Cashel (Co. Tipperary / South)
Cashel (Caiseal Mumhan – “Stone Fortress of Munster”) (pop. 3000), sometimes called Cashel of the Kings, is a market town in the Golden Vale. It owes its historical importance to a freak outcrop of stratified limestone rising abruptly from the encircling plain.
The Rock of Cashel / Saint Patrick’s Rock (Carraig Phadraig) (60m / 200ft), is crowned with the spectacular ruins of a medieval ecclesiastical complex. A view of the Rock at dawn or sunset is one of Ireland’s most memorable sights: a wonderful mirage of fairytale turrets, crenulations and walls.
According to legend, the Rock was formed when Beelzebub was flying overhead with a large chunk he had just removed from mountains to the north (known as the Devil’s Bit) and saw an important chieftain being baptised by Saint Patrick, who picked a shamrock (since become Ireland’s unofficial emblem) to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, whereupon the shocked Prince of Darkness dropped his burden. (Another story recounts that the saint absent-mindedly impaled the baptisee’s foot with his crozier; the agonised chieftain, bleeding profusely, remained mute and immobile, assuming this was part of the ceremony).
Cashel itself is was laid out as a planned Norman town in the C13th, and still contains strong medieval elements, partially overlaid by later (mainly Georgian) development. There are several traditional pubs (notably Dowling’s, Feehan’s and Ryan’s), good places to eat and a wide range of accommodation options.
Adopted c.400 AD by the powerful Eóganachta clan as capital of their extensive territories in Munster, Cashel soon rivalled Tara and later Armagh as a centre of power in Gaelic Ireland. Probably Christianised by the official Papal envoy Saint Palladius, it was ruled for five centuries by a succession of warrior bishop kings, the most famous being the legendary scholar and fighter Cormac MacCullenan.
In 977 AD the Dál gCais usurper, Brian Boru, was crowned here as the first non-Eóghanacht king of Cashel and Munster; he went on to become High King of Ireland, self-proclaimed Emperor of the Irish and hero of the Battle of Clontarf. In 1101 his great-grandson, Muircheartach Ua Briain, gave Cashel to the bishop of Limerick.
The C12th and C13th saw important developments, both physical and political. The 1172 Synod of Cashel formally acknowledged the lordship of King Henry II of England over Ireland, in line with Papal policy. Thereafter the Diocese was ruled by a series of Anglo-Norman Archbishops.
Under King Henry VIII, the post was held by the 8th Earl of Ormond’s son Edmund Butler, abbott of Athassel, who is said to have “shared in the family failings, propensity for plundering and servility to the king“, robbed and abducted traders on the nearby River Suir and enthusiastically supported the Reformation.
Under Queen Elizabeth I, the Pope’s nominee to the archbishopric, Maurice FitzGibbon, a Geraldine, was forced to flee to Spain, and on returning secretly, was imprisoned in Cork, where he died after much suffering. His successor Dermod O’Hurley of Limerick, a distinguished professor at Reims, also suffered cruel tortures and was hanged outside Dublin in 1583.
Miler MacGrath (1522 – 1622) was an apostate Franciscan, disdained by both Protestant and Catholic historians for his ambiguous and corrupt activities during the Reformation. Appointed by Rome as Bishop of Down, he converted to Anglicanism, and the Queen promoted him to the See of Cashel. Despite a reputation as a drunkard, he was adept at playing off Catholics and Protestants with equal skill, at one point simultaneously holding four bishoprics and several benefices, out of which he provided for his numerous offspring. His monument in the ruined cathedral bears an intriguing epitaph written by himself.
The Rock was the scene in 1647 of a bloody massacre of Kilkenny Confederacy fighters, clergy and locals by Parliamentarian troops led by Murrough “the Burner” O’Brien, 1st Earl of Inchiquin, who looted or destroyed many important religious artefacts and also sacked the town. The site was officially closed for worship in 1721.
A 1663 charter granted by King Charles II and expressly renewed by King William III (in gratitude for the hospitality shown to his troops en route to the Siege of Limerick in 1691) promoted the former Borough to official City status.
