Religious History at the Rock of Cashel and Hore Abbey

Cathedral at Rock of Cashel

Following a great evening in Kilkenny I traveled to the Rock of Cashel also known as St. Patrick’s Rock in Tipperary County.  The Rock of Cashel was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster until 1101 when the site was transferred to the Catholic Church in Ireland. The majority of the ruins remaining on the site are from the 12th and 13th centuries during the Church’s ownership of the site.

I participated in a guided tour as part of my visit the Rock of Cashel.  The tour guide was very knowledgeable about the site and did a good job of contextualizing the numerous structures with the political and social movements of the period.  She also did a good job of interjecting humor into the tour through Irish folk stories and jokes.

Cormac’s Chapel is one of the larger ruins on the site and was completed in 1134.  The Chapel was undergoing exterior preservation work during the time of my visit as the sandstone which makes up the majority of the building has been susceptible to water damage.  Despite this exterior work visitors are still able to enter the chapel and see the vaulted ceiling and the small pieces of Irish frescoes which survive on the ceiling.  The interior of the Chapel has a musty damp smell which makes sense given the water damage of the stone.

View of Hore Abbey from Rock of Cashel

The majority of the other buildings on the site are made from limestone, as the Rock of Cashel is located on a huge outcropping of limestone. These buildings mainly date from the 12th and 13th century and include a round tower, a cathedral, castle, and a newer Hall of the Vicars Choral that was built in the 15th century.

After the guided tour and exploring the site I visited the ruins of  Hore Abbey which is located within walking distance of the Rock of Cashel.  Like the Rock, the Abbey is maintained by the Office of Public Works.  However, the Abbey is not staffed and is located in the middle of a farmers field.   The Abbey dates from the 1200s and I found it interesting that the Rock of Cashel gains so much attention when the Abbey sits looking somewhat abandoned. Granted, the Rock of Cashel does look more imposing but the character and history behind the Abbey is just as interesting.

Photographs by Andrew Mackay

Rolling the Dice With Guided Tours

Our group with our tour guide at the Ermatinger Site

Interpretation can make or break a museum visit.  Context, signage, and interpretation strategies are essential to creating a heritage environment which is inviting, educational, and ultimately enjoyable.  Properly trained interpretive staff can infuse a visit with enthusiasm, context, and information that isn’t always accessible to the average visitor.  Untrained or less than great interpretive staff can also make a museum tour seem boring or uninformative.

One of the most surprising guided tour experiences I’ve had recently was at the Ermatinger-Clergue Historic Site in Sault Ste Marie.  I had previously visited this site with a co-worker who had previously worked at the Ermatinger site.  That visit was great, my co-worker talked a lot about the development of the Historic Site and institutional practices at the Site.

My most recent visit was with a larger group of 12 people and we had a formal tour provided by the Site’s curator (who was in period costume for the occasion).  Our guide focused mainly on the history of the area, fur trade politics, and First Nation-Settler relations.  The majority of the group I was visiting with was from out of town and learned a lot about local history from our guide.  I was impressed by how well she geared her discussion and annotates to the interests and learning levels of our group.  The guided tour allowed me to learn more about the site than I had on previous visits and allowed our large group to partake in a shared experience that we could then discuss in a educational context later on.

Deciding to take a guided tour at an institution can be a dice roll between getting a tour leader/interpretive staff member that is knowledgeable or one who seems to dread their job.  Which leads to the question, is participating in guided tours worth the effort?  It depends on what type of museum visitor you are and what type of institution you are visiting.  Some people like to move at their own pace and read every artifact label in sight, making a guided tour too fast paced and broad sweeping for their preferences.

Many guided tours provide collection and institutional overviews.  This can be great if you have limited time, want to learn more about contextual factors that aren’t mentioned in current exhibits, or as a new way of seeing an institution you have visited many times.  Guided tours are also great if you are visiting a museum in a large group, as it allows for a shared learning experience that is sometimes missing from large group visits to museums.

One of the easiest things to do is ask museum staff about the tour prior to taking it.  Ask about tour length, depth, exhibits/spaces covered — does the tour let you into spaces that you can’t see as a solo visitor, and about the staff leading the tour.  Alternatively, a lot more institutions are now posting detailed tour information on their website, making it possible to look into tour options before you arrive at an institution.  I find knowing what type of tour I’m entering into saves me a lot frustration and helps manages my expectations.

What was your best or worst guided tour experience?