The Rock of Cashel, or in Irish Carraig Phádraig [translating to St. Patrick’s Rock], is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s most iconic monuments. We have to admit to a little bias here, given that the Rock of Cashel is one of our local monuments, but it absolutely deserves all the attention it receives. It dominates the skyline as you approach Cashel, as it perches majestically on a high stony outcrop overlooking the fertile green plains of South Tipperary, some of the best land in the country. It’s so easy to be so impressed by the large stone buildings and the grandeur of the place that you overlook the wonderful small hidden details, like the characterful decorative flourishes in the Cathedral, the sculpture of the medieval tombs, or the delicate and ephemeral traces of pigment that once formed colourful frescoes in Cormac’s Chapel. We hope this short overview might inspire you to dwell a little longer, look a little closer and dig a little deeper into the story of this magnificent site.
The Rock of Cashel is quite often mistakenly called Cashel Castle, when it isn’t a castle in the true sense at all. In fact, all the buildings that you see on the Rock today are ecclesiastical. However, it is also known as Cashel of the Kings and that is a more accurate name. The Rock was originally home to the Eóganachta, who were once Kings of Munster. After a series of wars, they lost the lands in the late 10th century to their great rivals the Dál Cais, who became the pre-eminent dynasty of Munster. Brian Boru was the perhaps most famous of this line. He became King of Cashel in AD 978, and went on to become the most famous of the High Kings of Ireland, until his death in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Brian’s great grandson, Muircheartach Ua Briain changed the destiny of the Rock of Cashel forever when he granted it to the Church in 1101. Rather than being solely an act of spiritual generosity, it was also a shrewd political move, as it ensured the Eóganacht could never reclaim their ancient royal seat. However, it was not long before the Eóganacht influence returned to the Rock of Cashel. Cormac Mac Cárthaigh (a member of the Eóghanact and King of Munster) became the patron of the most spectacular building on the site, Cormac’s Chapel. You can hear more about the early history of the Rock of Cashel in this episode of our Amplify Archaeology Podcast with Dr. Patrick Gleeson.