If you’ve heard the phrase “beyond the pale,” you likely know it means outside the boundaries. For example, if someone’s behavior is beyond the pale, it is outside what is acceptable.
You may not know, however, where the phrase originated. The Irish will tell you it comes from the time period in Irish history when the English colonized Ireland. The Anglo-Normans invaded Ireland in 1169 and established English control but the further one got from Dublin, the seat of English power, the less control they could exert. By the 14th century, a perimeter surrounding Dublin was fenced or ditched for protection. The word pale comes from the Latin palus meaning stake and the pale was a term to describe a region with a staked or paled fence surrounding it for protection (www.worldwidewords.org). Anything outside that area was “beyond the pale,” meaning outside the boundaries of English dominion.
So, let’s go beyond the pale and explore outside Dublin (but not outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior.)
Our first stop was the iconic Rock of Cashel, a Heritage Site in County Tipperary, located just a two-hour road trip southwest of Dublin. The medieval buildings atop a limestone outcropping are visible from miles away. I also spied lots of scaffolding which intruded on my imagining of life during that time period but ancient buildings need upkeep so I tried to ignore that.
Somehow we missed the turn in town for the parking lot so instead we parked along the road and walked up from the back side which actually turned out to be an advantage. It was closer to the abbey we visited afterward and a lovely walk with gorgeous views of the Rock.
Historically, the Rock of Cashel had obvious strategic importance. You could view and defend a wide area from this location as you can tell from the photo below.
In the fourth or fifth century AD, there was a fortress on this site under the kingship of Conall Corc. Legend has it Saint Patrick baptised Conall Corc’s grandsons at this location, too. In 978 AD, Brian Boru became King of Cashel and if you’ve followed my blog, you’re familiar with him. If not,check out the earlier posts about Clontarf Castle and the National Museum of Ireland.
The Rock of Cashel became church property in 1101 by a gift from Muircheartach Ua Briain, who was then King of Cashel. The church or cathedral that would have been built at that time no longer stands but Cormac’s Chapel was consecrated in 1134. Built in the Romanesque style, it is one of the earliest churches in Ireland and is truly a treasure.
Notice the stone heads looking down from the top of the chapel. The guide asked us who we thought they were. Some guessed kings or other royalty. He told us these heads were self sculptures of the workmen who built the chapel, their autographs, if you will. What a creative and interesting way to seek immortality. There’s a close up below.
The chapel originally contained colorful murals covering the walls but they were painted over many years ago. Small areas have been painstakingly cleaned to reveal hints of the early exquisite beauty.
The oldest remaining structure on the Rock of Cashel is the round tower, or bell tower, which dates to around 1101. Amazingly, it is still intact which our guide explained is due, in large part, to the design. The doorway to Irish round towers is typically 6-10 feet above ground level requiring a ladder to access the tower. Previously, historians conjectured this feature was for security so that the ladder could be pulled up and access denied to invaders. Our guide explained, however, the wooden door could be easily breached by burning or chopping it open. The real reason for the elevated doorway was to provide stability to the structure.
Another Cathedral was built in the 1200’s to fit into the space not occupied by the chapel and the round tower.
I’ve mentioned our tour guide several times throughout this post. He was knowledgeable and informative and my son noticed that his name tag said Lawlor, which is a variation of Lalor, my husband and children’s surname. Of course.
Just down the road from the Rock of Cashel, we visited Hore Abbey, built in 1266 by Benedictine monks. Not long after, however, the Benedictines were expelled and the monastery was given to the Cistercians. The abbey was in ruins but it was a pleasant walk on a beautiful day.
After wandering around the abbey ruins, we drove to nearby Cahir Castle on the Suir River just 12 miles down the road. Another Heritage site, this castle is one of the largest and best preserved in Ireland, and in its day was considered impregnable. Erected in the 13th century, it is thought to have been built by Anglo-Normans as a defensive structure and show of power to warn the Irish that they now controlled the land. The current structures date from the 16th century. It was closed for renovations and reopened just in time for our visit. We thought we wouldn’t have enough time to do it justice after spending so much time at the Rock of Cashel and Hore Abbey but when we heard admission was free that day, we decided to have a look and we were so glad we did.
When we visited Ireland 10 years ago, we noticed a definite lack of restriction on exploring somewhat dangerous sites. We are respectful visitors who don’t take unnecessary risks so we appreciated that freedom. This time, it seemed more areas were off-limits but, fortunately, we were allowed to walk the walls at Cahir Castle. I doubt this would be allowed in the U.S.
The purpose of the portcullis, or gate, was to close the castle off from attack. It is still operational today and can be seen in the photo below.
Inside the keep we found an extensive exhibit about the role of women during medieval times. Often, the history presented about castles is mostly military and I prefer social history so this was particularly welcome to me. Although there were not a lot of noblewomen in the castle, the areas they inhabited were more comfortably furnished with inner courtyards and gardens to ensure the women were secluded from the garrison.
The charming small town of Cahir was visible from the ramparts of the castle. Although we didn’t have time to explore this town, I would love to go back.
Next time we’ll continue beyond the pale as we begin our adventure on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Based on events from April, 2015
Guide at Rock of Cashel
Fascinating buildings – you certainly packed in plenty of history that day!! I much prefer social history to the military stuff as well, shame more castles don’t look at things from this perspective. Loving those stone heads in the chapel as well – who would have guessed they were workmen, what a lovely story.
I love this post of beyond the pale. I loved the social history part as well–all of the military stuff kind of gets all mushed up in my head but the social stuff I remember. The stone heads were a brilliant way to leave a lasting reminder of who built the place—such a wonderful idea. Kind of like me leaving a smiley face in the concrete by our back deck. 🙂
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