The story of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, plays out like the popular HBO television series Game of Thrones. In the late tenth century, Ireland had about 500,000 inhabitants and 150 kings. It was an old land – a land of tribes and chieftains constantly battling for power and control. No man, woman or child was spared the gruesome, bloody scenes that come with constant war.
Brian Boru was one of eleven sons born to a chieftain who ruled over Thomond, a region covering most of north Munster. He died when Brian was just ten years old. They lived in County Clare in an area now known as Killaloe, a small village on the River Shannon. Being the son of chieftain, Brian was trained as a warrior and he saw more than his share of violence, torture, injury and death. When the local clans weren’t warring, the Vikings were invading. Though Brian grew up to become a great warrior and leader, he also developed superb political skills. These skills paired with his love for Ireland pushed him to become the most successful leader of his time.
At an early age, Brian was ruling Thomond. By the time he was 35 he had ascended to the royal seat of Munster, Ireland’s southwestern province. The High Kings of Munster ruled from the Rock of Cashel , but some historians believe that Brian chose to rule from Kincora, his estate in Killaloe. Brian fathered many sons with several wives, one of whom was a Viking. But as much he traveled throughout Ireland battling and politicking, his home base was always at Kincora. Today, the ramparts of his castle there are still visible in a wooded area off an unmarked path in Killaloe.
As in the Game of Thrones where rulers of the seven kingdoms seek the Iron Throne, Brian Boru sought the position of High King. He achieved it when he was 61 years old. Ireland has had many High Kings, but Brian was the only High King who united the entire country for one common cause – to defeat the Norse invaders.
On Good Friday, April 23, 1014, Brian Boru and his sons led an army in a battle at Clontarf near Dublin. There was great loss of life including Brian’s son and grandson, but the 73 year old High King survived. His army defeated the Vikings, driving them into the sea back to their Nordic homelands.
While Brian had a few domestic enemies who ultimately joined the Vikings in battle against him, the Irish masses were behind the High King. And it was this unified spirit that enabled Brian Boru to lead the effort that expelled the Vikings for good. His political savvy, warrior strength and unrelenting determination brought Ireland to a place where the people were united, liberated and poised to grow as a nation.
Brian Boru was undoubtedly the most successful king in Ireland’s history.
When the Battle of Clontarf was over and the Norse were driven out into the sea, Brian Boru’s army collected its dead and tended to its wounded while the High King returned to his tent alone, to rest. At some time during the night several fleeing Norseman came upon Brian’s tent and found him alone and vulnerable. They assassinated him.
Brian Boru’s warriors carried his body from Clontarf all the way to Armagh, the Christian capital of Ireland. The High King was buried on the grounds of St. Patrick’s church with the bodies of his son and grandson who had died in the battle. Today St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands where the old church stood. On its outside wall, a marble engraved sign reminds Cathedral visitors that Brian Boru was was laid to rest on the north side of the great church.
Today – April 23rd marks the 999th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf and Brian Boru’s death.
Sadly, after Brian died the country fell back into anarchy with warring tribes and clans vying for power. That unity under Brian Boru was never achieved again by the Irish people – not until 902 years and 1 day later when on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916 the Irish started a unified rebellion that eventually won 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties independence from Great Britain.
NOTE: The story of Brian Boru is beautifully told in The Lion of Ireland by Morgan Llywellyn. I highly recommend reading it before taking a trip to Ireland. It has so much history in it. When you visit knowing that history the landscape comes alive.
A few miles southwest of Cashel in County Tipperary lies the ruins of Athassel Priory, a 13th century monastery on about 4 acres of land. The ruins are haunting when viewed from the road. It’s a very thin place.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland refers to Athassal Priory as “…the atmospheric – and deliciously creepy at dusk – ruins.”
The ruins are set in a large field one must access by climbing over a wall from the roadside (at least this was true the last time I was there). It’s a massive ruin, but it’s interesting that Lonely planet called it “creepy.”
Athassel is one of the few places I have visited (and I’ve visited hundreds of monastery ruins) where I got an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Can’t say why. The place was beautiful but in this one spot I started to feel frightened, almost terrified. I turned the corner and saw this statue carved out of the ruined wall – St. Joseph and the boy Jesus… but Jesus’ head was removed. I moved away from that section and continued through the ruin. The intense fear subsided, but felt like I was being watched the whole time.
Strange. A very thin place.
The original buildings date back to 1205, and was founded by the Augustinians. Later it was occupied by the Cistercians. It’s original size alone denotes that it was a source of great wealth and a significant monastery in Ireland and it would have been surrounded by a large town – none of which remains. Still surviving within the ruin are an arched stone bridge approaching a portcullis gateway and gatehouse.
It’s easy to lose track of time at Athassel. One could wander for hours. The priory is a stop on our Thin Places Mystical Tour of Ireland scheduled for May 2011. Interested in attending? Check out the itinerary and book your spot.
The Pre-Christian and Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England had a keen sense for thin places. The landscape in these countries is littered with man-made markings and ruins that remind the passer-by that this is holy ground. The rocks, trees and landscape hold the memories of spiritual exercises here long ago and present.
Cashel is a thin place.
