Historical evidence for urban settlement at Cashel prior to the establishment of the chartered town in 1216 is slim. Indeed, there is little reflection in the record of ecclesiastical activity at Cashel prior to 1101, when, on the occasion of the synod convened at that location, Muirchertach Ua Briain, Dál Cais king of Munster, made his magnanimous and much-discussed grant of the Rock to the Church.
The existence of a pre-thirteenth-century settlement adjacent to the Rock, however, is implied in exchanges between the archbishops of Cashel and Henry III between 1218 and 1230. While details are lacking, it seems likely that this was a small cluster-settlement located immediately to the east of the Rock, where the Dublin Road meets Ladyswell Street and Moor Lane.
The medieval town of Cashel, on the other hand, was a planned urban settlement very much in keeping with the other towns founded in east and central Munster in connection with the Anglo-Norman colonisation of the region. Although, political control of east and central Munster had effectively passed to the Anglo-Normans by the opening of the thirteenth century, the archbishops of Cashel continued to represent Dál Cais interests. The archbishops worked within the English political system when this was required or when it was expedient to do so, but they consistently obstructed efforts of the English administration to control the see or appoint clergy to benefices. The principal recommendation for Cashel as a potential town site, it appears, was its ecclesiastical importance. The location of the archbishop’s formal residence in the town, not to mention his court, doubtless also contributed to the town’s status.
Historical evidence for economic activity within the town is fragmentary, but it does augment the picture obtainable from archaeology. It is clear that a range of activities, including tillage, stockraising and gardening, were practiced on a considerable scale. Houses within the town had land attached to them (charters of 1425 and 1435 mention messuages in High Street, St John Street and Friar Street), and there are references to gardens outside the walls (presumably for the production of vegetables).
Sheep farming was major activity among both Gaelic Irish and English colonists and was particularly practiced by Cistercian monks. Both the English and Irish communities raised sheep for wool, the main outlet for which was export to Flanders, which presupposes a range of activities, including weighing, baling and carting to support this trade.
Flour was milled in Cashel at an earlier date, and bread was baked; the 1230 charter of Archbishop Mairin Ua Briain refers to a bakehouse. Brewing was another historically attested activity within the town.
The principal economic activity in the town was almost certainly the sale of agricultural produce such as corn and livestock, but it seems reasonable that other raw materials and at least some manufactured goods were traded too. Trade in wool and sheepskins could well have been significant.
The late medieval and early modern period saw little further growth in the extent of urban settlement at Cashel. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought their share of change to Cashel, with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, the Desmond uprising in 1581 and the confederate wars of 1647, when the pro-Parliament forces of Lord Inchiquin ruthlessly sacked the town, leaving it extensively damaged by fire. Presumably, extensive reconstruction was carried out in the second half of the seventeenth century, and demolition and renewal continued through the eighteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, most of the ecclesiastical ruins in the town, apart from those on the Rock, had vanished.