All American towns, as Bill Bryson once said, are named after the first white man to arrive in town, or the last Indian to leave. And sometimes it seems it’s a similar situation in Ireland — either the last English man to bowl into town, or the last saint to up sticks and flee.
In Kilkenny’s case it was St Canice, and its subsequent history explains the presence of the impressively muscular Kilkenny castle.
And it’s up there with Edinburgh Castle, the Tower of London or Mad Ludwig’s Castle in Bavaria – one of the great castles of the world. A 12th century fortification remodelled in Victorian times, you can tour the inside of the old grey building, walk in the gardens, or visit the art gallery.
The Long Gallery has an extensive portrait collection of the Butlers, the big shout in these parts from 1391 until 1935 – and arguably beyond, because Princess Di was part of this same family.
The 24th Earl of Ormonde sold the sadly dilapidated castle to the State in 1967 for fifty quid, and auctioned its contents. Fortunately most of the stuff was recovered, and the Butler Gallery in the castle now exhibits some of the finest art in Ireland.
The 50 acres of estate round the castle are well equipped with yew trees, rose garden, fountain, arboretum and children’s playground.
In the castle’s stable yard during the 1960s the Irish Government established Kilkenny Design Workshops. A stream of talented designers and crafts workers from around Europe set up shop in the 18th century crescent of stables. Many subsequently established studio workshops in Co. Kilkenny, spawning a thriving crafts culture.
The Crescent Yard, now headquarters of the Crafts Council of Ireland, is also home to one of the country’s best craft stores, Kilkenny Design Centre and the National Craft Gallery, where regular exhibitions are held.
Kilkenny, of course, has a proud hurling history – the local cry is: “Hurling is a game for piano tuners; football is a game for piano removers”, and according to local legend it has been played in Kilkenny since time immemorial — perhaps even before. It was certainly mentioned in the penal Statutes of Kilkenny in the 13th century, and we can be fairly sure it was going strong long before then.
The Marble City, with its long history, retains more of its medieval character than any other Irish city, yet despite possession of two cathedrals and an extremely imposing 12th century castle overlooking the River Nore, it has the air of a friendly town. A medieval town at that.
The survival of ancient Kilkenny can be attributed more to accident than design. Up until the 1650s the city played a much more significant role in Irish life than it does today. Only because later generations of townspeople couldn’t afford to demolish the old buildings and build afresh, that much of the old city remained standing.
Like St Canice’s Cathedral.
They’ve been saying their prayers here for 800 years, but after the split in the church only the Protestant people continued praying here. Today the diocesan seat of the Church of Ireland has an astounding collection of ancient ecclesiastical artefacts and stained glass windows. The 9th or 10th century Round Tower, the oldest building in Kilkenny and built to withstand the Danes, today offers the more peaceful option of providing terrific views of the city.
The Catholic Cathedral of the diocese of Ossory was built between 1843 and 1857 in the medieval English gothic style. The tower is the most conspicuous building in the city, visible from all approaches to Kilkenny. It has a somewhat gaunt look, the tower being noticeably out of proportion with the nave. The clue is in the date – it was the time of the Famine, and finances (as well as builders) were exhausted. There’s a noted sculpture of Our Lady by Giovanni Maria Benzoni.
As you wander away from the cathedral, and down the narrow, winding streets you’ll eventually come to the medieval steps of Butter Slip – a narrow alley running off St Kiernan’s Street. As you head towards the Tholsel (or toll gate) and on to the High Street, spare a thought for Alice Kyteler who in 1324 stood trial for witchcraft. Worse, she was accused of being a heretic – the trial was the first in European history to treat the accused of as members of an organized group of heretic.
Sadly, in those times, the law wasn’t weighted much in favour of the accused. Alice was found guilty – her crime being seen as particularly heinous because she had acquired her power of sorcery by means of sexual intercourse with a demon – and was paraded through the streets of Kilkenny. She is reported to have been dragged half naked from Talbot’s Bastion – the south western tower of the old walls which still stands – along Rose Inn Street, past the Shee Alms House and into High Street where she was burned at the stake.
The Shee Alms House, by the way, is worth taking a note of, and you might want to underline it with a squiggly red line: the alms house dates from 1582 and only closed in 1985, after more than 300 years of service to the city’s poor. It now houses the Tourist Information Office.
Kilkenny city has long been central to Anglo-Irish affairs. It was one of the chief venues for Anglo Irish parliaments in the Middle Ages, and when, in 1641 the Great Rebellion broke out, Kilkenny became the de facto capital of Ireland.
Some 10 years or so ago, Dublin tried to downgrade Kilkenny’s status as a city. After all, 25,000 people wouldn’t be enough to fill one stand in a Premier League soccer stadium. But the burghers of Kilkenny were adamant — you can’t change history, even if is only a four (or maybe five) horse town.
Kilkenny remains a city, and although with dimensions of a small town, it has all the trappings of a sophisticated modern metropolis. Innovative restaurants vie for space with boutique hotels, art galleries and independent craft shops — plus a handful of cracking festivals punctuate the year, including the Cat Laughs Festival, the International Gospel Choir Festival, and the Arts Festival.
The city will be teeming then, but for now, in the quiet months of the year, it’s a great place to visit and there are some fine deals on offer as regards accommodation.
Although Kilkenny bears the indelible marks of its long history, it is quite simply, one of the most handsome cities in these islands. Despite the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years and the vicissitudes of the resultant economic recession, there are still pockets of unchanging beauty in Ireland. Kilkenny is most certainly one of them.
WHERE TO STAY
Kilkenny Tourism (00 353 56 51500) can arrange accommodation ranging from B&B to luxury boutique hotel. The following hotels are offering very good deals over the next few months
Kilkenny Hibernian Hotel
1 Ormonde Street, Kilkenny
Tel: 00 353 56 7771888
A four star boutique hotel in the heart of the medieval city.
Double rooms from £75 pps
Various deals are available including dinner
Ormonde Street, Kilkenny, Ireland
Tel: 00 353 56 7750200
A 4 star city centre hotel located in the main shopping district, a 2 minute walk from Kilkenny Castle and 10 minutes’ walk to McDonagh Train Station.
During January and February, double rooms from €59
College Road, Kilkenny
Tel: 00 353 56 7762000
A four star, luxury hotel with spa and wellness centre
From €45 pps (including breakfast)
Various offers are available: midweek package of 2 nights bed & breakfast with dinner on one evening start around €130 pps
Zuni Restaurant and Townhouse
26 Patrick Street, Kilkenny
Tel: 00 353 56 772 3999
Situated 200m from the Castle this ace 3 star guesthouse has earned its reputation as one of the best places to stay and eat in Ireland. Located in the heart of the medieval city with private parking, it’s within walking distance of all Kilkenny’s best sights, bars and restaurants.
Rooms from €85.