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Cormac's Chapel, Cashel, Tipperary

Rock of Cashel, Cashel (52°31′12″N, 7°53′25″W)
S 075 409
pre-1974 traditional (Republic of Ireland) Tipperary
now Tipperary
medieval Cashel
now Cashel
  • Roger Stalley
  • Kathryn Morrison
  • Roger Stalley
  • Tessa Garton
20 April 1990, 25 May 1990, 18 August 2000

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Cormac’s Chapel is the most celebrated piece of Romanesque architecture in Ireland. Built in the years immediately before 1134 under the auspices of Cormac MacCarthy king of Munster, the chapel is situated beside the Gothic cathedral, within the angle of the choir and south transept. The building consists of an aisleless nave, a chancel with a short apse, and two towers flanking the E end of the nave. Apse, chancel and nave have tall gabled roofs. The chapel was highly ornamented, with three sculptured doorways, and a plethora of capitals and corbels. There are (or were) at least thirty eight sculptured corbels around the outside of the building, and a further eleven were inserted under the vault in the chancel. Within the chancel there are extensive areas of Romanesque painting. The painted decoration initially involved straightforward masonry patterns, but in the mid twelfth century these were overlaid by more sophisticated figural compositions.

In more detail, the apse is square ended and almost entirely rebuilt. The base of the gable is marked by a course of billet, an original fragment of which survives on the south side, and the main exterior decoration is a row of blind arcading.

The chancel is much repaired and restored; decorated with blind arcades, originally furnished with detached shafts (most replaced in the recent restoration). The capitals, where they survive, consist of simple volutes, cushion capitals or scallops. On the north side the blind arcades have decorated springer blocks. The north wall was badly damaged when the space between the chapel and the cathedral was enclosed, apparently in the 17thc. The masonry in this area has been renewed in the 1990s. There is a round headed window (dressings renewed) in the fourth bay from the east. The site of a later inserted doorway is marked by two Gothic bases, carved with pyramid chamfer stops. The north and south walls of the chancel have a sequence of corbels, located immediately below the stone roof.

The east gable of the nave rises above the roof of the chancel . The edge of the gable is marked by projecting stones and there is a round headed window with chamfered jambs above the apex of the chancel roof. Immediately below this is a plain string course and further below this, on the south side of the chancel, are short sections of a billeted string course. There are two further windows in the east gable, located either side of the chancel roof. The elaborate south facade is divided into four main stages. On the lower storey an ornate doorway is flanked by plain arches (two to the east, one to the west). There are no engaged shafts, but a string course of billet, which runs at abacus level, continues along the back of each arch. At second storey level there were, until the recent restoration, two inserted rectangular windows made of grey limestone, that above the doorway making use of a Gothic grave slab (complete with inscription). These have now been removed and replaced with modern masonry. The only Romanesque decoration comes in the form of a single blind arch with engaged shafts in the west bay. A second blind arch was reinstated towards the east in the 1990s. The third storey is decorated with a line of eight blind arches. At the base of the fourth storey the wall narrows considerably to form a ledge, which support a series of engaged shafts running up to the base of the stone roof. Between each shaft is a corbel (two corbels are set in the wider space at the east end).

The south tower is built in well-coursed sandstone, apart from the top level which is formed of rubble masonry; the tower is divided by string courses into eight storeys, with putlog holes remaining in many places (some now filled). A late doorway with grey limestone dressings has been inserted in the east wall. The string courses are generally plain, but that above the third storey continues the line of beading used at this level on the chancel. The fourth storey is decorated with blind arcades. On the east side there is a single arch flanked by a rectangular recess to the north, at the top of which is a corbel. Above, at the base of the nave gable is an indecipherable lump of stone, the remnants evidently of a sculptured label stop.

The north tower, like its neighbout to the south, is built in ashlar, though it is not so high, having only seven storeys, and it is slightly broader in a north-south direction. It is surmounted by a pyramidal roof of stone. The interior chambers are lit by a number of small round-headed windows. The east face, where a later doorway was inserted, has been much damaged (recently restored with new masonry). The doorway replaced a twelfth-century window, traces of which were found in the recent conservation works. At fifth storey level, on the east face of the tower, is a diagonal projection like a section of roof creasing, evidently designed to continue the line of the nave roof, though the two are not aligned. At the junction between the two is a gargoyle, its open mouth designed to drain water from the gap between the tower and nave roof. Beside the gargoyle (to the north) is a decayed ‘animal’ corbel.

