The Rock of Cashel is a mighty fortress worth a detour on a trip to Ireland. The buildings are full of history and the grounds offer expansive views of the countryside. Even better, there are two FREE places nearby that merit a visit: Hore Abbey and Athassel Priory. We saw all three in a day, and you can, too. Here’s how to get the most out of a trip to the Rock of Cashel and more!
The imposing Rock of Cashel, also known as St. Patrick’s Rock, is a large fortification sitting on top of a limestone hill in the otherwise flat lands of Tipperary in south central Ireland.
St. Patrick himself is believed to have converted the pagan King of Munster to Christianity here in the 5th century, which made the Rock the seat of the High Kings of Munster from that time forward.
Even so, most of the buildings on site date from the beginning of the 12th century when the castle was gifted to the Church of Ireland. Shortly after that, work began on a chapel, followed by a massive Gothic cathedral that dominates the site today.
At the heart of the Rock of Cashel is the cross-shaped, 13th century cathedral. Finished around the year 1270, it became and remained the highest religious building in Ireland for almost 400 years. In the mid-1700’s, the cathedral was gutted and abandoned by the Archbishop of Cashel in favor of a church in a different location. It remained in disrepair until its rebirth many years later as a tourist attraction.
Like other strongholds of its kind, the Rock carries some tragic history dating to the Irish Confederate Wars of the 1600’s when the cashel was attacked and looted, resulting in the deaths of almost 1,000 soldiers, priests, and townspeople who sought shelter within the cathedral’s walls.
One of the oldest and tallest building on the grounds, the Round Tower stands 90 feet high and conceals six stories. It was built without mortar and predates the cathedral by almost 200 years.
The tower has survived for more than a millenium, still standing after the cathedral was burned in 1494 and only losing its cap to artillery fire during the sacking of 1646.
The early 12th century Cormac’s Chapel is only slightly younger than the Tower by about 30 years. It has sophisticated, ornate architectural elements for the time period. Sadly, the well-preserved Romanesque frescoes and carvings have become waterlogged over the years due to the chapel’s absorbent sandstone walls. When we visited, dehumidifiers and plastic sheeting predominated, although people were still allowed in.
Surrounding the buildings and enclosed by the high stone wall is an expansive, grass-carpeted graveyard of Celtic crosses.
We saw a mix of headstones, some quite modern, as the cemetery is still active. However, only those who were put on a waiting list by their ancestors in 1930 can be buried here.
Bonus Site #1: Hore Abbey
Looking over the fields from the Rock, it’s easy to spot the ruined Hore Abbey in the distance. It was once inhabited by Benedictine and later Cistercian monks, who worked the adjacent lands and long-gone mills. Most of the abbey was built after 1270. The architecture is generally plain and conservative, like the monks who once lived there.
Bonus Site #2: Athassel Priory
On your way in (or out) of Cashel, we recommend seeking out Athassel Priory, well-hidden down a country lane in the middle of a pasture. About four miles outside of town off the N74, it’s the largest medieval priory in Ireland and dates to the close of the 12th century. It’s also really cool and pretty much deserted.
Though it may not look it, visitors are perfectly welcome, but entry is, again, over a stone wall and through a grassy field. The bridge is to the left, and you might have to walk past a cow or two on the way through the gatehouse. Just be calm and don’t alarm them, especially the bull.
The complex was once surrounded by a high wall, separating it from the large town that grew up beyond its four acres. Over the years, the town was burned at least twice, and as it got smaller, so did the priory.
We visited Cashel on a day trip from Ennis, stopping at Athassel Priory first before driving into Cashel proper, although it could be done in reverse.
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