Whaddya know…sometimes you roll the dice and come up a winner. Chris and I had three days to fill at the tail-end of our big Ireland adventure and after a cursory internet search, we settled on Kilkenny. Fantastic choice! Kilkenny is a lively, compact city that is easy to explore on foot. We spent a day and half strolling the narrow streets and ancient archways; every turn revealed another layer of Kilkenny’s rich medieval heritage.
There’s so much to say about this burg, I hardly know where to start! When in doubt, begin at the beginning right? Kilkenny derives its name from a 6th century monastic settlement established by Saint Canice: Kilkenny…Cill Chainnigh…Church of Chainnech/Canice. Fast forward about 600 years from those humble beginnings to the 12th century when Strongbow built a fort near where Kilkenny Castle stands today. His son-in-law (William Marshall) later built a stone castle and walls to protect the city. Solid work! We found remnants of those walls and other medieval defenses scattered around town.
So Kilkenny became a seat of power for the Normans, but by the mid–1300s many believed the Norman presence was threatened by English settlers in Ireland who had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.” To countermand this perceived threat and to bring Ireland back under control of English born nobles, a set of laws were passed in 1367 at a meeting of the parliament in Kilkenny. These became known as the Statutes of Kilkenny and made it against the law for the English in Ireland to marry the Irish, speak the Irish language, play Irish games, listen to Irish storytellers, or even ride a horse without a saddle as the Irish do (!). These seem ridiculous but to break a law was considered treason, punishable by death. Luckily the English never had the resources to fully implement these statutes so the Anglo-Irish could pretty much ignore them.
Okay, now I’ll go back in time about 50 years to relay possibly the coolest story Kilkenny has to offer. In 1324, Kilkenny hosted the only witchcraft trials in all of Ireland. Intrigued? It’s a stirring and complex tale; here’s the Reader’s Digest condensed version: Alice de Kyteler (aka Dame Alice) was born in Kilkenny in 1280 and married four times. That in itself does not a witch make, but each of her husbands died under suspicious circumstances, and with each death, Dame Kyteler amassed a small fortune. This caused a stir, but the fourth husband’s death was her undoing. Before Sir John le Poer passed, he changed his will to leave everything to Alice and her son William. His family members were outraged and accused Alice of poisoning and bewitching Sir John. An inquisition was convened and Alice (among others) was ordered to appear to answer charges of murder, sorcery, animal sacrifice, black magic, and possession of a demon. She fled to England and never faced trial but Alice’s maid Petronella wasn’t so lucky; she was tortured, whipped, and burned at the stake, thereby becoming the first in Ireland to die by fire for the crime of heresy. That’s a mighty grim claim to fame.
I’m obviously fascinated with Kilkenny’s past, and I learned this and more while walking the city. There was no need to research what to see in town; we simply followed Kilkenny’s complimentary sightseeing map. This helpful tool is condensed into a single 8 1/2 x 11 sheet, locates 23 historic sights, and provides a basic history of each. Warning! The map is a loose representation of the city (Chris dubbed it “the cartoon map”), depicts only main streets, and is not drawn to scale. We got a bit lost a couple times, but that’s all part of the fun. I’d even recommend it; wandering allows time to notice the little things and always delivers unexpected extras.
What did we see? Boy, I can’t possibly describe each and every historic building in Kilkenny’s “Medieval Mile.” There are more churches than you can shake a stick at, and medieval structures abound like Talbot’s Tower, the Black Freren Gate, and the Butter Slip (an arched stone walkway connecting High Street and St. Kieran Street). We enjoyed it all, but if I had to pick, three stand out:
Originally built by William Marshall (mentioned above), the castle later became the principal residence of the powerful Butler family and remained so for almost 600 years. It eventually fell into disrepair but the Office of Public Works took control in 1969 and they’ve been working ever since to restore the building to its 19th century grandeur. The magnificent library, drawing room, bedrooms, picture gallery…all are sumptuously decorated and a sight to behold. If you visit, be sure to see the movie that’s inconveniently located across the courtyard from the ticket office; it’s dated, but offers a nice overview of castle history and renovation work. The grounds and castle yard (across the street) are also quite beautiful.
St. Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower
The massive cathedral standing today was built in the 13th century but evidence points to at least three earlier churches on the same site. Case in point, the surviving round tower dates to the 9th century. Cathedral tours are self-guiding with the aid of a large laminated card that identifies and explains dozens of interesting features including the unique marble floors, stained glass, and carved tombs.
As magnificent as the cathedral is, the memory (for me) is overshadowed by the round tower. Get this: St. Canice is one of only two medieval round towers in Ireland that can be climbed. Yes. We climbed a round tower. To the top. It made my day! Before you try it though, know that it’s not a comfortable set-up. The climb consists of a series of wide-runged steep ladders with slim metal handrails. It’s a tight squeeze in places, especially the final exit hole to the roof. It was worth it to me for the bird’s eye 360-view, but may not be suitable for many.
Location: GPS: 52.65667, –7.25722
Hours: Seasonal, check their website. When we visited, both the cathedral and tower were closed 1–2pm daily.
Cost: €6/adult for the cathedral and round tower combined, €4/adult for cathedral alone; concessions available.
The Smithwick’s Experience
Since drinking beer is involved this may not seem like an “historical” experience at first blush, but the brewery has been in operation for over 300 years and the tour begins with a 14th century (holographic) monk who explains how and why beer was first made. So it’s educational. Really!
The Smithwick’s website proclaims “At Smithwick’s Experience Kilkenny, we know how to tell a great story.” I have to agree. The overall experience is a titch Disney-esque, but they’ve put together a captivating narrative of the history of beer in general and Smithwick’s in particular. John Smithwick and heirs seem masterful at pivoting the business as needed and thriving under ever changing conditions. The beer part was unique as well. I’ve been on many brewery tours, but this was the first that offered wort tastings; it was surprisingly good and a nice teaser leading up to the complimentary pint of Smithwick’s at the end of the tour.
Location: GPS: 52.65392, –7.25414
Hours: Seasonal, check their website.
Cost: €12/adult which includes a complimentary pint of Smithwick’s. Concessions are available for children, students, seniors and families.
I know this post is running long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kilkenny’s music scene. We were in town Sunday through Tuesday and found excellent traditional music each evening. In turn, we visited Kyteler’s Inn founded by Dame Alice Kyteler, John Cleere’s, and Matt the Miller’s. And since it was on the way to our B&B, we stopped in for a quick nip at The Dylan Whisky Bar. They have a nice ambiance and selection of whiskys, but it’s worth a visit just to see their traditional Irish snugs.
I’ve run on and on but still just scratched the surface. Kilkenny would be a wonderful home base for about 5 days of an Ireland vacation. There’s Kilkenny itself for sightseeing and music, but the surrounding area has loads to explore. To name just a few:
- To the northeast: Glendalough. The 1 1/2 hour drive is a long day trip, but a perfect stop if driving to Kilkenny from Dublin.
- To the southwest: Rock of Cashel, Cahir Castle and the Swiss Cottage
- To the south: Jerpoint Abbey, Kilfane Church, Mullins Mill, Kells Priory, and the Kilree Monastic site
Oy. Hundreds of words about Kilkenny and no mention of hurling; I may have broken a county law. Their colors are black and amber and they dominate. Done!