Monday, September 20, 2010
PHOTO FOR THE DAY
One of the most revered sites in Ireland is the famous Rock of Cashel, whose name is derived from the Gaelic "caiseal" or fortress. It has doubled as both fortress and monastery since its inception in 432 A.D. Rising 200 feet above a bowl-shaped valley, Cashel affords an unrivaled view of large portions of County Tipperary. Wandering through the ruins in 2005, I could especially appreciate the view when a tour guide pointed out some round stone towers for which I could not imagine any use until he clarified. Solid edifices with narrow slit openings approximately twenty feet off the ground, they appeared impregnable, as indeed they were. During the days of the Viking invasions when monasteries were targeted by raiders, the monks would retreat to those towers. Warned by lookouts scouting the incomparable open view of the valley, they would ascend to the towers, pulling up rope ladders behind them, and simply outwait marauders.
One notable ruin inside the fortress is Cormac's Chapel, built in 1127 by Cormac MacCarthy, King of Desmond. Another is St. Patrick's Cathedral, dating from the 13th century, in which St. Patrick is said to have baptized King Aegnus, making him the first Christian ruler of Ireland. It was during that baptism that he used the shamrock to demonstrate to still-pagan Irish the concept of the Holy Trinity...and, as we know, the shamrock remains Ireland's national symbol to this day.
The origin of the Rock itself is less subject to archeological truth. Word has it, though, that the devil in a fit of temper one day flew over the valley, spitting out a portion of the surrounding Slieve Bloom Mountains which had impeded his progress. That gigantic mound of earth became the Rock of Cashel and the spot where he is said to have taken his mouthful is called Devil's Bite.
Cashel has known every use from quiet monastery to mighty fortress and home of kings to scenes of incomparable tragedy such as the immolation of villagers who had taken refuge in the church there during invasion by Oliver Cromwell's troops. Today it is a far more peaceful scene, with the tiny village of Cashel nestled at its southern bank. Sheep--one of which stuck its nose through an opening in the ruins to check me out--wander more or less freely. An Irish Setter came to visit me there, too.
It is a singular honor for one of the villagers to be buried at Cashel, and that honor is accorded to the oldest families, some of whose lineage can be traced for centuries, all linked with the fate of the Rock of Cashel. Today it is carefully preserved, with only the most necessary repairs being made to prevent further ruin, for the Irish treasure their history and thus far have mostly resisted the urge to bulldoze it.
I featured Cashel in my book Confessions of the Cleaning Lady, set in both the U.S. and Ireland. I stood in the very spot where my hero Mal proposes marriage to his lady, a tiny monk's office with a lattice-work of windows and fresh flowers set out daily on a table which is the only amenity in the room. Oh, yes, and there was that sheep's face butting inside the window on the day I visited. He wasn't really that interested in me, though. He was looking at the flowers.