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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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Kilkenny: Ireland's Medieval City

kilkenny castle

Kilkenny Castle

by Suzanne Barrett

Kilkenny--cill cannig in Irish--is both medieval and modern. Situated on the banks of the River Nore, its narrow, winding streets and ancient buildings combine with the progressiveness of a busy, industrious town located in Ireland's Southeast.

The town was the capital of the kingdom of Ossory in pre-Norman times and was named after the church founded by St. Canice in the sixth century. Following the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invasion, Kilkenny passed into the hands of William le Mareschal, son-in-law to Strongbow. Around 1400, the Earl of Ormonde purchased the lordship of the town from le Mareschal's descendants.

Between 1293 and 1408, Kilkenny was the venue for many parliaments, including one in 1366 which enacted the Statute of Kilkenny. This statute declared marriage between a Norman and an Irishwoman an act of high treason. Moreover, Irishmen were forbidden to reside within a walled town, and penalties were exacted against any Anglo-Norman who should adopt Irish language, customs or dress.

Between 1558 and 1640 the castle's ceilings were richly decorated with stucco work, and elaborate gardens were laid out. The Papal Nuncio to Kilkenny visited in 1646 and declared Bunratty the most beautiful spot he had ever seen.

Kilkenny enjoyed a brief season of glory in the mid-seventeenth century when the Old Irish and the Anglo-Irish Catholics functioned as an independent Irish parliament. Inevitably, the groups split into two camps. The Anglo-Irish made a treaty with the English Viceroy, Ormonde; the Old Irish, supported by the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Rinuccini, elected as their leader, Owen Roe O'Neill. O'Neill's death in 1649 led to defeat. That, and disunion within the confederation led to an attack by Cromwell. After withstanding siege for many days, they capitulated and a treaty was signed.

Several old buildings remain in this most interesting of towns. We'll start our tour at the parking area along Castle Road. To the right stands Kilkenny Castle, to the left, the old castle stables, now an upscale design center. Look behind you and you'll see the old city walls. Directly ahead, is a skewed intersection where Castle Road, now The Parade, meets Patrick Street, High Street, and Rose Inn Street. Jog to the left, but continue going straight on High Street where, to your left are several places on our itinerary.

The grey stone building on your right is the Shee Alms House and dates from 1582. It closed in 1985 after more than 300 years of service as an alms house and hospital to the city's poor and now houses the Tourist Information Office, a valuable first stop on our tour. Here you may pick up a map showing each building plus a brief description for under £ 2.

Down the lane to your left stands St. Mary's church. Erected in 1202, the church changed hands several times between the Catholic and Protestant communities and is now a community center.

The Tholsel was built in 1761 on the spot where Alice Kyteler's servant, Petronella, was burned at the stake for witchcraft in 1324. The unpolished marble and limestone building now houses the Kilkenny Corporation and many antiquities., including a sword from James I to mark the city's charter in 1609.

A turn to the right brings you to St. Kieran Street and Kyteler's Inn, now one of Kilkenny's most popular bars and restaurants. The oldest house in Kilkenny, it was the home of Dame Alice Kyteler, a lady of great wealth who married four times and who, in 1324, was accused of witchcraft and of poisoning each of her four husbands.

Backtrack to where St. Kieran Street joins Parliament Street for a glimpse of Rothe House, the 1594 home of merchant John Rothe and one of the finest examples of Tudor styling. An iron gate guards the entrance. Inside, the rooms have been tastefully restored to reflect life in Tudor times. It's well worth a visit. An aside: the house was headquarters to a branch of the Gaelic League in the 1800s, and Thomas MacDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Declaration of Independence, was once a teacher of Irish here. Rothe house is now home to the Kilkenny Archaeological Society and Museum and is open daily throughout the summer.

Take a left turn down Abbey Street for a look at the only remaining gate or entrance to the walled city, Black Freren Gate. The strategically designed walls, built around 1300, formed three sides with the river as the fourth, making the city nearly impenetrable from attack. Of the many entrance gates once contained in the wall, only Black Freren Gate remains.

A short distance beyond the gate is the Black Abbey, one of Kilkenny's most affectionately regarded treasures. Seriously damaged by Cromwellian forces in the 1650s, it was for a time used as a courthouse until being restored to the Dominicans 150 years after their exile. The Rosary window is regarded as one of the finest of its kind in Europe.

Crossing the bridge, we now come to St. Canice's Church, the second longest medieval cathedral in Ireland. The building was begun in 1197 on the site of an earlier church of St. Canice, Kilkenny's patron saint. Originally a Catholic church, the building suffered during Cromwell's siege when he broke many of its windows and stabled his horses inside. The round tower beside the main building was built in 847 A.D. by O'Carroll, king of Ossory, for the defense and protection of church persons and valuables.

A visit to Kilkenny wouldn't be complete without a bit of shopping. Fine sweaters are available in the shops along John Street or at the Kilkenny Design Centre. On the way back, stop on the bridge crossing the Nore and snap a photo of Kilkenny Castle. This is a wonderful spot for a picture. My own shot from this viewpoint hangs framed in my office.

After your tour of the castle, a bit of lunch might be in order. My suggestion is the Kilkenny Shop on the second floor of the Design Centre. A fine range of light entrees and tasty salads is available. Be sure to ask for a side of smoked trout if they have it. A pot of tea and a selection from their desserts completes your budget-wise meal. The food is reasonable and very good. Open 9:30 am until 4:00 pm. Another recommendation is Edward Langton's Pub, also on John Street. The attractive, remodeled interior is complemented by beveled glass windows and luxuriant green plants.

This is just a taste of Kilkenny. More awaits the visitor with a little time and lots of inclination. For the budget-minded, there's a Wallabees shoe outlet on Wolfe Tone Street featuring periodic special factory sales. A few miles away is the town of Bennetsbridge and two fine pottery studios (designs can be seen at the design Centre as well). Check with the tourist office for dates of the annual festivals--Arts Week, Fringe Festival, and Gowran Park Races. Local papers list Information for traditional music, nightclubs and discos. A visit to Jerpoint Abbey with its biscuit-colored tower or perhaps an outing to Mt. Juliet, queen of the stud farms, is more to your liking. Whatever your choice, fun, excitement, and adventure await in Kilkenny, Ireland's Medieval City.

Until next time.

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