Kilkenny City (Cill Chainnigh – “church of Saint Canice“) (pop. 23,000), the only inland city in the Republic of Ireland, and the smallest by both area and population, is one of the most attractive towns in the country. (Photo by)
Situated on the banks of the River Nore at its junction with the River Bregagh, the eponymous County capital has a rich architectural heritage, including beautiful edifices from every era since the arrival of the Normans, twisting streets with intriguing names, shops, museums, art galleries, craft and design workshops and public gardens. There are also several places to visit nearby.
These factors, together with a number of excellent pubs, restaurants and accommodation options in and around the town are the main reasons for Kilkenny’s popularity as a discerning visitors’ destination or base for touring Ireland.
Kilkenny City History
While Kilkenny’s name is usually thought to derive from a church founded by or dedicated to the obscure Saint Canice, another possible source once suggested was “Coil / Kyle-ken-Ui” / Cileanuigh (“the wooded head / hill by the river”), i.e. the site where that church was built in the C7th AD. Situated in the ancient territory of Osraighe / Ossory, the religious settlement seems to have had little importance, as it was not mentioned in any of the various Annals before 1085.
Strongbow built a motte and bailey in Kilkenny in 1172 to command the crossing point on the river Nore. His son-in-law William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke replaced it with a stone structure in 1192, established his seat here, and incorporated the town in 1204; thereafter it was effectively run by GeoffreyFitzRobert,Seneschal of Leinster.
Kilkenny grew into a prosperous walled town, an important centre of both secular and religious power. There were separate administrations in High Town, around the Castle and Irishtown, around the Cathedral, seat of the medieval diocese of Ossory.
Bishop Richard de Ledrede‘s prosecutions in 1324 of Dame Alice Kyteler, her son and ten others for witchcraft, one of the earliest such trials in Europe, resulted in the burning at the stake of her maid, Petronella de Meath for heresy.
The Black Death / Bubonic Plague hit Kilkenny very badly in 1348. Friar John Clyn wrote a famous account of the plague’s progress in such apocolyptic terms that he would seem to have believed the extinction of humanity and the end of the world were nigh.
Kilkenny served no less than 15 times during the C14th as the venue for sessions of the peripatetic Irish Parliament. The notorious Statutes of Kilkenny were enacted here in 1366.
In 1391 James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond, purchased the castle and manor of Kilkenny. The power of the Butlers brought the city to even greater prominence.
King James I elevated the liberties of Kilkenny to the rank of City by Royal Charter in 1609 ).
From 1641 to 1648 the city was the seat of the Confederate Parliament of Catholics, known as the Kilkenny Confederacy, with a Supreme Council erratically presided by the Royalist Earl / Marquess of Ormonde. The Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Rinuccini, arrived in 1645 with money and weapons. In 1650 Kilkennny was besieged and captured by Oliver Cromwell.
The deposed King James II spent the winter of 1689 in Kilkenny Castle, confiscated from the 2nd Duke of Ormonde for his loyalty to King William III. After their defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, Jacobite troops retreating through Kilkenny forced the citizens to pay protection money against looting. Kilkenny surrendered without resistance to the Williamite army under General Godert de Ginkel, who made the city his winter headquarters prior to the Siege of Limerick in 1691.
Kilkenny was very well represented in the Irish Parliament until the Act of Union 1800, by which time the city’s period of glory was long over. During the late C18th and C19th the city’s population decreased by two thirds.
The outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922 was preceded by serious fighting between Republicans occupying the city centre and pro-Treaty forces sent to dislodge them, with at least 18 killed. In December of the same year irregulars overran the Free State barracks.
Although the former Corporation of Kilkenny is long gone, and local administration is run by the Mayor and Councillors of a Borough Council, Kilkenny recalled its 400th official birthday as a city in 2009 with a series of major urban reforms showcasing celebratory quatercentennial events.
The River Nore has been spanned at Kilkenny since c.1200 by two bridges, both replaced after major floods in 1487 and 1763 caused them to collapse, with notable casualties. The current Green’s Bridge, aka the Great Bridge of Kilkenny, is an elegant Palladian structure constructed in 1766 to a design by George Smith, while the present John’s Bridge was completed in 1910. Ossory Bridge, linking the ringroad around the city, was erected in 1984. The traditional standard river vessel is a small boat called a cot.
