Thursday, June 05, 2008

Rock of Cashel

As I looked through my travel notes I discovered that a single word hadn't been written about this marvelous ruin in County Tipperary. Once known as St. Patrick's Rock, in the 5th century, the current cathedral buildings that dominate the site were built in the 13th century. There have been quite a few changes over the centuries, and the one I personally noticed was that what once was a romantic ruin I had climbed on my first trip to Europe, is now a micro managed tourist attraction.

My first glimpse of this edifice was breathtaking and my first time there seemed magical. It must have been a slow day for tourism as my college friend and I spent most of our time there alone, climbing the walls and ramparts, exploring every nook and cranny. The stairwells were not barred then and we were able to walk along the walls of the second storey of the main choir; an activity my current, more cautious self would not have attempted this time, had the opportunity presented itself.

Could this have been where the seed of my aversion to heights was planted? The lack of guard railings would certainly keep me from walking briskly through those doorways today, but it didn't stop me then.

The Romanesque details of the architecture help to set the mood of these ruins, solemn and even oppressive, if it weren't for the roof and dark stained glass windows having been destroyed because of sacking and looting by the English during the Irish Confederate Wars in the mid 17th century. The roof came off a century later and it is my guess it had to do with the desire to avoid having to pay taxes. Buildings were taxed in earlier centuries by the number of windows on the property, so many very old buildings all over the country show evidence of windows having been bricked up. Buildings were considered ruins and had no tax obligation if the roofs were destroyed.
The graveyard is very old, but these crosses are from the Victorian era. One can't help but wonder how many other unmarked graves lie beneath this ancient site.
Another church or monastery ruin in the valley can be seen from the graveyard. This setting is quintessential Ireland to me, with its stone walls, hedgerows and lovely green grass. Looking at it almost brings back a scent memory of peat burning in a fireplace. In 1975 there was a flurry of activity on the Rock and what is referred to as the hall was rebuilt to accommodate the new entrance and ticket desk. Prior to that, the only official stop between you and the rock was set at the foot of the hill. Public safety must surely have improved with personnel on site.

Prior to that time, Cormac's Chapel was closed to the public and it would have been difficult for anyone to imagine any color on the walls in this austere and sober setting. Trace evidence enabled a contemporary artist's rendition of what it may have looked like when it was being used in centuries past.
Due to the opening of the chapel, current visitors are treated to a greater variety of artwork and the best piece of ancient Celtic bas relief as pictured above. The decorative stonework at the back door of the chapel would also have been missed prior to the reopening of the chapel.

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