Cashel’s Corporation was remarkable for its bigotry and hostility towards Irish “foreigners” and even Quakers, running the town as an Anglican enclave. Corporation records make no reference to the Great Frost of the 1740 Bliain an Air, aka the Forgotten Famine. However, the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop Theophilus Bolton (c.1688 – 1744) oversaw the feeding of up to 1,000 poor each day, meeting half the cost personally.
Some efforts to reconcile the denominations were made by the notably Calvinist Archbishop Charles Agar (1735 – 1809), later Archbishop of Dublin, who was made Baron / Viscount Somerton and culminated his ascent through the Irish Peerage as Earl of Normanton.
Kingsmill Pennefather, son of a minor Cromwellian cavalry officer from Staffordshire who had been granted extensive lands locally, was Mayor 1708-1709, and was soon joined as an Alderman by his sons Richard and William. Within a century, sixteen members of the Corporation were Pennefathers or relatives of theirs. Cashel’s seat in the Irish Parliament and later the post-1800 British Parliament was held by a succession of Pennefathers almost uninterruptedly from 1713 to 1832; not one of the 15 elections held in the early C19th was contested at the polls, and only on two occasions did a Pennefather actually sit in Westminster. Their corruption and avarice were also extraordinary.
The Reform Act 1840 abolished Cashel Corporation, and the newly appointed Town Commissioners successfully sued the Pennefathers and Richard Long of Longfield House for misappropriations of Corporate lands illegally leased for nominal sums to family and friends. Cashel’s two Maces and Civic Sword were auctioned at Sotheby’s of London in 1939 by order of the executors of one Major WV Pennefather.
The Cashel Heritage Centre & Museum in the former Town Hall / Market House has a model of the walled town of Cashel in the 1640s, a collection of Royal Charters, and an interesting multimedia presentation in several languages.
St Patrick’s Rock ruins
The C12th and C13th ruins on the Rock are grouped together into a remarkable tighty knit architectural unit. (Photo by RX-Guru)
Visitors are met by a replica of a medieval High Cross embedded in a rock.
The original C4th Coronation Stone, into which St Patrick’s Cross was impaled to mark the 800th anniversary of his supposed baptism of king Aenghus, is in the fascinating Museum & Visitors’ / interpretative Centre, housed in the exquisite C15th Hall of the Vicars Choral.
St Patrick’s Cathedral (1270), a simple aisle-less cruciform edifice built in a primitive Gothic style, is by far the largest of the ecclesiasical buildings. Long roofless, the church is rather oddly proportioned, with a central tower, a long choir lit by five rows of lancet windows, and a stubby nave foreshortened at its western end by Archbishop O’Hedigan‘s Episcopal Palace, an early C15th residential Castle / Tower House, its massive walls honeycombed with passages and secret chambers.
Cormac’s Chapel (1134) is the largest and most complete Romanesque church in Ireland, and arguably the most beautiful, despite the destruction of its frescoes by Puritans. The twin towers on either side of the barrel-vaulted nave and chancel display the strong Germanic influences of craftsmen sent to help in the construction by the Abbot of the Benedictine Schottenkloster monastery in Regensburg, founded some 60 years earlier by Irish missionaries. Inside there is a magnificent sarcophogus with Scandinavian ornamentation.
The oldest surviving structure is a perfect drystone Round Tower (c.1100) standing 28m / 90ft tall. The entrance is 3m / 12ft above the ground.
There are also a few domestic buildings dating mostly from the C13th, of which the chapter house is the most relatively intact. A tower was added in the C15th.
The Celtic Crosses dotted about are mostly grave monuments of various ages; one of the largest and most famous was destroyed by lightning in 1976.
The entire complex is enclosed by an eroded wall; a sizeable chunk fell away during the Big Wind of January 1839. The views of the Golden Vale are striking.
Dominic’s Abbey southeast of the Rock is a ruined Dominican Priory, founded in1243 and largely rebuilt in 1480, with a beautiful East window.
