The Golden Vale. Before you’ve even seen it, let me be so bold as to guess what it brings to your mind: buttercup-brimming fields, a sightly spread of meadows and perhaps the odd fairy tree.
You’re nearly there.
Heave a huge hill and a crumbling castle complex into the scene and we’re done.
Welcome to the Golden Vale. Welcome to the Rock of Cashel.
First things first: what is the Rock of Cashel?
The simple, and possibly infuriating, answer to that would be: it’s a rock, and it’s in Cashel. But of course, this is a lot more than just a rock.
Here comes the history.
Our first clue to the Rock of Cashel’s real identity is in its lesser-known name: Cashel of the Kings.
From about the 4th century, this Tipperary hill was the seat of the High Kings of Munster.
As legend would have it (and who are we to doubt legend) it was on this hill that St Patrick converted Munster’s kingship to Christianity. That same legend tells us that, mid-baptism, Patrick mistakenly drove his crozier through the foot of King Aenghus. Clearly the moment was too special for Aenghus to mutter: ‘Excuse me old chap, but you seem to have skewered my foot with that curious looking stick of yours. Would you be a dear fellow and whisk it out?’, as he said nothing and simply allowed Patrick to continue. They were built of stronger stuff in those days.
Over time, the kingship recognised the logistical benefits of being high up on a hill and decided to build their fortress. From the 11th century to the 15th, the rock morphed from a grassy hillock to home for the following: round tower, high cross and Romanesque chapel, Gothic cathedral, castle and the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral. Not a bad four centuries’ work.
That’s not to say the kings lived here all that time. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the early 12th century to bump into royalty there. In 1101, with Ireland’s provinces mired in a period of feuding, the King of Munster, Muirchertach Ua Briain made a rather canny move with the Rock of Cashel: he donated it to the church. In this way, his path to heaven would be guaranteed, his legacy would be a shining one AND none of his rivals would get their grubby hands on prime warring real-estate.
Fast forward to today. Driving along the Cashel bypass, your eye is caught by five bronze and steel figures. Twenty foot high, they wear crowns of golden swirls, points and peaks while their hands carry shields in constant readiness. Their faces catch the sunlight. Meet the Kings of Munster and cue the goosebumps.
This is the work of master sculptor, Orla de Brí. Keeping in mind that Orla spent nine months bringing Munster’s kings to life, we thought she might be just the person to explain the attraction of the Rock of Cashel. Turns out we were right:
“I first went to The rock of Cashel as a child, I remember my dad reading from one of the grave stones.
‘Remember man as you pass by
as you are now so once was I
as I am now so you will be,
remember man eternity’
I was so taken with this I memorised it.”
With an impact like that, it must have felt like full circle for Orla when her work took her back there:
“I was delighted to make the sculpture for Cashel… I made the five 20ft figures to represent the high kings of Munster. Their faces are made from highly polished mirrors. Conceptually, this gives the idea of seeing ourselves in the faces of our ancestors.”
It can be tricky for us in Ireland to imagine a country ruled by kings. After all, it was almost a millennium ago. Orla’s work has piqued our collective imaginations.
“The High Kings have always been a bit of a mystery to us, you imagine lots of myths and legends surrounding them. Perhaps that’s why when I was making the piece, I asked five people close to me to write down a few lines of their personal thoughts at the time. I engraved the words inside each heads of the high kings secretly locking them away.”
As if the Rock of Cashel needed any more mystery.