Although the chapel is generally well preserved, the exterior of the building has been extensively restored, notably at the end of the nineteenth century and more recently in the 1990s and again between 2010 and 2018. The chapel was constructed in a yellow sandstone, thought to have been quarried locally (one suggestion is that it came from Drumbane, several miles to the west). An oddity in the plan is that the chancel was not laid out on the same axis as the nave, being set slightly to the south, an arrangement which means that the chancel arch is off centre.

The Rock contains two other 12thc monuments, a round tower, usually attributed to the years immediately after 1101, and a 12thc high cross, now preserved in the small museum.


The Rock of Cashel, an impressive limestone outcrop, provided a natural fortress for the Eóganacht kings of Munster from at least the 5th century AD. In the year 1101, king Murtagh O Brien, granted this ancient stronghold to the church and ten years later, in 1111, the site was chosen as the seat of an archbishopric, a decision that ultimately transformed Cashel into one of the principal ecclesiastical centres of Ireland. Although it has been assumed that religious activity on the Rock began in 1101, the discovery of the base of a high cross of ninth or tenth century date in a wall close to Cormac’s chapel, suggests that the site had a religious status long before the twelfth century. This was confirmed by excavations carried out in and around Cormac’s Chapel in 1992-3. As well as several phases of burials, post holes belonging to a wooden church of ninth or tenth century date were found beneath the chancel. During the ninth and tenth centuries some of the kings of Cashel were described as bishops and it is tempting to link them with both the wooden church and the high cross. Remains of an earlier stone church were also discovered, which the excavator attributed to the period between 1100 and 1127.

The construction of a chapel by Cormac MacCarthy, king of Munster, is well attested by entries in the annals, which record a consecration date of 1134 (the oft-stated view that the chapel was begun in 1127 is not supported by a close reading of the texts of the annals). As one of the supporters of church reform, Cormac MacCarthy numbered amongst his friends and advisers Malchus, bishop of Lismore, who had previously been a monk at Winchester, a point that may have a bearing on the design of the chapel. The annals describe how clergy and nobility from all over Ireland were present at the consecration in 1134, suggesting that it represented something new and significant in Irish architecture.


Exterior Features


Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Vaulting/Roof Supports

Interior Decoration

Blind arcades
String courses




(a) Although the purpose of Cormac’s Chapel has never been satisfactorily established, the sumptuous decoration of the building suggests that it was designed as a private chapel for Cormac himself. A clue to its function may lie in the arched recess to the east of the north doorway, perhaps intended as a burial place for the king (who was murdered in 1138, four years after the consecration). It is tempting to regard the chapel as an architectural manifesto, proclaiming the status of Cormac as the undisputed king of Munster, a position that the Éoganacht dynasty, to which he belonged, had not held for over a century. The elaborate porch and doorway suggest the building was intended to have an important ceremonial function.

The chapel is one of the most firmly documented buildings in medieval Ireland and nobody has seriously questioned the identification of the existing structure with the chapel consecrated in 1134. The Romanesque sculpture is certainly consistent with this date. Being firmly dated, the chapel provides one of the key chronological points in Hiberno-Romanesque. The design has nonetheless provoked extensive debate, with the discussion centering on questions of background and influence. Liam de Paor (1967), taking up an idea of Arthur Champneys, argued that it was the first serious piece of Romanesque architecture in the country and that it exerted a powerful influence on subsequent architecture in Munster. More recent opinion inclines to the view that the chapel was just one of several buildings which introduced the techniques of European Romanesque to Ireland. The close relationship between carving at Cashel and a group of voussoirs from Cork, suggest that Cork and Lismore may have been equally important centres. Cormac MacCarthy founded churches in both places.

The design of the chapel represents a curious amalgam of Irish and imported forms. Most obviously Irish in derivation, is the corbelled stone roof, though this is unique in being made of well-cut ashlar masonry. The square towers at the junction of the nave and chancel have been compared with examples in Germany. Although there are documented connections between Cashel and Regensburg, such towers were found at the east end of a number of English Romanesque cathedrals, as at Winchester, Hereford and at Durham. The parallel with Winchester is especially interesting, given the friendship between Cormac and Malchus, bishop of Lismore, who had previously been a monk at Winchester. Whatever the background of the towers, they departed from the Irish norm in being square rather than round.