The very ground itself seems to call out, “Come here and be transformed.” In a quiet moment, the pilgrim today can sense a connection with the souls that have marked these spots with their spirits. Cashel is a vivid reminder that we are all joined inside and outside of time.
The Tipperary Plain also known as the Golden Vale, spreads like a quilt of green and gold velvet patchwork, delineated by hedgerows, lines of trees and occasional roadway, and framed by distant Slieve Bloom Mountains. It’s called the Golden Vale because of the rich, fertile soil which brought prosperity to those who farmed it. Out of the center of the Vale, rising some 200 feet is the Rock of Cashel.
Crowned with the ruins of 11th and 12th century buildings, the Rock is woven into a series of legends, all associated with power and dominance that span nearly two thousand years. The Rock is also referred to as “the Devils Bit.” According to Irish legend, the devil was flying home (presumably to England) when in a fit of anger he bit off a piece of the Slieve Bloom Mountains and spewed it out into the middle of the Tipperary Plain, creating the Rock of Cashel. There is a unique “vacancy” in the hills around Cashel that looks decidedly like a bite. But the Slieve Bloom are comprised of sandstone and the Rock of Cashel of limestone, so the Devil’s Bit theory is unlikely.
Legend states that St. Patrick preached here in the fifth century. He came to convert King Aengus and baptized the King around 450 AD. Patrick later made Cashel a bishopric claiming it as a seat of power long before it was the seat of the high kings of all Ireland.
In the twelfth century, a high cross, now known as “St. Patrick’s Cross,” was erected at Cashel to commemorate 800 years since St. Patrick’s visit. The original cross is quite weathered, but the image of the crucified Christ on the west face and the image of a man (possibly St. Patrick) on the east face can still be made out. The cross rests on a massive base repudiated to be the coronation stone of the Kings of Muenster. A replica of the cross and base greets visitors as they enter the enclosure on the Rock. The original cross and base are in the museum – also known as the Hall of Vicars, which also serves as the Visitor’s Center.
The Rock, called Cashel of the Kings – Cashel is Irish for stronghold – dominates the surrounding landscape, its drama unparalleled in Ireland, and its history is every bit as dramatic. For one thousand years it was the seat of power for Irish kings and bishops, ruling the surrounding country, and for a time, the entire country. For 400 years it rivaled Tara as the seat of power for all of Ireland. The kings of Munster were crowned here and ruled from Cashel. In 978, Brian Boru declared himself High King of Ireland and was crown on the Rock of Cashel. He made Cashel his capital. Brian Boru was the first to unite all of Ireland with its centuries-long history of warring clans and tribes. He was also the last to unite all of Ireland, for since his death in 1014, no one person has unified the populations in all four provinces.
Boru’s descendants ruled from Cashel for one hundred years after his death when Murtagh O’Brien in 1101 gave the Rock of Cashel to the Catholic Church and it began to thrive as a Cathedral.
In 1647 the Earl Inchquin (under Cromwell’s influence) plundered the city. The townspeople fled to the Rock for safety and barricaded themselves in the Cathedral. Inchquin’s army piled turf around the cathedral and set it afire. All inside were burned to death. Over 800 people perished under that attack. The Rock was later abandoned, left to fall further into ruin. Finally, in 1874 it was declared a national monument and since then has been lovingly restored.
At 10:00 a.m. we came down the Tipperary Road into Cashel. Seeing the Rock emerge from the landscape stirred childhood memories of seeing Emerald City rise up at the end of the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz. It was a moment when time stood still, burned in my memory like a trauma or birth.
That day we climbed the Rock of Cashel and wandered through the Cathedral ruins and cemetery. I knew nothing then about the history, who lived there, who ruled from there, what events took place there, but I knew it was a thin place. There was something exhilarating about Cashel, an excitement, a sense of power.
Cashel has long been linked with power. Warriors, chieftains, kings, princes, saints and bishops have all come here to mark the Rock as the seat of power, and blood has been spilled in that struggle for power. The Rock is not a peaceful place – as its legacy is riddled with memories of those who fought for power, stole power, ran to take refuge under the mantle of the powerful, and those who gloriously won the power.
The thinness is palpable. Your spirit is awake at Cashel.
I have returned to the Rock of Cashel with every visit to Ireland. I have seen the Rock lit up at night, covered in rain and mist, set against the frigid winter landscape and lingering through the long days of summer where the sun barely sets before rising again.
The Rock of Cashel, though in ruin, has a constancy; a historic brilliance that defies the modernization that grows around it with new homes, buildings and roadways. Cashel boldly claims her history, memories of kings, chieftains, warriors, bards, and holy men – thrusting them before us, urging us to enter in to her ancient legacy – and to return, and return and return.
So many people ask me, “What should I see on my visit to Ireland?”
I always say, “Don’t miss the Rock of Cashel.” Sadly, only a few heed my suggestion.
What a pity.
They’ll never know what I know… that Cashel will seduce you like a lover and cling to your spirit, planting some small charm that draws you back to her, creating a hunger for reunion. With each visit your are strengthened and sustained … until the next time. Cashel is like a first love. Though time, distance and life experience may stand between you – you never forget her, and you will return to her over and over in your imagination. You are changed forever for having known her.