Deborah Mulhearn enjoys a visit to the glorious medieval capital of Kilkenny, otherwise known as Ireland’s loveliest inland city…
Six hundred and fifty years ago, the Anglo-Irish parliament, based in those days at Kilkenny Castle, was struggling to subordinate the native Irish. The Statutes of Kilkenny were just one attempt to curb the spread of Irish culture, and included bans on such practices as minstrels playing Gaelic music and the ancient Irish sport of hurling.
The fast and furious game of hurling is now one of the most popular sports on the planet, and the Kilkenny Black Cats are the undisputed kings. Clearly those statutes failed. The Kilkenny women, who play the related game of Camogie, are no slouches either. Also known as the Cats, and with the same black and amber striped kit as the men, they are the current All-Ireland champions.
Stories about Kilkenny’s association with black cats of the feline variety are mostly apocryphal, usually concerning two cats that fought so viciously that only their tails remained. Kilkenny cats have a happier association now, including The Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in June. But the moniker has stuck to mean tenacious fighters.
The county town of Kilkenny is also variously known as the cultural heart of Ireland, Ireland’s loveliest inland city, and the country’s medieval capital. So while most visitors to Ireland understandably head to the coast, there are many reasons to make the trip inland.
If you draw a line on the map between Dublin and Cork, Kilkenny City, as it is more properly known, is roughly in the middle. It is named after St Canice, or Kenneth, a sixth century Irish saint who built a monastery on the site of the present day cathedral. The name Kilkenny derives from the Gaelic words Cill Chainnigh, meaning the Church of St Canice.
We are lucky with the weather, and the drive up through the Nore valley is glorious. We are following, in part, the course of the River Nore, known as one of the Three Sisters, along with siblings the River Barrow and the River Suir, that run into Waterford Harbour in the south east of the country and out into the Celtic Sea.
We wind up through the wooded countryside on the snakelike R700 road. As we slow for gradients and narrow stone bridges across the river we catch alluring glimpses between the trees of abbeys, towers and castle keeps.
There are dozens of early monastic sites in County Kilkenny, including abbeys, monasteries, friaries and priories. Many are atmospheric ruins but others have been added to over the centuries and are still in use, such as the Black Abbey in Kilkenny City itself, founded in 1225 and home to the Dominican order of ‘Black Friars’. Its beautiful Rosary window dates from 1892 and is the largest stained glass window in Ireland.
Not all the ruins on this prosaically named but delightful road are medieval and monastic, however. Through the trees is Woodstock House, a fine Georgian house built in the mid-18th century amid landscaped grounds, but destroyed in 1922 during the Irish Civil War.
The house itself remains a rather eerie sight, as if it is being returned to nature. The creepers spreading from its blackened windows look like the flames that engulfed it. But the grounds with their rare and exotic trees and plants, including 200-year old Monkey Puzzle trees and magnificently gnarled Cedars of Lebanon, have been restored as a visitor attraction and aboretum.
It’s said that the classical parterres and generous pathways were built wide enough to allow ladies in their long, full gowns to walk side by side. The house belonged to the Tighe family and was inhabited by various relatives and descendants through the years. One early resident was 19 year-old Sarah Ponsonby, who scandalised Kilkenny society in 1788 by running off to Wales with an older woman to escape from the advances of her lecherous guardian.
We slow down to cross an old arched stone bridge and suddenly feel we are entering a 1950s film set. Which in a sense we are. This is the picture perfect village of Inistioge, (pronounced Inishteeg) where the film Circle of Friends was filmed. Based on the novel by popular Irish writer Maeve Binchy, the story concerns the entwined lives and loves of a trio of feisty Irish girls in the straight-laced 1950s.
At Thomastown we stop for elevenses – on recommendation – at The Blackberry Café on Market Street, once home to the town cobblers. The homemade cakes and slices are so good we treat ourselves to a second round. Thomastown’s substantial church dates from the early 13th century and reflects the town’s importance as a trading post on the navigable River Nore.
Today Thomastown has an artsy-craftsy feel and we can’t help feeling that if it were in England it would be full of artisan bakers and celebrity chef cafes. Thankfully Thomastown has resisted this particular kind of colonisation, at least, and retains a sense of nonchalant Georgian elegance. We almost expect to see Jane Austen, or her fictional creations the Bennett sisters, emerging bonnetless from one of the fanlighted Georgian doorways.
From Thomastown the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey would make a fascinating detour, but we leave this for another day and push on for Kilkenny City. From the moment we arrive we are excited and captivated by its colour and bustle. It is a linear town: the long route between the Castle at one end and the Cathedral at the other is known as Ireland’s Medieval Mile.
It’s officially a cathedral city but has more of the feel of a market town, though one dominated by the huge limestone castle. This ‘black marble’ quarried in Kilkenny, is actually a dark grey limestone. Kilkenny Castle looks so pristine and perfect it’s hard to believe it dates from the late 12th century, or, rather that three of its four imposing towers do. It was built between 1195 and 1213 by knight errant William Marshal. His English father-in-law Strongbow had built an earlier wooden castle on the site to control a fording point on the River Nore.
Kilkenny’s history is long and richly textured, taking in notable figures from Strongbow to writer Jonathan Swift. We park at the top end of the Medieval Mile, close to the Cathedral with its 100 ft Celtic Christian round tower – one of only two in Ireland where it’s possible to climb to the top. We walk back down St Keiran’s Street, popping our heads into the alleyways, lanes and shops. Further down we peep into Kyteler’s Inn. The original innkeeper, Dame Alice Kyteler, was the first person to be tried for witchcraft in Ireland. Something of a merry widow with four husbands, four suspicious early deaths and subsequent inheritances behind her, Dame Alice and her familiar black cat soon became notorious in Kilkenny.
The story of her maid Petronilla de Meath is strange and resonant. When charges of witchcraft were brought against Dame Alice in 1324, she skipped across to England, leaving poor Petronilla to take (rather more than) the rap. She was tortured and burned at the stake, purportedly the first person in the British Isles to suffer this dubious honour.
The Nore Linear Park is away from the more touristy areas of the city and provides a peaceful route along a section of the River Nore and one side of the castle walls. Outdoor sculptures are planted among the lime trees, and amid the ruins of old woollen mills and the stonework remnants of an abandoned 18th century canal.
Although it’s called the canal walk, the canal itself was never completed and the land was given to the people of Kilkenny as a park in 1830. This means that we emerge not at the castle’s main gateway, but into the middle of the park with the castle laid out before us in all its grey glory.
The Anglo-Irish Butler family lived in Kilkenny Castle for centuries and rebuilt parts of it in the mid-nineteenth century. Anne Boleyn’s grandmother Lady Margaret Butler was born there, as was descendant Lady Eleanor Butler who was the older woman united with Woodstock House’s Sarah Ponsonby in ‘extraordinary female affection’, as one contemporary newspaper discreetly put it.
Across the road is the Kilkenny Design Centre, which was originally the castle stables. The National Craft Gallery has its home in the semi-circular building, and smaller units house designer-led arts and crafts shops. Upstairs the restaurant looks out onto the main street and the castle on one side, and the old stable grounds on the other. We are hungry after our walk and the tasty, generous offerings in this stylish restaurant are very welcome.
There is so much more to see and learn in this lovely city. We want to stay for the traditional Irish music session in Kyteler’s Inn but we haven’t the time. It’s getting dark, and we have a long drive ahead. Dame Alice will have to wait. At the very edge of Kilkenny, with the castle looming in the rear view mirror, from the corner of my eye I see a black cat dart across the road.