Kilkenny is often called “the Marble City“, but the black and white stone that characterises many of Kilkenny’s fine buildings is actually polished limestone, excavated from the local Black Quarry for centuries, and contains fossils. “Kilkenny Marble” used to be exported all over the British Empire.
Kilkenny is probably best known internationally as the source of ‘Smithwicks‘ and ‘Kilkenny‘ ales, brewed in a complex bought in the C20th by the Guinness Ireland Group, which later merged with Grand Metropolitan plc to form Diageo, the world’s largest alcoholic beverage company, and nowadays largely used to produce Budweiser beer under licence.
The city is also home to Glanbia, one of the world’s top cheese and dairy companies, formed from the merging of Avonmore and Waterford Foods.
The Watergate Theatre is Kilkenny’s premiere venue for performing and visual arts, with a constantly varied programme of professional and amateur dramatics, classical and contemporary music, opera and dance, together with regular exhibitions of paintings and photographs.
The Hub at Cillin Hill is a Multi Purpose Venue used for exhibitions, conferences and entertainment events.
Nowlan Park, the city’s GAA stadium, is home to the Kilkenny Cats hurling team and the venue for the annual Source concert, performed in recent years by artists as varies as Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Andrea Bocelli and Dolly Parton.
Kilkenny evenings are renowned for the sound of music and song, with traditional sessions and live gigs in various venues around the town.
The Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots Festival, held on the first weekend in May every year in various venues throughout the city, features Americana / Bluegrass / Folk / Rockabilly / AltCountry musicians and singers from all over the world.
The Cat Laughs, a comedy festival is held annnually at the start of June, is the high point of the city’s tourist season.
Kilkenny Arts Week, a fortnight of visual art, painting, sculpture, theatre, film, mime, dance, and music ranging from Classical and traditional through jazz and blues to rock and World Music, takes place every year in the second half of August
The Kilkenny Christmas Market takes place from December 8th – 23rd on the newly renovated Parade near Kilkenny Castle.
The only City to have won the Irish Tidy Town Competition, Kilkenny was named as the Academy of Urbanism European Great Town for 2008, when it was described as “coming to terms with economic growth without losing its wonderful character and humour“.
St Canice’s Cathedral (CoI) stands on the hilltop site of several previous churches; the earliest was founded in the C7th AD.
This splendid C13th embattled early English style Norman church was modified in 1661, restored in 1756 and changed again in 1865. The west doorway is of particular note.
Interior details include the groined tower and the C12th black baptismal font. Of the various medieval monuments, the most interesting are those commemorating the Butler family and the C13th memorial to the son of Henry de Ponto.
The C10th Round Tower adjacent to the Cathedral is well-preserved and, unlike most, can be climbed internally, with great views from its unusually wide windows.
St. Canice’s Library contains over 3000 volumes dating from the C16th and early C17th.
Talbot’s Tower / Castle / Bastion (1207) is the best-preserved of two Norman structures erected to defend the medieval settlement. Recently restored, the tower and adjoining City Wall form tyhe centrepiece of a small archaeological park.
The Black Freren Gate Arch is the sole surviving entrance gate through the medieval City Walls, an impressive stretch of which stands on Abbey St.
Kilkenny Castle, long the seat of the Butlers of Ormond, was completely remodelled in 1826; the only original medieval features still extant are three circular towers and parts of the curtain wall.
James Butler, 3rd Marquess of Ormonde & 21st Earl of Ormond, entertained King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra here in 1904, and King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Both Royal visits were warmly welcomed by thousands of townsfolk.
The castle was last besieged as recently as 1922; when Anti-Treaty Republicans held it for two days against Free State Amy troops under General Prout, with the Earl and Countess of Ossory in residence throughout.
The family auctioned most of the contents in 1935, and presented the castle to the City of Kilkenny in 1967.
The restored and partially refurbished castle contains beautiful paintings and antiques, including many original portraits and items of furniture, together with an art gallery and a pleasant café. Guided tours are provided.
The extensive grounds are open to the public. There is an exhibition hall in the Old Castle Stables. The Castle Yard features craft studios, workshops, the National Crafts Gallery, and the world famous Kilkenny Design Centre.
