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.
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.
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.
History of Kilkenny
The name for Kilkenny derives from the Irish ‘Cill Chainnigh’, meaning the Church of Cainneach, a site of Catholic worship that was first established by St. Canice in the sixth century. St. Canice was a learned monk who founded a monastery at Aghavoe, and which later became the seat of the diocese of Ossory around the year 1052. Ossory was an ancient kingdom of Ireland that held a semi-independent position as a state within the kingdom of Leinster. In the ninth century, the kingdom was ruled by King Cerball, who allied himself with the Norse invaders and was an ancestor of some the important historical families in Iceland.
The Norman Invasion
The Normans arrived in Kilkenny in 1170, under the leadership of William the Earl Marshall. In 1208, a charter was created to attract settlers and trade to the region. Some of Kilkennys most notable attractions were built during Marshalls leadership, including the Black Abbey, St. Johns Cathedral and the spectacular Kilkenny Castle, which was constructed in 1260 on the site of the countys first Norman church. During this period, the city of Kilkenny had two townships divided by the river Nore: Irishtown, which had its charter from the bishops of Ossory; and Englishtown, which was under Norman control. From 1295 to 1365 some twelve parliaments sat in Kilkenny, providing the legislation and administrative structure for the city. The Anglo-Norman parliament also began to pass severe laws seeking to discourage English settlers from adopting Irish customs. In 1336, the infamous Statute of Kilkenny was founded, which forbade the Anglo-Irish population to integrate, inter-marry or speak the Gaelic language. The statute was rigorously enforced, but it failed in its aim of preventing Anglo-Norman landowners from adopting aspects of Gaelic culture.
In 1541, Henry VIII became the first monarch to declare himself king (as opposed to feudal lord) of Ireland. Gaelic rebellion throughout the 16th century intensified, not least because the Catholic bishops in Kilkenny began to find their position increasingly under threat.
The Tudor Period
In 1601, the army of Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Irish at the battle of Kinsale, and with the fall of the Irish rebel leader Hugh O’Neill, Ireland found itself under control for the first time by a strong English central government. From the 16th century onwards English governments made strenuous efforts to impose Protestantism, beginning a policy of Anglicisation which soon spread to the whole of Ireland.
The borough of Kilkenny was raised to the status of a city in 1609. By 1641, the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny established a provisional government in Ireland, seeking to resist the English persecution of Catholicism. The confederation sat for six years and many historians view this period as the citys golden age. The confederation represented both the Gaelic Irish and the Anglo-Irish Catholics, and functioned as an independent Irish Parliament. In 1645, however, the confederation split into two camps, and the Anglo-Irish Party signed a treaty with the English Viceroy, bringing disunity and rebellion to the county.
Oliver Cromwell arrived in Kilkenny in 1650, with the aim of suppressing nationalist extremism. Kilkenny city was besieged by Cromwell in 1650, and former Gaelic landowners were transplanted from the district to barren areas of the western province of Connacht. (Cromwells famous choice to landowners – “To Hell or Connacht” – is remembered to this day.) Catholics found themselves denied the political rights they had been promised, and with the passing of the Banishment Act in 1697, all those holding ecclesiastical jurisdiction were forced to leave the county by May 1698. The proportion of land held by Gaelic and Anglo-Norman Catholic proprietors fell from about 49% in 1641 to nearly 10% in 1703.
A brief respite occurred during 1685 when the Catholic King James II came to the throne, causing severe division in English political forces and leading to the Williamite Wars in Ireland. Jamess supporters, who were known as Jacobites, were defeated at the Siege of Derry in 1689 and again at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and in that same year, the supporters of the new Protestant king of England and Scotland, William of Orange, had again occupied Kilkenny city. Many members of the former Irish army (Jacobites) were forced to leave Ireland, and instead chose to serve in the armies of France, Spain, and other European countries. They became known as “The Wild Geese.”
The Eighteenth Century
With the increasing centralisation of British power, and the establishment of Dublin Castle as the governments administrative headquarters, Kilkenny, like the rest of the country, began to feel the repercussions of British rule. The Penal laws were passed in 1704 and barred Catholics from access to the vote, education and the military. Kilkenny became a hive of revolutionary activity, and the rebel Whiteboy movement staged protests and insurrections throughout the country during the eighteenth century. The Whiteboy movement paved the way for the formation of the United Irishmen, an organisation led by Wolfe Tone, who pledged to “break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils”. The United Irishmen staged an unsuccessful rebellion in 1798, and Kilkenny city was briefly placed under martial law.
The Nineteenth Century
The Act of Union was passed in 1801. This controversial British legislation politically unified England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales for the first time. It also bolstered the status of Protestant landowners, and the imposition of exorbitant rents and heavy tithes on lands leased by Catholic tenant farmers brought extreme poverty to the county. Evictions in Kilkenny throughout the 19th century were all too frequent and often merciless. The rise of Daniel O’Connell gave the oppressed a voice, however, and anti-tithe protests and mass meeting were widespread across the county. In response to public outrage amongst Irish farmers, the first Tenant Protection Society was established at Callan village, County Kilkenny. Its aim was to obtain fixed rents for tenant farmers. Its members also pledged not to take the land of any evicted tenant who had been prepared to pay a set, fixed rent.
The Easter Rising, which took place in Dublin in 1916, led the way for the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. The greater part of Ireland achieved a limited independence as the Irish Free State, but the island was partitioned: six north-eastern counties remained a part of the United Kingdom. For the first time, Irish nationalist forces found themselves bitterly divided, and the Civil War of 1922 saw atrocities on both sides. Kilkenny Castle was taken over in 1922 by anti-Treaty forces, but the rebels surrendered peacefully after two days.
With the formation of an independent Irish republic in 1949, Kilkenny, like the rest of the country, suffered from the effects of a depressed economy and high emigration. With the establishment of the Kilkenny Design Workshops in the late 1960s, however, the city gradually adopted its status as Irelands craft industry capital. In 1967, the Sixth Marquees of Ormonde presented Kilkenny Castle and part of the grounds to the people of Kilkenny – a landmark event which formally acknowledged the citys feudal legacy, and its role in the emergence of Irish independence.
Kilkenny city has become a prosperous city, with a young urban population of just under 19,000, 7,500 of whom are under 25 years of age. The citys main industries are brewing and processing, although there is still a very strong tradition of arts and crafts, and the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival is one of the highlights of Irelands artistic calendar. In 1997, Kilkenny was one of the four towns selected to participate in the Eircom Information Age project, and was awarded IR£1 million to help local industries develop their e-commerce potential. Kilkenny is to celebrate its 400th anniversary as a city in 2009.