Context is Changed - Rock of Cashel

September 26, 2009

I’ve been titling the last few posts in terms of how context can shift over time. This is not intended as a great reveal of some new management method, it just came to me as a recurring theme during this drive through Ireland. How do we understand, or not, the great sites from ancient Ireland? For some sites, such as the monastic cities of Clonmacnoise or Glendalough, the context is preserved through accidents of geography or the persistence of reverence – or because perhaps they are a mere 1400 years old, and not 6,000. Recovering context for historical sites is made difficult due – in some cases – to the layers of later civilizations, the absence of stories when sites lay undiscovered for generations, or when there are deliberate attempts to change the context – as in this example, the Rock of Cashel.

The Rock of Cashel was a seat of Irish kings for Munster, dating back to 342 A.D., and was for a time the home of the high king Brian Boru. It was St. Patrick, however, who made the Rock of Cashel important in Irish history, and activities following his arrival all but erased evidence of the Rock’s use as a seat for pagan kings. It was here Patrick baptized, in 432, King Aengus. (One legend holds that Patrick accidentally placed his staff into the top of Aengus’ foot during the baptism, but the King said nothing When Patrick asked him later why he didn’t cry out or otherwise indicate the injury, and the King replied: “I thought it was part of the ceremony.”)

The cross of St. Patrick sat on the alleged spot where this baptism took place, and some believe the stone used as a support for the cross is the rock at which the pagan Kings at Cashel were crowned. It is possible that this rock was repurposed to hold a Christian cross, honoring the evangelist Patrick. (It barely resembles a cross due to erosion and weather.) The onset of the Christian era did not, however, repeal inter-clan rivalry among the Irish kings.

If you visit the Rock of Cashel, you will find Cormac’s Chapel, a small Romanesque building intended for the private use of King Cormac. Even this structure was not left unchallenged. Proving that inter-clan rivalry survived the onset of the Christian era in Ireland, the subsequent bishop was of a different clan, and apparently was not taken with the charming small Chapel. A large Gothic cathedral was built directly across the front door of Cormac’s Chapel.

Finally, the Celtic cross is a good example of repurposed context. The circle around the cross is interpreted by some as representing infinity, while its origin is undoubtedly the incorporation of something to charm the pagan, sun-worshipping Irish. This reminds one of the repurposing of pagan holidays such as late December for use in Christian rituals, a deliberate changing of context in order to erase undesirable stories.

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