Imagine it: Christmas Eve in the year 450 A.D., on the Rock of Cashel, a stone fortress atop a rocky mound in Ireland.
Thunder clouds hover and chill winds skitter over the Tipperary Plain as a clan of Celtic peasants clad in ragged skins devour a haunch of roasted venison, then dance wildly around a holly tree. Was St. Patrick there that night, telling the story of the star that shone in the east, calling the three wise men to Bethlehem?
He could have been. More than likely though, the peasants were so busy celebrating the winter solstice, a seasonal ritual that would one day be usurped by Christmas, the day of Christ's birth, that no one remarked on the presence of a stranger with a foreign accent and odd ideas.
More than 1,500 years later, the medieval towers and Gothic arches of the Rock of Cashel, still rise through the mist like the Emerald City of Oz. Thanks to scholarly research, the story of St. Patrick's visit to the Rock -- probably not on Christmas -- is a matter of historic record, according to our tour guide, Mary Kennedy.
But as a true daughter of Eire, where storytelling is a genetic trait, Kennedy couldn't resist the legends that breathe color and life into a dusty past. As she led us toward the Vicars Hall, the only completely restored building on the rock where the 12th century cross of St. Patrick is displayed, out of the weather, her eyes lighted up and so did we, anticipating a yarn.
"The most famous visitor to the Rock of Cashel was St. Patrick, she began solemnly as our group descended into the vaulted undercroft, a windowless chamber once blackened by flickering candles but now bright and cheerful with new paint and recessed electric lights.
We stopped in front of a six-foot limestone slab resembling a cement fragment. If this was a midsummer day, said Kennedy, we'd be surrounded by eager visitors, all jockeying for a closer look. But as the only visitors to brave the cold on a blustery winter day, we had plenty of space and the time to linger.
Leaning close, we peered at the stone, pale white and glinting. On one side was a Christ figure, rudely carved and heavily eroded. On the reverse was the saint himself, an austere and angular form.
"St. Patrick came here in 450 A.D. to what was then the royal seat of the Kings of Munster to baptize the king and afterward the people, Kennedy recited in her crisp Tipperary sing-song. "But according to tradition, the king's baptism terrified the people who were watching.
St. Patrick, born in western England, was kidnapped at age 16 and brought to Ireland as a slave. For six years he lived among pagan tribesmen, before escaping across the English Channel to France where he joined a monastery. Though Patrick eventually became a bishop, he never forgot Ireland, returning at age 47 to spend his last 30 years as a missionary.
"St. Patrick expected to accomplish the job immediately, but it took him seven years, continued Kennedy, a smile spreading over her lips. "This was because he accidentally put his crosier down through the king's foot. The king, who thought it was part of the ceremony, stood silent and unflinching. The sight of his shoes, covered with blood, was not a good advertisement for Christianity.
Then Kennedy resumed her official spiel, pointing at the base of the cross, a rough-shaped five-ton stone. "It's believed that this stone was once the coronation stone of the kings of Munster. It's the only known relic left from the time of the first kings.
After touring Ireland for five days, we'd come to expect guides like Kennedy: articulate, informed and blessed with a sense of humor. Though the Rock of Cashel is only two hours east of Shannon Airport, we'd spent three days getting there, on what was a leisurely, and entertaining, tour along a popular route from Shannon to Limerick, Tralee, Killarney, Cork, Cashel and Dublin.
Along the way, in a host of castles, forts and museums, we heard a half-dozen recitations from as many guides, each one as literate as the next, a testament to the Irish public schools and their emphasis on reading and writing.
Now on the Rock of Cashel, Kennedy made her way over the windy summit, regaling us with tales of the chieftains who ruled their kingdoms with blood and thunder from these silent stones, one of Ireland's best-preserved medieval complexes.
Originally the Rock was known as "Fairy Hill, a pre-Celtic site of mystic rituals. Later, Celtic tribes built a stronghold within walls, in Gaelic, a "caiseal. By the 5th century, the Rock of Cashel was the royal seat of the Kings of Munster, controlled by one family, the Eoganachts.