Butler House was built in 1783 as the castle’s Dower House for the widowed Lady Eleanor Butler, whose namesake daughter was one of the famous “ladies of Langollen”. Restored by Kilkenny Design in 1972, the house was acquired in 1989by the Kilkenny Civic Trust. The gardens were landscaped in 2000, and the premises is now a hotel*** with accommodation and conference facilities. (Have you stayed in this hotel? Let me know how your stay was please.)
Kilkenny Castle’s formal gardens are the city’s principal tourist attraction.
The Dominican / Black Abbey, established in 1225 by the Seneschal’s son William Marshall, 2nd Earl of Pembroke and Justiciar of Ireland, has some magnificent original windows, monumental slabs and stone coffins dating from the middle ages. Upon its Dissolution in 1540, King Henry VIII granted it to Kilkenny Corporation on condition that accommodation would be provided for the Chief Governor of Ireland whenever he was in the area. The Dominican Order returned in the early C19th and restored it for use as a place of worship.
St Francis’s Abbey, aka the Grey Friary (1234), featuring a picturesque bell tower, a Chancel, a superb east window and an ancient baptismal font, was for many years the oratory of the former Smithwick’s Brewery, famous for ‘Smithwicks’ and ‘Kilkenny’ ales.
The Priory of St John was created in the C13th for the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem. The Lady Chapel, known as the Lantern of Ireland due to its numerous mullioned windows, is now a parish church (CoI).
St. Mary’s church (CoI) in St Kieran Street is a modernised C13th structure containing several interesting medieval and later monuments.
Kilkenny’s Tudor buildings:
Unusually for an Irish town, Kilkenny has several Tudor buildings:
The Alms House on Rose Inn Street, founded in 1582 by Sir Richard Shee, now accommodates the Kilkenny Tourist Office.
The Archer House in High St. dates from 1594.
Rothe House in Parliament St was built in stages vy local merchant John between 1594 and 1610 and is now the headquarters of the prestigious Kilkenny Archaeological Society and features a local history museum. The Gardens have undergone restoration.
Kyteler’s Inn on St Kieran St, founded in 1263 and rebuilt in 1639, was for many years the most famous hostelry in the city. Another well known supper house was called The Hole in the Wall.
Kilkenny Courthouse, formerly called Grace’s Castle, was originally a town house of the wealthy Grace family, who leased the building to the Crown in 1566 for use as a prison; it was transformed into a courthouse by William Robertson around the beginning of the C19th, when the balcony and staircase were added.
The Tholsel / Town Hall on High St was a medieval tax collection centre, custom house, court of justice, guildhall and meeting place for merchants. The current impressive arcaded 1761 Georgian building, locally nicknamed the Lighthouse due to its landmark Clock Tower, enshrines the old Kilkenny Corporation Chamber and offices, and is a regular venue for theatrical performances and exhibitions.
Butter Slip, a picturesque narrow medieval passage next to the Tholsel, was built in 1616 to connect High St with Low Lane (now St Kieran’s St), and was long lined with butter vendors’ stalls.
Kilkenny College was founded to replace St Canice’s Vicars Choral School (est. 1234) as Kilkenny Grammar School in 1538 by Piers Butler, 8th Earl of Ormond, and was re-established after the Wars of the Three Kindoms with its present name by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde in 1665. The College motto, Comme je trouve, comes from the Butler family coat of arms.
Briefly promoted to University status during the reign of King James II, the College was reduced to one pupil by the end of the C19th, when it was saved by an amalgamation with the nearby Pococke School.
Many of Ireland’s most eminent figures have been educated at the College, notably the Restoration playwrights William Congreve and George Farqhar, the satirist Jonathan Swift, the philosopher George Berkeley, the founder of the Royal Dublin Society, Thomas Prior, and David Beatty, first Sea Lord at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
The elegant Georgian buildings, best viewed from across the River Nore or the scenic towpath beside the uncompleted C18th Canal, now house the offices of Kilkenny County Council.
