Monday 21 October 2019

The Irish tourist site that rocked the queen

Paying a visit to one of the Gathering's favourite venues to see if it lives up to the hype

Royal welcome: Queen Elizabeth visited the Rock of Cashel in 2011
Royal welcome: Queen Elizabeth visited the Rock of Cashel in 2011
A view of the Rock of Cashel, with its ruined church and fortifications, circa 1885
Jewel in the crown: Daragh McManus visits the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

In this year of The Gathering, the Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland's top tourist destinations. It's the country's most-visited heritage site, and was the only place on Queen Elizabeth's 2011 itinerary that she chose for herself, thus adding another layer of history to an existing millennium and more.

That alone makes it a must-see. But is it worth it? We turned tourist for the day and rocked on up to the Rock to find out.

Approaching by foot up a hill, the place looms in front of you, magisterial and magnificent. It's a hell of an introduction. A collection of ancient, ecclesiastical buildings sitting on top of a limestone outcrop in Co Tipperary, it satisfies the visitor on several levels.

First, and most obviously, the view: from up here, your eyes are overwhelmed with swathes of Golden Vale greenery, bordered by mountains and the legendary Devil's Bit. The rock itself is just as startling and sublime: a single, gargantuan monster of stone erupting out of the ground.

Then there are those buildings. Cashel has been a crucial church settlement for the bones of a millennium, and it's a veritable smorgasbord of delights for lovers of archaeology, architecture and history.

The complex hosts a Gothic cathedral, a round tower, the famous Cormac's Chapel, a so-called "Vicar's Choral" hall, a 12th-century cross and some hugely significant wall paintings, as well as a graveyard, and an underground museum.

The Rock lies on the outskirts of Cashel. The town itself is historically noteworthy, offering lots to the visitor: the Bolton Library, the Heritage Centre, the Folk Village, a Georgian cathedral, original city walls and the former archbishop's palace, now a hotel.

But the Rock is the jewel in its crown. Long used as a fortress and inauguration site by Kings of Munster, it was handed to the church in 1101 by a descendant of Brian Boru.

Tour guide Ronan Kenny explains why it was so important: "It's a very strategic site, on a height, well-protected – you can see for miles around if anyone is attacking. There's also a water source: natural springs, inside the rock."

The 13th-century St Patrick's Cathedral is the largest and most imposing part. There's something irresistible about Gothic architecture.

Standing in the centre of this cathedral, its huge walls vaulting towards the open sky, secret passages running mid-air from end to end, you almost expect to hear doom-laden orchestra music boom through the air.

We had to ask, of course, about the queen's visit in April 2011: a momentous and literally historic occasion.

Chief guide Elaine Moriarty explains: "Henry II came here in 1172, after the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, and was the last English monarch to visit until Elizabeth. This was the one place on her trip she specifically asked to visit."

The queen showed impressive knowledge of artefacts, especially a 13th-century bronze crozier made in Limoges and found in Cormac's Chapel around 1766.

Elaine says: "She was very interested in the crozier, which had been brought under heavy security from Dublin. She recognised it as the same as the one in Wells Cathedral in England. She immediately said, 'Jocelin!' (a medieval bishop influential in the rebuilding of Wells)."

Even older is the 9th-century bronze bell found in Cashel in 1849, currently held by Limerick's Hunt Museum and returned for Elizabeth's visit. "The bell is unbelievably heavy," Elaine recalls, "and the duke wanted me to lift it – the queen said, 'She can't possibly, it's too heavy!'"

The Rock has passed through various hands down the years, religious and secular; people lived and worked here until the mid-19th century, when the cost of maintenance became too great.

It fell into disrepair until the Board of Works (now OPW) began restoration in the 1870s.

Which leads us to current renovation and conservation efforts. Ronan explains: "It's ongoing, not only to conserve the buildings but to keep them safe. They're very old buildings, and the climate doesn't help."

Elaine adds: "It's like painting the Golden Gate bridge: by the time you reach the end you've to start all over again."

At the moment, the work is focused on two main areas: Cormac's Chapel and a previously unknown, historically significant wall painting discovered on the cathedral in 2003.

The former was falling apart from damp until 1987, when a huge project began. Basic repairs were done to remove mould that covered every square inch. Today, conservation expert Tobit Curteis, based in Cambridge, is engaged in further drying out the sandstone building and keeping the mould at bay.

Mark Perry is the expert who uncovered the cathedral paintings.

The softly spoken Oxford man explains: "They weren't known about at all until 2003. The wall had been covered with plaster for about 500 years, but tiny fragments of colour had been seen.

"It took a few summers to uncover what we have now. Then we looked up in the niche and found a separate painting, at least 50 years older.

"This is an incredibly significant finding. I can't think of many other similar church paintings from medieval times, and none with this elaborate trellis pattern in the background. It's unique, and to have two is incredible. It's nationally important."

A quarter of a million people come to the Rock every year, from all over the world; on the day we visited, several tour groups passed through, gazing open-mouthed at the view, the high cross, that glorious cathedral.

So, to answer that question, is it worth it? Absolutely, yes. The guides are friendly and well-informed, it's easy to get there and the prices are very reasonable (€6 for adults, €4 for seniors and groups, €2 for children or students, and €14 for a family).

But it's the place itself that makes a visit worthwhile. Standing in the midst of all this history, art, natural beauty and vaulting architectural splendour, only the most curmudgeonly Irish person wouldn't feel a little surge of national pride.

Even our inclement climate doesn't matter up here. It was cold and windy the day we visited, but there was still magic in the air.

Elaine adds: "Old buildings can look very beautiful in the rain anyway. And when the sun is shining, this whole place puts on a different face."

Irish Independent

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