Revelling in ancient splendours of historic town

RONAN O'CONNELL discovers the history-drenched jewel of Kilkenny

On the odd day when the clouds are absent, the sky is blue and the sun is active, there is nowhere on this planet more picturesque than Ireland.

The bright light suddenly reveals the endless shades of green for which this nation is renowned. This famously lush vegetation is all around me as I wander along a path through a pristine forest. Then, as I reach an opening in these trees, I see a grand sight at the end of a vast lawn — the imposing 12th-century Kilkenny Castle.

Ireland is littered with castles and I’ve seen scores of them over the last four years of living there on-and-off. Few, however, have had the same impact, evoked the same sense of awe that I felt as I peered through that gap in the forest towards Kilkenny Castle.

It has taken me years to get here, despite the endless encouragement of my Irish mother. “It’s special,” she told me many times. That was her description not just of the castle but of the town of Kilkenny itself.

She wasn’t wrong. Kilkenny’s history stretches back 1500 years. It was once the unofficial capital of Ireland and also one of the finest walled towns that ever existed in western Europe. From modest beginnings as a monastic settlement, Kilkenny grew into one of the jewels of Ireland after being invaded by the Normans in the 12th century.

It was in this period that the Normans built what is considered by many to be the most beautiful castle in Ireland, as well as the medieval St Canice’s Cathedral, both of which remain today in remarkably good condition, along with sections of the old city walls. Within the thick, stone walls of this history-drenched city echo tales of witches, disgraced monks and rousing rebellions.

The foundation of Kilkenny town, the hub of County Kilkenny, can be traced back to the 6th century with the establishment of a Christian church on roughly the same site now occupied by the town’s extraordinary cathedral. It was in the late 1100s, however, that Kilkenny town really began to flourish following the Norman invasion of Ireland. Kilkenny became part of the Lordship of Leinster and the 2nd Earl of Pembroke decided to build there a wooden castle. In the early 1200s this was replaced by the stunning stone castle which is now the icon of Kilkenny.

Tourists are free to wander the extensive grounds of the castle, as well as a number of its magnificent interior spaces. And that’s just what I did.

In the bowels of the castle I entered its undercroft, a big circular chamber from within which you get a sense of just how immensely thick are the castle’s exterior walls.

I was particularly impressed by the Tapestry Room, which features intricate, hand-woven tapestries from the 1600s, and the Chinese Withdrawing Room with its 19th century hand-painted Chinese wallpaper. There are so many attractive spaces to explore within the castle that I simply do not have the room to describe them all.

While I expected to be impressed by Kilkenny Castle, St Canice’s Cathedral caught me off guard.

When I entered this ancient church, which was constructed around the same time as the castle, I had no idea it was so striking, nor so significant. I was also unaware of the curious tales concealed within this cathedral, which is the second-longest in Ireland after St Patrick’s in Dublin.

Chief among them is the story of Alice Kyteler. As I peered up at the complicated joinery of the cathedral’s enormous wooden ceiling, my mother read me the gloomy tale of Kyteler, the first person in Ireland condemned for witchcraft, in the 1300s here in Kilkenny.

While Kyteler managed to escape from Ireland, her servant was burned at the stake in her place. Some say she now haunts this church, where her father’s tombstone is displayed.

To be honest, I saw no sign of her. But then again I was distracted by the majesty of this extraordinary cathedral, which is a fittingly grand religious structure for a town that really is special.


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