Kilkenny College and the Collegiate School, Celbridge, were amalgamated in 1973, and moved in 1985 to a greenfield site. Now aka KCK, occupying modern premises at Celbridge House on Castlecomer Road, the College is the largest co-educational boarding school in Ireland, and caters for both boarders and day students, with a fine reputation for rugby and hockey. The school’s students are mainly Protestant (Church of Ireland), although it is open to other denominations.
Switsir’s Almshouses / St. James’ Hospital date from 1803.
St Kieran’s College, known as “the first Catholic school in the kingdom”, was founded in 1782, shortly after the Catholic Relief Act permitted Roman Catholics to receive education for the first time since the introduction of the Penal Laws. The present buildings were designed by William Deane Butler with asssistance from George Ashlin. Distinguishing features include the Clock Tower, the chapel and the Glass Hall.
Prominent former pupils include Ralph Fiennes and several GAA stars.
The college, long a boarding school and Seminary, is now primarily a day school for boys, and has a strong Hurling tradition.
St. Mary’s Cathedral (RC), the seat of the Bishop of Ossory, located at the highest point in Kilkenny, was designed by William Deane Butler in the mid-C19th (reputedly based on Gloucester Cathedral). It features a 200ft high tower (originally intended for St Kieran’s College) and superbly carved altars, together with a statue of the Virgin Mary by Giovani Maria Benzoni.
The Old Woolen Mills, a major C19th textile factory that was once one of the largest employers in the area, has more than a mile of frontage onto the River Nore, and is currently home to , Kilkenny Architectural Salvage, one of the most renowned architectural antique yards in Ireland.
Gaelscoil Osrai in Kilkenny is the second largest Irish-only school in Ireland.
The 1366 Statutes of Kilkenny
The notorious Statutes of Kilkenny were 35 legislative enactments approved by the peripatetic Irish Parliament here in 1366, when it was feared that the old Anglo-Norman families were becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves“.
The introduction to the text of the statutes claim,
… now many English of the said land, forsaking the English language, manners, mode of riding, laws and usages, live and govern themselves according to the manners, fashion, and language of the Irish enemies; and also have made divers marriages and alliances between themselves and the Irish enemies aforesaid; whereby the said land, and the liege people thereof, the English language, the allagiance due to our lord the king, and the English laws there, are put in subjection and decayed…
The statutes tried to prevent this “middle nation”, which was neither true English nor Irish, by reasserting English culture among the English settlers.
The session was chaired personally King Edward III‘s third son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, in his capacity of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, while a member of the powerful Butler family interpreted speeches from Irish into English. In keeping with legislative custom at the time, the statutes themselves were written in Anglo-Norman French.
(Image from interesting website about Anglo-Norman linguistic impact on Ireland)
According to this writer’s recollection, the Statutes forbade any English settler to speak Irish, use an Irish name, or wear Irish apparel, and marriage between a male settler and an Irish woman was classified as High Treason, while men of Irish blood were prohibited from living within walled towns. One delightful clause (possibly in another piece of legislation) provided that any man “wearing a beard upon his upper lip” could be treated as an Irishman “and ransomed accordingly.”
By the middle decades of the 13th century, the Hiberno-Norman presence in Ireland was perceived to be under threat, mostly due to the dissolution of English laws and customs among English settlers. These English settlers were described as “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, referring to them taking up Irish law, custom, costume and language.
There were also military threats to the Norman presence, such as the failed invasion by Robert Bruce in 1315, which was defended by the Irish chief Domhnall Ó Néill in his Remonstrance to Pope John XXII, complaining that “For the English inhabiting our land … are so different in character from the English of England … that with the greatest propriety they may be called a nation not of middle medium, but of utmost, perfidy”. Further, there was the de Burgh or Burke Civil War of 1333-38, which led to the disintegration of the estate of the Earldom of Ulster into three separate lordships, two of which were in outright rebellion against the crown.
The prime author of the statutes was Lionel of Antwerp, better known as the Duke of Clarence, who was also the Earl of Ulster. In 1361, he had been sent as viceroy to Ireland by Edward III in order to recover his own lands in Ulster if possible and to turn back the advancing tide of the Irish. The statutes were enacted by a parliament that he summoned in 1366. The following year, he left Ireland.
