Kilkenny Travel Information

Mother Earth Travel > Ireland > Kilkenny > History

Situated inland in the sunny south-east' of Ireland, Kilkenny is known as the medieval capital of Ireland. It is a county of gentle hills and fertile agricultural land, bordered by the Barrow and Suir rivers; Kilkenny city itself sits on the River Nore. The county covers an area of roughly 2000 square kilometres and has a population of about 75,000; 18,000 of whom are based in Kilkenny city.

Kilkenny city has been a market town since at least the fourth century, and was for a while the ecclesiastical and political centre of the country. The infamous Statute of Kilkenny that attempted to prevent the assimilation of Anglo-Normans and the local Irish was passed in 1366.

Like the rest of the county, Kilkenny city is steeped in history and bears the marks of Celtic, Viking, Norman and English invaders. Today, it combines the intimacy of a large village with the attractions of a bustling entertainment and craft-orientated city. Winding cobbled streets and carefully restored or tastefully adapted shop-fronts and buildings give Kilkenny city a unique atmosphere that is worth savouring. Ancient sites, castles, abbeys and the countys ubiquitous old stone edifices ensure that many of the outlying towns also amply repay a visit. The area boasts lively pub-life, quality restaurants, a number of interesting festivals, and an array of sporting events and activities, most notably the ancient Gaelic game of hurling, at which the county traditionally excels.

Kilkenny City
Historically and visually, the magnificent Kilkenny Castle at the southern end of the town is the jewel in the countys crown. With beautifully tended public gardens and a magnificent view of the Nore, the twelfth-century fortress has undergone frequent restoration and renovation during the five and a half centuries in which it was owned by the Butler family; and throughout the six decades since the Butlers donated it to the public. The resulting palimpsest of styles from different architectural eras (Gothic, Classical, Victorian and Tudor) is an effect that is repeated throughout Kilkenny. A very worthwhile tour of the Castle is usually oversubscribed and it is advisable to make arrangements in advance. The pretty old stables of the Castle now house the Kilkenny Design Centre, a mecca for those wishing to purchase Irish crafts. Behind the Centre, meanwhile, are a selection of craft workshops.

The name Kilkenny is an Anglicisation of the Gaelic Cill Cheannaigh, which literally translates as the Church of Canice. St. Canice established a monastery in the area during the sixth century, and the splendid thirteenth century St. Canices Cathedral is the second largest in Ireland. It is situated on Dean Street, at the northern end of the town, and was infamously used by Oliver Cromwell to house his horses in 1650. Cromwells army brought to a close what was arguably the most distinguished period in the countys history, when the Confederation of Kilkenny (1642-1648) came into effect. This was effectively an independent Irish parliament formed through a brittle union of Anglo-Irish Catholics and the Old Irish in opposition to English rule. The arrival in 1645 of Papal Nuncio Archbishop Rinuccini with troops and financial support must have seemed auspicious to the confederates, but their hopes were to be shattered. The Confederation fell apart when a treaty between the Anglo-Irish and the English Viceroy was compounded by the untimely death of the legendary Old Irish leader Owen Roe O'Neill. The Irish army surrendered (albeit with honour), after several days of a Cromwellian siege, and the areas political influence dissipated.

Incidentally Rinuccinis contribution is commemorated through the well-known Italian Rinuccini Restaurant on The Parade. Admission to both St. Canices Cathedral and the adjoining library, which houses thousands of sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscripts, is free.

The Tudor style Rothe House on Parliament Street dates from the 1590s and was a meeting place for the leaders of the Confederation. It is now a museum and the home of the admirable Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Seventeenth-century Kilkenny is celebrated in the Cityscope display in the Shee Almhouse, which is also where the Tourist Information Office is situated. Not far from here is the Dominican Black Abbey, which was first built in 1225. This building has had a turbulent history and suffered greatly during the Cromwellian campaign, but it has been restored to its former glory and contains a beautiful example of stained glass work. The Black Freyre gate is an interesting remnant from Kilkennys days as a walled city. Another abbey, St. Francis' Abbey (1234), is now the site of St. Francis' Brewery and offers tours and quality ales.

On John Street the County Council offices are notable as they are situated in what was once Kilkenny College. Notables who attended this establishment include the dramatist William Congreve, the philosopher George Berkeley and the incomparable satirist Jonathan Swift.

Around Kilkenny
As for the villages around Kilkenny, Graiguenamanagh with the beautifully restored Cistercian Duiske Abbey is worth visiting. Gowran, the seat of the Kings of the ancient kingdom of Ossory, has the thirteenth-century St. Marys Church to explore, and the beautiful Gowran Racecourse for the less spiritually-minded. Inistiogue has a marvellous ten-arch bridge from the eighteenth century and is a picturesque village in which it is a pleasure to spend a day. Thomastown is equally attractive - it is the home of splendid Mount Juliet, which has hotel and golfing facilities that are unsurpassed in the country; it is also close to Jerpoint Abbey, a fascinating monastic ruin. There are also some lovely old mills in Thomastown. Visitors to Kilkenny would be well advised to check out the Dunmore Caves on the Castlecomer Road, which have a gruesome reputation dating from Viking times, and contain one of Europes largest unsupported stalagmite. Make sure your visit is during opening times.

For historical interest, nightlife, and relaxed often-beautiful surroundings, Kilkenny town and the surrounding district are worthy of inclusion in any tour of Ireland.