We were spending an overnight break in Kilkenny, a medieval city in the midlands of Ireland with a lot of associated history. Featuring one of Ireland’s greatest castles, we took the opportunity to visit some of its landmarks and the surrounding countryside.
Kilkenny is just over an hour and a half a drive from Dublin. Setting off after breakfast we headed direct to County Carlow before leaving the motorway to look up…
A 19th Century plantation house, it now lies in ruins. It has a lot of castellated elements, and was probably built as a folly. Fast forward a few hundred years and it now ranks as one of the more enigmatic ruins in Ireland. However it was deserted the day I was there, with no staff, and nowhere to enter. Tea rooms open on the weekend. Its nice to walk between the ruins and out into the gardens and grounds beyond. The emptyness lent credence to the banshee story that is attached to the building though, and a distinct spookiness can be felt. From here we travelled to the Brownshill Dolmen outside of Carlow. Dating from 4500 years ago, it has the largest capstone of any Dolmen in Europe, weighing in at over 100 tonnes.
Arriving in Kilkenny, we checked in at the River Court Hotel. Located on the banks of the River Nore, the hotel easily lived up to its 4-star status. Our castle view suite was incredibly spacious with a large sitting room and excellent views over the river to the castle. A balcony overlooking the river finished a beautiful room.
Hungry we set off into the town. Our intention was to eat at the Kyteler’s Inn, giving an opportunity to bridge a reputation of good food with a historical pub. Serving since 1263, they have had time to get it right. Named after she who opened it, Alice Kyteler, a local woman suspected of being a witch. She fled during her trial, leaving her daughter to burn at the stake. Food was great, we kept it simple with a soup and sandwich and the service was full of local hospitality.
We took to exploring the city, there wasn’t much in the way of diverse shops, but there was a considerable history to embrace. A town since the early 1200’s it was granted city status in 1609. Parliament Street is lined by:
- Rothe House (a 3-storey 16th century merchants house complete with gardens and a beautiful arcaded front);
- Kilkenny Courthouse (which was built on the remains of Graces Castle from the 13th century, and has seen an evolution first to gaol and now to courthouse) and;
- Smithwicks Experience. Smithwicks is one of Irelands oldest breweries from 1710, but now comes under the Diageo umbrella. Never had a taste for it, so onwards we went to…
St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower.
The cathedral is still the functioning pro-cathedral of the city, and so be wary of not arriving at mass times. Highlights outside include the exterior stone work and the buildings and graves of the close. Heading inside the medieval effigy stone tombs on the floor are unique, and there are some stained glass windows by famous Irish master of glass Harry Clarke. The tombs of the Butler family from Kilkenny Castle still rest within the cathedral. The cathedral was completed in 1285 but has seen much addition and change over the centuries.
Back outside the round tower is one of only 2 in Ireland that can still be climbed. It dates from 1111. As long as you don’t mind the 129 laddered steps or the dodgy opening at the top, good views lie in wait. €7 admission gets entry to the church and tower.
Returning via the Medieval Mile, we made brief stops to see the 13th Century Black Abbey, and the Tholsel, now serving as the Town Hall. Cherry blossoms at the rear of the Tholsel gave some lovely photos and the new Medieval Mile Museum can be accessed from here. The streets of Kilkenny are linked by small alleyways, known as slips. The most picturesque of these is the Butter Slip, where butter vendors used to sell their produce from the 1600’s on. It now has some nice stores and restaurants, including Petronella named after the unfortunate daughter of Alice Kyteler.
The Kilkenny tourist office is located in the Shee Alms house dating from 1582, a beautiful Tudor building. It bears the unusual pointed stone roof of the era. It was built by a local businessman to house the poor at the time.
We enjoyed the luxury of our hotel room for the rest of the evening and after much debate dined that evening again in the Kytelers Inn. Steaks were ordered and enjoyed.
Day 2 – Kilkenny Castle
Starting the day with a good breakfast in the Riverside Restaurant, as ever nothing like a full Irish (or English or Scottish) to set up a full days exploring. Saving Kilkenny’s main attraction till then, the might of Kilkenny Castle now awaited. Dominating the town from its position on the parade, the walk there filled me with anticipation (castle addict here).
The castle was constructed in 1195 on the site of a Strongbow wooden castle, to control an important bridging point on the river. It was subsequently purchased by James Butler in 1391, and remained in the family’s possession until the 20th Century. The butler name interestingly probably refers to the person’s job at the time, but James Butler was the 3rd Earl of Ormond and it’s unknown how he earned his lofty position to be able to purchase the castle. The castle went through a lot of additions and changes throughout the centuries and these can be seen throughout the tour.
There is a rose garden to the front of the castle complete with a small fountain. Entry through the castle gates takes you into the courtyard. From here you can take the tour. Tours take roughly an hour and entry is €8. The tour highlights include the period furnishings, the moorish staircase, and the various bedrooms. I loved the “courting couch” (I’m sure it had a different name), where the intended couple sat back to back, with a parent at each end. Cringeworthy!!! The main focus of the tour is on the Long Gallery, built to house the Butler family’s art collection. It has a 19th century hammer-beam and glass roof. The designs on the cross beams are excellent, each one painted elaborately and with motifs of birds and animals. The room also has an elegant massive double fireplace, with carvings featuring episodes from the history of the castle.
The tour ends landing you in the tea room. Exiting outside the Kilkenny design centre is located in the stables, and there is a large green area worthy of a stroll, giving great views looking back at the castle.
Proving I can never have too much of a good thing, I went in search of Maudlin Castle. It is a nice intact tower house. Entry isn’t allowed but worth a look. No trip in Ireland is worth it without a drive in the country, so we headed for the car to leave Kilkenny behind.
Following the path of the River Nore south, we stumbled across some lovely villages. Bennettsbridge and Thomastown are both built on the fertile bends of the river. Nice rapids can be seen on a walk over the bridge and down the village of Bennettsbridge, a town famous for its crafts. Much more passive is the town of Thomastown further down road. Ruins line the banks of the river and its worth a stroll if you have time to abandon the car. If you can and its open, head to Kilfane to see the church, and the Glen and Waterfall. It was on my agenda but opening times of the waterfall are very limited, within the summer months of July and August.
3km from Thomastown is the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey from the 12th Century. A €5 entry fee, and you can tour freely around the site. Mostly in ruins, the main reason to stop is the cloisters. The engravings on the inside of the cloisters are mostly intact and are awesome. All feature a different image. There are some detailed tombs dating from the Middle Ages and a visitor centre with an exhibition. We didn’t bother with this, my interest usually lies in the historic buildings not their story.
Is one of Ireland’s most spectacular medieval monuments, a huge Augustine Priory located about 15km south of Kilkenny. It sits on the banks of the Kings River, and is located in some large fields near the village of Kells. No admission charge but the site can be investigated fully. Spanning a large area it has the appearance of a walled town, with tower houses at intervals along the walls. There a number of ruins within of churches. It’s location at the riverside is idyllic and peaceful, and it’s impressive.
Spotted by chance while at the Priory, we drove through the village of Kells to the mills beyond at the river side. Mullens Mills in Kells has a small tour and is again bestowed a beautiful location. We had lunch in the delicious kitchen there, called Jen’s. Head up the road beside to find an unusual thatched Cottage. With our hunger for food and sightseeing satiated, we made our way back through the countryside and home towards Dublin. A highly recommended and scenic part of Ireland’s Ancient East.