The statutes begin by recognising that the English settlers had been influenced by Irish culture and customs, as quoted above. They forbade the intermarriage between the native Irish and the native English, the English fostering of Irish children, the English adoption of Irish children and use of Irish names and dress. Those English colonists who did not know how to speak English were required to learn the language (on pain of losing their land and belongings), along with many other English customs. The Irish pastimes of “horling” and “coiting” were to be dropped and pursuits such as archery and lancing to be taken up, so that the English colonists would be more able to defend against Irish aggression, using English military tactics.
Other statutes required that the English in Ireland be governed by English common law, instead of the Irish March law or Brehon law and ensured the separation of the Irish and English churches by requiring that “no Irishman of the nations of the Irish be admitted into any cathedral or collegiate church … amongst the English of the land”.
The mistrust the English had of the Irish is demonstrated by Statute XV, which forbade Irish minstrels or storytellers to come to English areas, guarding against “the Irish agents who come amongst the English, spy out the secrets, plans, and policies of the English, whereby great evils have often resulted”.
Failure of the Statutes
While the Statutes were sweeping in scope and aim, the English never had the resources to fully implement them. Clarence was forced to leave Ireland the following year, and Hiberno-Norman Ireland continued to gain a primarily Irish cultural identity. Only at the beginning of the 17th century would another attempt to colonise Ireland begin to make appreciable gains.
Lyrath House, a magnificent mansion begun in the C17th and remodelled over the next 150 years, famed for its beautiful walled garden and grounds, was long the residence of the Wheeler-Cuffe family.
Lady Charlotte Wheeler Cuffe (1867-1967), a noted botanical watercolourist, was granddaughter of the Rev. Sir Hercules Langrish, 3rd Baronet of Knocktopher, and daughter of William Williams, President of the Law Society of England and Wales.
Her husband Sir Otway Wheeler Cuffe, a civil engineer, was an Imperial official in Burma and she travelled with him to the remote regions. Near Mount Victoria in 1911 she found two new rhododendrons, one yellow rhododendron burmacium hardy, the other white indoor rhododendron cuffeanum. She was the earliest known botanical explorer to reach this remote area. She also designed a 150-acre (0.61 km2) Botanic Garden at Maymo while in Burma.
She returned to Ireland after 24 years in Burma in 1921, and lived at Lyrath for her remaining 43 years.
Many of her expeditions are detailed in correspondence with her cousin the Baroness Pauline Prochazka (1842-1930) of Lyrath, and Sir Frederick Moore, the Director of the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, where she deposited the bulk of her collection in 1926.
The main building has recently been restored, modernised and considerably extended to become the luxurious Lyrath Estate Hotel, Spa & Leisure Centre, specialising in corporate conferences and weddings.
Talbotsinch (Co. Kilkenny / Central)
Talbotsinch, a model “Arts & Crafts” style village, is located about 2Km outside Kilkenny on the Freshford Road. The 26 houses, nearly all different, were designed and built 1896 – 1906 by William Alphonsus Scott to house workers at the Kilkenny Woodworkers Company and Greenvale Woollen Mills. (Photo – www.buildingsofireland.ie)
The village was commisioned by the philanthropist Countess of Desart, Ellen Cuffe (née Bischoffsheim), later one of the first female Senators of the Irish Free State (the first Jewish woman so honoured anywhere in the world). She was elected President of the Gaelic League to succeed her brother-in-law, Capt. Otway Cuffe, a leading Irish language champion who was twice elected Mayor of Kilkenny.
(Her niece, Lady Sybil, was a leading figure in the Anglo-American-Italian cultural milieu of Florence before WWII, and is credited with the beautiful gardens of the Villa Medici and at La Foce, south of Siena).
Kilkenny City Accommodation & Amenities
Lacken House, on the Dublin Road, was built in 1847 as a Dower House for Viscount Mortmorency. It was a private nursing home for many years, and since 1983 has been into run as a highly regarded Guesthouse with a well-reviewed Restaurant.
Dunromin B&B, also on the Dublin road, is very highly rated.
Mena House B&B on the Castlecomer Road is a lovey old house with a prize garden.
Two Cats from Kilkenny
– a limerick (with optional added couplet):There once were two cats of Kilkenny Each thought there was one cat too many So they fought and they hit And they scratched and they bit Till (excepting their nails And the tips of their tails) Instead of two cats there weren’t any!