Some places feel like they shouldn’t even be standing at all in this modern day and age. Over a thousand years old.
Places that have witnessed when kingdoms were being solidified, when borders were being carved out across the earth, and when man lived so much closer to nature and intuition. Timelines so historic and megalithic that the transformative eras of the 17th and 18th centuries pale in comparison.
Yet they’ve defied all odds and still stand.
They’ve screamed back against the elements. Wind, thunderstorms, snow, and ice have lashed against their stone walls, threatening to relegate them to memories in history textbooks at school.
Yet they’ve stubbornly stood, will not be forgotten, and demand to be remembered and revered in person.
Because these two rocks, on which two significant castles in Irish history stand, helped build Ireland.
The Rock of Dunamase
I recently spent days exploring Ireland’s Ancient East – the oldest parts of the country in Southern Ireland. Starting in Dublin, we were off to County Laois, and Dunamase, whizzing through Abbeyleix, overnighting in Durrow, and then exploring Cashel in County Tipperary, Waterford, Jerpoint, Kilkenney, Kildare, and Newbridge.
Dating back over 2,000 years, the Rock of Dunamase juts out of the surrounding lush Irish countryside of County Laois. Like a watch guard quietly standing and surveying the land with impressive 360 degree views of rolling mounds, sheep dotting its hills, moving like white maggots from this distance. The earliest historical references to Dunamase seem to date back to the Iron Age around 840 – 845AD when Vikings ravaged Ireland’s shores.
The castle ruins that sit atop Dunamase are from the 12th century when the Normans arrived in Ireland. The year 1170 turned Dunamase into a significant stronghold of the Anglo-Normans when it was given as the dowry of Aoife, the daughter of Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, then King of Leinster in marriage to Norman conqueror, Richard de Clare, aka Strongbow.
While Dunamase was passed down through generations, it became ruins by 1350. And then, Dunamase lay dormant, wind blowing and whispering through its crumbling walls until it was blown up in 1650 by the military to prevent it from being used as an outpost during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-1600s.
When I arrived to Dunamase late afternoon with black birds crowing and circling above, I knew I was stepping on grounds that needed to be respected. The feelings coursing through me were mixed – a sense of deep history and “if these walls could talk” all wrapped up with a pretty eerie ribbon. Even one of my fellow travelers felt a presence behind him as he explored one of the small coves with a window looking out onto green farmland. The air felt heavier like someone had walked in and thinking it was one of us, he turned around to address the person.
But there was no one there.
The Rock of Cashel
But if Dunamase was a jaw-dropping sight as we approached it, The Rock of Cashel simply takes one’s breath away as you approach it. The type of reaction that forces you to stop the bus and run across the road to take photos from several kilometers away before ever reaching the rock.
Sitting on a large outcropping of limestone rock in County Tipperary that dominates the entire region and dwarfs the tiny town of Cashel itself, this walled rath (enclosure) of Medieval structures clustered together includes a 12th century round tower, Romanesque Cormac’s Chapel named after King Cormac Mac Carthaigh, 13th century Gothic cathedral of St. Patrick, 15th century Castle, the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral, and several Irish High Crosses in its graveyard.
Also called the “Seat of Kings” or “Rock of Kings”, everything about Cashel oozes prehistoric Celtic heritage. Again, crumbling structures proudly standing after hundreds of years, close to a thousand that shouldn’t even remain standing against all odds. Yet they stand. Resiliently like the spirit of the Irish people themselves.
Once the seat of kings of Munster – which was one of the original provinces in Southern Ireland – these kings ruled from the 4th to the 12th centuries from this very rock. When the grounds were gifted to the church by one of the kings, its iconic 13th century cathedral was later built.
Exploring its ground and graveyards with Irish High Crosses, and other symbolic Celtic grave monuments transported me back to the past. Because Cashel felt frozen in time. One of its most famous crosses – Scully’s Cross – erected in 1867 to commemorate the Scully family was struck by lightning and part of it was destroyed.
Yet it stands.
While up at the top of Cashel, I could clearly see the other isolated ruins of a monastery that stood further out in the distance and we went over to explore it as well.
The remains of a 13th Cistercian monastery called Hore Abbey. Founded by the Benedictine order in 1266, Hore Abbey was given to the Cistercian monks from Mellifont Abbey in 1272 by David McCarvill, Archbishop of Cashel.
The energy I felt while exploring Hore Abbey was a lot heavier than at Cashel. More intense. The type of energy that raises the little hairs on the back of your neck.
I wonder what Cashel’s and Hore Abbey’s neighbors think. Living day in, day out with such a massive chunk of Irish history right in their backyards. There are some places I dare not wander alone at night. Hore Abbey and the graves surrounding The Rock of Cashel are clearly two of them.
But under the light of day, in all their splendor, these sites on which Ireland was carved must be revered in person if you ever find yourself traveling around Ireland’s Ancient East.
My tips for exploring The Rocks of Dunamase and Cashel
I would suggest renting a car and doing a road trip so you can explore the region at a leisurely pace.
Cashel is one of Ireland’s most iconic and visited attractions so to beat the crowd, try to get there in the early morning.
On the flip side, Hore Abbey which provides stunning views of Cashel from the valley below is rarely visited so make sure to visit those ruins as well.
Check its official website for the latest admission fees, site updates, as well as local bus transport options.
Ironically, while The Rock of Dunamase and its castle ruins are free and readily open to the public, Dunamase is very rarely crowded.
And if you go up in the morning or late afternoon, chances are you’ll probably be one of a handful of people up there.
The only ones that you can physically see anyways.
I explored this region of Ireland on the #IrelandsAncientEast campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with Tourism Ireland. As always, I maintain full editorial control of the content published on my site.