4. Castles and Conquests

Published on 27 April 2023 at 13:52

Cormac's Chapel, Rock of Cashel

Day four of our road trip around Ireland was all about castles!

Ireland has been ruled by Monarchs from ancient times. Originally the land was divided into four fiefs  – Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught. Each of these was ruled by a lesser king who were in theory answerable to the High King at Tara - although in practice they were fairly autonomous.

The office of High King ended with the Norman invasion, when Ireland was declared a fief of the King of England. Conquered territory was divided amongst various Anlo-Norman noble families, with the Irish inhabitants being either subjugated under their new overlords or displaced.

The first stop on our route today was the Rock of Cashel. Cashel is incredibly impressive as it sits high on its perch, towering over the Plains of Tipperary. It was once the seat of the kings of Munster who ruled over much of southern Ireland from 300AD and is unique in that it is a symbol of both royal and priestly power. It held an important strategic advantage which made it a highly desirable fortification that was fought over by local clans for hundreds of years. Finally, in 1100AD Murtagh O’Brien gave it to the church, thus preventing his rivals, the powerful McCarthy clan, from regaining possession of it. A vibrant religious community flourished here until a siege by the Cromwellian army – rather tragically - led to the massacre of its 3000 occupants.

Just 15 minutes down the road is Cahir Castle. Along with Kilkenny Castle (which we visited yesterday), this served as a residence of the powerful Butler family.  While we found Kilkenny slightly underwhelming, we really enjoyed exploring Cahir. The wonderful thing about Ireland is that you can roam freely around these incredible historic sites, poking into all the nooks and crannies. As we climbed up narrow stone spiral stairways, ducked through dark cave like hallways, and aimed imaginary arrows through narrow slits in the walls it was easy to imagine what life must have been like in medieval times. 

Ireland’s turbulent history has done incalculable damage to its architectural heritage. Cromwell’s forces in particular destroyed scores of castles and monasteries. However, when you are visiting these fascinating ruins it’s easy to forget what these walls represent.

Ireland’s bitter struggle for independence from England is well known. This battle lasted for almost 500 years, resulted in the tragic loss of countless lives, and ended with a divided nation. But, despite this history of conflict and conquests, it is still a thrilling experience walking ancient halls where kings, nobles, and priests once walked, and you come away with a strong sense of the strength the Irish people and their amazing power to endure.

Kilkenny and Cahir Castles, The Rock of Cashel

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a year ago

So interesting and beautiful castles What a wonderful trip you are having