Hackett’s Abbey, a Franciscan Friary founded by Sir William Hackett in 1265, operated until 1550. The Friars maintained a sporadic presence in Cashel thereafter; one, John Kearney, was hanged in Dublin in 1653.
Cashel’s Town Walls stood tall from the late C13th to the C18th, with five guarded gates; some surviving lengths are currently undergoing restoration. One well-preserved section is inset with the grave slabs of Sir William Hackett and his wife.
Quirke’s / Kearney’s Castle, a C15th Tower House with battlements and gargoyles, was the residence of the Kearney family for many years, but was occupied during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms by Lord Inchiquin‘s troops. The restored building is now the highly regarded Kearney’s Castle Hotel.
The The Bishop’s Palace in the centre of the town is a Georgian mansion, designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce in 1730 as a Deanery for the Church of Ireland archbishops. There are two mulberry trees in the gardens dating back to the time of Queen Mary. Now run as the Cashel Palace Hotel, it has an excellent reputation.
Cathedral of St John the Baptist & Bolton Library
The Cathedral church of St John the Baptist (CoI) was completed in 1784. Its famous Samuel Green organ was built in 1786. The tower and spire were added in the early C19th by Vitruvius Morrison, based on a rejected drawing by Philip Gibbs for the London church of St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Chapter House & Cathedral
The Bolton Library, now in the C19th Chapter House, is a rare collection of over 12,000 antiquarian books ranging in subject from history to theology, including medieval manuscripts, a 1456 William Caxton printing of Chaucer, works by Dante, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Calvin and Swift, plus “the smallest book in the world”. There is also a collection of silver, the earliest piece dating from 1585.
Archbishop Richard Lawrence moved the Diocesan headquarters to Waterford City in 1833. The Anglican archbishop of the United Diocese of Ossory now lives in Kilkenny City; in 2003 the current incumbent, Bishop Peter F Barrett, was enthroned at six separate ceremonies in the Diocesan Cathedrals of Ferns, Kilkenny, Lismore, Leighlin, Waterford and Cashel.
Since Dr. James Butler II (1774-91), the Roman Catholic archbishops of Cashel and Emly have resided in Thurles, now their Cathedral town.
The church of St John the Baptist (RC), completed in 1795, stands on the site of the old Franciscan Friary. (Photo by Száller Zoltán)
Cashel Folk Village, a series of informal reconstructions of various traditional thatched village shops, a forge and other buildings, together with signs and commercial memorabilia, will appeal to anyone interested in Irish social history. There is also an Old IRA Museum and an audio-visual presentation about The Troubles 1916 – 1923.
Bothán Scóir is a unique tiny one-roomed peasant dwelling, providing a stark contrast to the ecclesiastical splendour of the Palace.
Brú Boru (”the palace of Boru”, i.e. Brian Boru)- is a “cultural village” at the foot of the Rock, dedicated to the celebration of Irish music, song, dance, storytelling, theatre, genealogy and Celtic studies. The ‘Sounds of History’ exhibition comprises a series of subterranean chambers echoing to the story of Ireland from ancient times to the present day. The resident Bru Boru group have entertained the President of the United States, Frank Sinatra, and even Liza Minelli!!!
Bailey’s Hotel occupies a fine restored Georgian house in the town centre, with a good bar that hosts regular music sessions.
Cashel Holiday Hostel provides cheerful family-run budget accommodation in a 250-year-old home on John St.
Ashmore House is another Georgian house on John St, built c.1740 and nowadays run by Brendan & Laura Ryan as an elegant B&B.
Aulber House, owned by Sean & Bernice Alley, is an impressive luxury Guesthouse, purpose-built in mock-Georgian style in 2000, set in pretty gardens on the outskirts of the town.
Cashel’s Summer Festival is a four-day event of live music, theatre and family activities, including a tug-of-war.
The Cashel Arts Festival takes place over ten days every November.
Rossa Pottery is one of the oldest independent potteries in Ireland.
Winnie Looby, a textile designer with an international reputation, has a clothes shop and gallery in the town.
Cashel Blue farmhouse cheese is actually produced in Fethard.