Visiting the Dead

The story goes that Satan, following eviction
from a favourite cave by Patrick [5th century
saint and time-traveller that he is], pauses
in rage to bite a chunk out of a mountain. On breaking
teeth on limestone, and unable to chew, the little
devil spits it out at Cashel as he passes.

No doubt in celebration of this minor victory, the Almighty
allows brave Irishmen, by now his favourite sons,
to build a city round this newly terra-formed
moment of displeasure. So on that Rock, a castle
duly builds – for kings to propagate, control
their unruly lands and tribes, and live in peace.

Well, these overkings of Munster hold more power
than a drunken saint. Other monarchs owe them
a salute, and many dabble in the fast enthralling
Church that Patrick and the like have brought from Rome.
Rising from the mythic lands and mist-enfolded
hills come names and words that Latin, and the distantly
evolving English of the Saxon plain, can only marvel at.

So Eogan Mor and Conall Corc become
the Eoganacht kings, before succumbing to the mighty
Dal Cais and the ever-famous Brian Boru –
he who masters Vikings, and takes on the whole
of Ireland. His fame lives on, and name
– simple, distinctly easy on the English ear.
He stands to tower above all. Dying
in a moment of victory at Clontarf he rises as both
hero and sacrifice, as befits a Christian king.

Along comes Muircheartach Ua Briain
to reinvoke the Gaelic mysteries and complete a masterstroke
at Cashel. He hands the fortress to the Church,
denying all those grumpy Eoganachts
their royal seat, and leading Ireland to its greater
dynasties of Armag, Cashel, Tuam and Dubloin.

Chapels follow. Towers, chancels, crossings,
choirs. Much litany is chanted. Architects from Europe
brought – to saw, chip, mould and paint.
New Roman script outruns the Gael.
Overkings, now robbed of Norsemen to engage,
are forced to counter with the slippery greed of English
faraways, or their friends. At Cashell, Henry  2
manages a visit. As friend, protector, he’s the last
sad English king to step ashore,
until Elizabeth and Edinburgh – but that’s too far
ahead, and many famines of indifference to come.

March on and here’s the English Civil War, but more
vicious here than any bag of cats. Confederacies of power, and
Mourrough O’Brien, Earl of Inchiquinn, sweep
around the land – for him to take both Cashel
and its Rock. A thousand Catholics must die
inside the walls. Its priests are martyred on their alter
steps. The city burns. The Godly Earl
goes on to know defeats, and having had his fill
a good Catholic he becomes, so well is all.
A faithful man he keeps his protestant wife,
and must listen to her version of his sins
until the end.  With Cromwells gone and kings
back in control, the Anglican mission seems
complete. Cashel abandons her cathedral, an English
bishop steals the roof for yet another of his own.

Walls and timbers fall. Rain can wash the blood
from floors, at last, to leave a monument to gather
more attendance than any house of God.

Taken under care by Eire’s state, its locals
fear eternity is about to leave. They clamour,
are allowed to seek their grave’s protection from its Rock.
Most have now come home – it’s down to three.

Seeking to learn about this while we can, I open
up a votive wallet, and prepare to pay.
John, our host, whose childhood playground were its cliffs
and pathways, sweeps aside such offerings,
and mutters to the man who keeps the door.

Later he shows the issued ticket, confirming
we were there for funerals and for visits to the dead.
And so we were.


The Rock of Cashel – further reading