Kilkenny, with a population of twenty six thousand, is Ireland’s smallest city, but packs enough history and spectacle to compensate. St Canice established the name in the 6th century. His monastery was built on a rise by the Breagagh River, near its confluence with the River Nore. By the Norman invasion of the twelfth century, this had become a significant settlement. Kilkenny was granted its city charter by King James I (VI of Scotland) in 1609. The term city is vexed; it has not been administered as a city under local government law since the mid nineteenth century. Locals are touchy on the subject, however, so city it is.
We park on John’s Quay, on the eastern bank of the River Nore, near the library, a quaint compromise of the grand and the dainty. It’s a short walk up the river banks before crossing John’s Bridge, with views of mighty Kilkenny Castle downstream.
In Kilkenny, it is reported
on marble stones there as black as ink,
with gold and silver I will support her,
but i’ll say no more now, till I’ve had a drink.
Across the river to the right is Tynan’s Bridge House, one of my favourite watering holes here. Established in 1703 as a grocers and pharmacy, it has concentrated on the licensed trade for the last hundred years. Retaining much of the traditional store paraphernalia, Tynan’s is a richly atmospheric time capsule. In Kilkenny, there’re so many fine pubs to choose from. Just enjoy.
More than beer, even more than history, Kilkenny prides itself on its prowess in the most Irish of sports: hurling. Played by wild, skilful men with curved wooden sticks, at its best by men in black and amber striped shirts, a statue to the art of hurling stands at Canal Square nearby. The sculpture by Barry Wrafter, a Clareman, was unveiled by Brian Cody, Kilkenny hurling manager, in 2016.
Rose Inn Street curves up from the river, passing the ancient gable fronted Shee Almshouse. Built in 1582 by powerful merchant, Richard Shee, to accommodate twelve poor people of the city, it operated as an almshouse until the eighteen thirties. It became a hospital, and later a shop. It is now the tourist office for the city.
Topping the rise, the vista opens onto a central square of sorts. The Parade forms the main esplanade leading to the Castle. The original castle was built by Richard De Clare, or Strongbow, in 1173, on the site of the kings of Ossory. The Fitzpatricks. despite the Fitz, were Gaels, not Normans. Fitz was a later affectation, their original name being Mac Giolla Phadraig, servants of St Patrick. The first stone castle was built in 1260, and three of the original towers survive.
The Butler family took control in 1391. James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, inherited the Ormond title in 1634 when the senior line became extinct. He was a Protestant, trumping Catholic claimants. The Duke commanded Royalist forces in Ireland during the Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century. Butler was caught between Cromwell’s forces on one side, and the Catholic Confederates on the other. These included Butler’s Catholic kinsmen, with whom he would eventually find common cause in opposition to Cromwell.
Cromwell would prevail. He besieged Kilkenny, the Confederate capital, his forces destroying the east wall and north eastern tower of the Castle. Butler, reinstated after the Restoration, became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He was responsible for the modernisation of Dublin, initiating the construction of the Liffey Quays. He remodelled Kilkenny Castle as we see it today. Cromwell’s own remodelling was thus adapted and dismissed, the structure no longer thought of as a fortress but reimagined as a grand chateau.
High Street is the main drag. Bustling and hectic, it is visually distinguished by the intrusion of the Tholsel into the thoroughfare. Built in 1761 as a tollhouse, it later became the courthouse. The distinctive arcade straddles the pavement, providing a cover for buskers and traders, lending a European ambience to the place. It functions today as the City Hall.
Behind the Tholsel, St Mary’s Lane provides a detour, encircling St Mary’s Church with its medieval museum. We pick our way through to St Kieran’s Street, a narrow laneway lined with trendy boutiques and bistros. Time for a caffeine hit and there’s a good sheltered outdoor perch at the Yard Cafe.
Opposite the Yard is Kyteler’s Inn, with a colourful history dating back to the fourteenth century. Its original proprietor was Alice Kyteler, who amassed a fortune and a foursome of deceased husbands. To misquote Wilde: to lose one husband may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose four looks like carelessness.
Her first husband was the charmingly named William Outlaw. She then married Adam le Blund, a moneylender, and with him was accused of killing Bill. The case failed, though the reputation stuck. Not that it discouraged hubby number three, Richard Valle, a landowner, nor John Poer, who filled the role of number four.for eight years. It was he who expressed the suspicion that he was being poisoned and on his death in 1324 progeny of the Dead Husbands’ Club filed proceedings against Alice for murder and witchcraft. In this they were enthusiastically supported by Richard De Ledrede, Bishop of Ossory.
Ledrede, as the name implies, was no barrel of laughs. In the Red Book of Ossory he advised his priests that: their throats and mouths, sanctified to God, might not be polluted with theatrical, indecent and secular songs. He lived to be a centenarian, Best known through his connection with trials for heresy and witchcraft.
Alice was not without connections. Arnold le Poer, Seneschal of Kilkenny, imprisoned the bishop thus hampering the case. Then, the Lord Chancellor Roger Outlaw, her brother in law, shielded her from Ledrede and she was spirited away.
Her servant Petronella De Meath was less fortunate. She was burned at the stake. Under torture, she claimed to have witnessed Alice have intercourse with a demon, Robin Artisson, following an obscene ritual. WB Yeats alludes to this in his poem, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.
Under the shadow of stupid straw pale locks
that insolent fiend Robert Artisson,
to whom the love lorn Lady Kyteler brought
bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.
St Kieran’s Street merges with High Street to become Parliament Street. Nearby, the Smithwick’s Experience is the home of Smithwick’s Ale, whose red beer was my first tipple. Take the full tour, or sample the product in a nearby bar. The Marble City Bar and Tearooms makes an appropriate choice. Kilkenny once rejoiced in an annual beer festival and while that’s long gone, the aroma lingers on.
We cross the palimpsest of the old city walls and into the shadow of St Canice’s Cathedral, a thirteenth century gothic fortress of god, with high crenellated walls and a stout central tower resting on black marble columns. All this augmented by a 9th century round tower, a hundred feet tall. The top is accessible by steps, one of only three such in Ireland. We stay earthbound, amongst the graves and greenery at its base, our eyes drawn heavenward.
Back in the real world, we zig zag our descent to the Nore. Another ancient landmark, Rothe House, was built in the English Renaissance style by merchant John Rothe Fitz-piers, between 1595 and 1610. It consists of three houses with the city walls forming part of their curtilage. The facade features a recessed arcade and a high gabled central bay. Today it houses a museum.
There’s time for a coffee and a snack before the drive home. We find Kafe Katz as the rains come down. The atmosphere is sublime. Here in Kilkenny, it’s raining cats and dogs.
Well I’m drunk today, I am seldom sober,
A handsome rover from town to town.
Ah but i’m sick now, my days are numbered,
Come all ye young men and lay me down.
The traditional song, Carrickfergus, which mostly concerns Kilkenny, comes to us via Peter O’Toole and Dominic Behan. Bryan Ferry supplies a favourite version on his album: The Bride Stripped Bare.
By her bachelors even?