Cashel of The Kings

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Cashel of The Kings

The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most spectacular historic sites, a prominent limestone outcrop which rises up from the plains of County Tipperary. Also known as Cashel of the Kings, it is one of the 6 Royal Sites of Ireland considered for UNESCO World Heritage status and is the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster.

Its origins as a centre of power go back to the 4th or 5th centuries AD, however, there is no structural evidence remaining from that period. Most of the buildings on the current site date from the 12th and 13th centuries when the rock was gifted to the Church. The name Cashel comes from the Irish word ‘Caiseal’, meaning ‘stone fort’, indicating that there was a fortress here long before the ecclesiastic settlement.

Cashel is reputed to be the site of the conversion of the King of Munster in the 5th Century by St. Patrick and one legend actually associates the origin of the Rock itself with the saint, hence its Irish name ‘Carraig Phádraig’ meaning Patrick’s Rock. According to the legend, the rock originated in the Devil’s Bit, a mountain 20 miles (30 km) north of Cashel where St. Patrick banished Satan from a cave. As he fled, the devil took a bite out of the mountain and spat out the rock which landed on the plains at Cashel.

In 1101, after subduing most of the country, the King of Munster, Muirchertach Ua Briain, declared himself High King of Ireland. In the same year, while travelling the island’s provinces, he donated his fortress on the Rock of Cashel to the Church. However, the Rock of Cashel’s associations with the Kings of Munster go way back into Ireland’s mythical past.

The modern term ‘Munster’ derives from the old Irish kingdom of Mhumhain and the Old Norse word staðr (ster) meaning location or place. The word ‘Mhumhain ‘ is taken from Mór Muman (modern spelling: Mór Mhumhan), a figure from early Irish literature who is said to have been a queen of Munster. Her name means “Great Mother” and she is believed to have been a sovereignty goddess of the province.

One tale from the 10th Century Book of Leinster explains how Mór Muman became Queen of Munster after she was placed under an enchantment, driving her mad and making her forget who she was. After wandering Ireland for two years ‘clad in rags and blackened by the sun and wind’, Mór Muman arrived at Cashel where she tended the sheep of King Fíngen mac Áedo Duib. When Fíngen’s jealous wife challenged him to sleep with the ‘ugly shepherdess’, Fingin did so and Mór Muman immediately recovered her sanity and her beauty. The next day Fingen made Mór Mumain his new queen and thereafter the kingdom was named Mhumhain after her.

This tale is based on a common motif in Irish mythology, whereby a goddess of sovereignty appears as a hag until she sleeps with the rightful king, whereupon she becomes a beautiful young woman, bestowing good fortune on the land and its king.