and St Colmcille), St Patrick is said to have banished all of the snakes from Ireland (likely an allegory for pagans and druids). He is said to have used the shamrock to teach the Holy Trinity to the people of Ireland, which later became a symbol of himself and Ireland in general. There are meant to be a plethora of artefacts associated with St Patrick scattered across Ireland. And on it goes…
The Rock of Cashel gets its name from the massive natural bedrock into which the buildings are built into. Legend has it that the rock itself comes from the sinisterly-named Devil’s Bit Mountain, located roughly 20 miles (30+ km) to the north. The legend says that the Devil himself had decided that Ireland would make a good a place as any to spread his evil ways, and had tucked himself away in a cave under the mountain. That is, until good St Patrick came along and banished the Devil – creating a massive explosion and causing a large bit of the mountain to fly away, landing in its current spot outside of the town of Cashel (which was yet to be built at the time).
This association with St Patrick somehow made the site holy and important, and a fortification was built here – later to become the Rock of Cashel. The site is also associated with St Patrick in a second way – it is said that the Rock of Cashel was the site of the King Aenghus of Munster’s conversion to Catholicism, a baptism ritual performed by – you guessed it – St Patrick himself.
Today, the Rock of Cashel is an imposing ruin built into the rough bedrock bearing the devil’s name. It is open for visitors all year round, and offers guided tours for those who want. You should allow at least an hour for your visit.
The Rock of Cashel is preserved and managed by the Office of Public Works, or the OPW.
Learn more about visiting the Rock of Cashel, opening times, admission fees, parking facilities and more here.
The Rock of Cashel is located in the town of Cashel, Co Tipperary, in the centre of Ireland, just off the M8 motorway.
From Dublin: The Rock of Cashel is about 2 hours west of the capital, located just off the main motorway towards the southwest of the country.
From Cork: From Cork city, the great medieval fortress is a little over an hour northeast in along the main road to Dublin.
From Limerick: While not located on the main motorway from Dublin to Limerick city, the Rock of Cashel is just 1 hour to the east of Limerick.
For this reason, a visit to the Rock of Cashel is the perfect place to stop and stretch the legs while driving across the island. It is also one of Ireland’s most interesting heritage spots, particularly in this region.
Hoare Abbey is a stone’s throw away from the Rock of Cashel. In fact, you can easily see these dramatic ruins from the Rock of Cashel itself. Originally, Hoare Abbey was a Benedictine Abbey which later became a Cistercian monastery in 1270. For many centuries, it was a prosperous place until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540. It was later occupied as a private residence before a steady decline into its present ruinous state.
Cahir Castle is one of the more impressive and complete castles in Ireland. Located in the bustling market town of Cahir, the castle occupies a large space in the centre of the town, including a lovely park. Built in 1142 by the O’Briens, the castle was eventually taken from them in the 14th century and re-distributed to the Butler family (who also owned Kilkenny Castle) until it fell into disrepair in the 1700s. Today the castle and grounds are open to visitors.
Accessed by a bridge and gatehouse, Athassel Abbey or Priory, as it’s also called, has its claim to fame as Ireland’s largest medieval priory. This amazing 12th century Augustinian abbey was founded by a great Norman family, the de Burghs. It was the victim of arson twice, first by Brian King of Thomond in 1329 and a few centuries later by John Fitzgerald of Desmond in 1581. As with all Catholic buildings, Athassel Abbey was dissolved (in 1537), with its great holdings given to the powerful Butler family, just like Cahir Castle.
And the Butlers appear once again! Farney Castle is a fortified structure with roots back to 1185. It has the claim to be Ireland’s only residence with a round tower (added in 1495) to be used as a family home. The Butlers had Farney for 500 years until in a twist of fate, King Henry VIII, of wife-beheading fame, took the lands from them, though he returned them just a short while later. Of course, it was his affinity for divorcing and creating an Anglican Church that lead to the dissolution of the monasteries in the first place. King James and King George also briefly occupied Farney Castle.
Discovered in 1833, Mitchelstown Cave is among Ireland’s most complex caves, home to passageways large and small, plenty of stalagmites and stalactites, including the s0-called Tower of Babel. Once part of a limestone quarry, a worker dropped his crowbar in a crevice, cleared away some debris, climbed down into the caves to explore – and got lost for hours until rescued. Mitchelstown Cave has been used as a filming location for episodes in the hit HBO series Vikings, and it hosts annual concerts – the acoustics are meant to be phenomenal.
Roscrea town is in the northwestern end of Co Tipperary county. Roscrea is an “Irish Heritage Town” for its many notable architectural structures in the town. This includes the 13the century Roscrea Castle, St Cronan’s Church, and the Round Tower and High Cross of the former abbey. There are also remains of a 15th century Franciscan Friary, 12th century Monaincha Church, and the Augustinian Sean Ross Abbey. Roscrea is also the place where the Book of Dimma was written, now displayed at Trinity College. While not as famous as the Book of Kells, the Book of Dimma is one of Ireland’s most significant illustrated manuscripts.