For 400 years the Eoganachts ruled from the Rock. When the legendary Brian Boru, a rival leader, defeated the Eoganachts, he and his O'Brien descendants took the title of King of Cashel for themselves. At the end of the 11th century, the O'Briens, their power weakened, gave the Rock of Cashel to the church, which built most of the structures there today. The Round Tower, constructed first for defense, was 92 feet high with a raised door.
"In times of danger, the bishops would gather up all the manuscripts and chalices, climb up to that door on a wooden ladder and pull in the ladder behind them, said Kennedy, pointing at a small rectangular hole 12 feet above the tower base. "Round towers are soldier-proof because they have no corners. Not even battering rams can knock them down.
Soon after, work began on Cormac's Chapel, built by Cormac MacCarthy between 1127 and 1134 by imported German masons.
"The chapel is the most important building in Ireland because it represents the introduction of Romanesque architecture to the country, said Kennedy, pointing out the arcading and twin towers. Exterior restoration began about 1875, she explained, but fortunately, the removal of 60 layers of whitewash from the interior frescoes began only recently, using modern techniques.
On the lawn, we passed a replica of the Cross of St. Patrick, standing where the original once stood. Beyond, headstones mark the spot where -- according to legend -- St. Patrick himself plucked a shamrock and likened its three petals to the Trinity, giving Ireland its first national symbol.
A century after the chapel was completed, work began on a much larger Cathedral. This Gothic structure, now roofless, looks down from the heights over a patchwork of green farm fields. Architectural details -- lancet windows high in the side walls and a square central tower supported by pointed arches -- suggests that the first stones were laid around 1225. According to Kennedy, hidden passages within the nave's thick walls led to tiny windows installed so that lepers could attend mass unseen.
Much later, a local bishop built himself a palace, tacked it onto Cathedral's rear wall, and added the Hall of Vicars as a choir residence. The fully restored Hall contains the sculpture gallery and the Visitors' Center.
As rain clouds hovered on the horizon, Kennedy agreed to lead us to the top of the Cathedral tower, normally closed to visitors. Climbing single-file in the dark, up 127 worn stone steps, winding around and around, we made our way to the roof, suddenly emerging into fresh air and light.
Below, the Cathedral nave lay exposed, and in the distance, green pastures and stone walls rolled away to the horizon. It was a hill worthy of fairies. But Kennedy had a different story to tickle our fancy.
"According to legend, said Kennedy, as we admired the view, "the devil created this rock. He was flying overhead with a stone in his mouth, when he spotted St. Patrick below, about to build a church. In his fright, he dropped the stone and it's been here ever since.
In Cashel: The Cashel Palace hotel, a bishops' palace dating from 1730, is at the base of the Rock, within walking distance. It has 20 comfortable bedrooms and 250 years of atmosphere. Guests are greeted with tea and scones. Double rooms are $78 to $125. Fax 011-353-62-61521.
Maryville B&B, in town, has eight comfortable rooms; some have private baths. Rooms go from $23 to $30. Call 011-353-62-61098.
In Adare, County Limerick: The Adare Manor, a restored Gothic Revival castle and luxury property on the River Maigue, is a convenient first stop if you are arriving at Shannon Airport. Surrounded by gardens, a pond, swimming pool and an 18-hole golf course, the manor was built by the Earl of Dunraven in 1832.
With a lofty Great Hall, grand staircase, dark oak woodwork, formal dining room and spacious, warm bedrooms, you can begin your trip in baronial elegance. Check out the amazing exceptional collection of paintings by California artist Peter Ellenshaw. Rooms range from $170 to $504. Call (800) 462-3273, or fax 011-353-61-396124.
Getting there: Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, flies to Dublin and Shannon from New York, Newark and Boston. Ask about air-and-tour packages. Delta flies nonstop to Dublin from Atlanta. Or fly to London on the airline of your choice and on to Dublin on Aer Lingus.