English and French precedents have been cited for the sculpture. Francoise Henry pointed to French parallels for the arrangement of heads around the chancel arch, citing such monuments as Bellegarde du Loiret. The arrangement was not unknown in England, however, as demonstrated by the portal at Prestbury (Cheshire). Much of the ornament has an English background, not least the use of chevron, billet and lozenge ornament, as well as such motifs as column swallowers and tongue pullers. Tympana decorated with animal motifs are common in the parish churches of south-west England and the use of a plain tympanum with edge rolls (as in the south tower doorway) can be paralleled in Gloucestershire at Bulley and Kempley (Duncan Givens) . There are some quite specific parallels with the sculpture from Old Sarum cathedral, executed before 1139, and these include floral bosses set inside a gable, trefoil-shaped shafts, and animals grasping architectural features.

Despite the English ingredients, some details of the carving are distinctively Irish. There are good parallels in Irish metalwork for the surviving head on the keystone of the chancel vault, and the corbels in the chancel have been compared convincingly with sculptured voussoirs from Cork. The idea of a beast walking along the apex of a stone roof was repeated at Devenish, though it should be noted that the late Ann Hamlin believed the Devenish example to be fifteenth century.

The hybrid nature of the architecture and its ornament raises some interesting questions about workshops and the way they were organised in the twelfth century. It may be too simplistic to assume that the chapel was constructed by a mixed band of English and Irish masons. The workforce may have been quite fluid. Given the poor state of many of the capitals and corbels, it is difficult to assign them to individual hands. Nonetheless some obvious differences emerge, especially in the cutting of the eyes. The corbels (including those inserted in the chancel) generally have heads with precisely cut eyes, mostly ovoid in shape, and they have carefully delineated eyelids. These features link them with the Cork voussoirs. There can be little doubt that the same sculptor was responsible (the ‘Cork Master’). The heads around the chancel arch are not so accomplished and they lack the surface detail of the corbels. The faces are not so well proportioned and the noses tend to be broad and prominent. The carving of the eyes is crude, and it is hard to believe they were made by the same craftsman (or craftsmen).

One of the least satisfactory aspects of the chapel is the haphazard way in which much of the ornament was fitted into the building. Patterns were interrupted, stones of irregular size were employed, chevron patterns were poorly coordinated and the chancel arch was given an irregular curve (noticeable in the outer order). There appears to have been a general lack of coordination between the stone-cutters and those charged with assembling the building. Was this the result of a hasty building programme, inadequate supervision, or merely a lack of understanding on the part of the masons involved? The insertion of eleven corbels inside the chapel under the vault of the chancel is anomalous. Twelfth-century paint on the surface of the corbels shows that they were inserted as part of the original build. Perhaps they were carved for the exterior and found to be surplus to requirements? The casual workmanship at Cashel contrasts with that encountered in some of the monuments in which de Paor detected the influence of Cashel - the church at Kilmalkedar for example. In this case the more accurate construction suggests that Cashel may not have been quite as crucial in the development of Hiberno-Romanesque as de Paor imagined.

(b) Sarcophagus: Traditionally identified as the tomb of Cormac MacCarthy, the sarcophagus was clearly an exceptional commission. The very idea of such a monument was derived from classical antiquity and, as Ireland had not formed part of the Roman empire, there are no known local prototypes. The opulence of the sarcophagus implies a royal patron. Bradley has suggested that it was made for Cormac’s brother, Tadhg (d. 1124), his predecessor as king of Desmond, though this suggestion has not been universally accepted. The same scholar has convincingly pointed out that, as the sarcophagus was designed to fit against an internal north wall, it could not have been located in Cormac’s Chapel. The slope on the plinth suggests it was designed for a specific location, the slope being intended to counteract the slope of the floor on which it was originally placed. The fact that the end panels are plain suggests that it was intended for a recess, though the sarcophagus is too long to fit into the recess on the external north wall of the chapel. In all likelihood it was incorporated into the original Romanesque cathedral, whence it found its way into its Gothic successor, where it was recorded in the nineteenth century. The style of the carving on the sarcophagus bears no relationship to that found in Cormac’s Chapel. As Urnes designs were popular in Irish Romanesque sculpture during the second half of the twelfth century, a date after 1134 is perhaps likely.


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