Ireland has five official cities: Dublin , Cork, Limerick, Galway, and Waterford. By official, I mean administrative. Kilkenny, usually referred to as a city, is an exception to the rule. Why I’m not exactly sure, but if you’re interested, I’m sure this will explain it all. For a while back in the seventeenth century, Kilkenny was the unofficial capital of Ireland with its own parliament.
We popped down to have dinner at the Michelin-starred Campagne to celebrate a milestone birthday and stayed at the Hibernian. Some of de wimmen are fans of Chapter One in Dublin which Campagne’s head chef Gareth Byrne once called home. I’d have gone anywhere. The food was excellent, although the desserts didn’t quite live up to the expectations created by the starters and mains. On the other side of the spectrum, I was fixating on toasted cheese sambos. I tried one at the Hibernian Hotel (which would have been nice had they not quartered it for me!) and another at the Kilkenny Design Centre. Neither were anything close to the toasted sambos of my pub lunch years. But don’t get me started… am enraged that my packet of snacks now have four rather than the six I remember and as for the paltry excuse for curly wurlies on offer today…
Kilkenny, as a shopping experience, has the best of all worlds. It still has a bevvy of independent shops that are streets ahead of the high-street chains. My pick was The Gift Horse on Rose Inn Street. With a sister shop in Horse and Jockey in Tipperary, it’s a haven of difference sourced by someone who eschews sameness. I could have left more money than I did. Another nice find was a new shop just opened that day. Waterford designer Bébhínn McGrath has moved into the city and set up her second Bébhínn. Again, she offers a lovely selection of Irish-made goods worth checking out. Her Waterford shop opened in 2018, stocking ‘a carefully curated selection of Irish Design by makers from all around Ireland’ and Kilkenny is following suit. Goods Department Store belongs to another era. It first opened its doors back in 1927 and is still going strong, albeit with some modernisation. Stepping inside the narrow front door you’re in no way prepared for the warren of brand offers that take up four floors. Other boutiques we checked out ranged from the modern to the mothballed, some with eye-watering prices. I didn’t have the time to check out the charity shops in any great detail but I did enjoy a haggle with George Ralph of D&R Antiques and marvelled again at the size of the world. I scored an old, half-gallon hand-blown Minnehaha Spring Water bottle. If my research is correct, it’s more than 100 years old and worth what I paid for it… and more. I missed out on seeing the Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis earlier this year, so this nice reminder will make a lovely lamp stand.
Of the 7193 pubs in Ireland, at least 17 are in Kilkenny, according to Kilkenny City Online. I suspect there are even more, especially if you include hotel bars. Most of them have two things in common – they are loud and full. Maybe I’m getting old, but having to shout to make myself heard has lost its appeal. For people-watching though, it would be hard to equal the Kilkenny experience. To a woman we were fascinated at how this one lad we’d been sure was beyond salvation sobered up and behaved when a woman joined the company. When she left, he reverted to form, only to shape up again when she reappeared. Hilarious. The city has no shortage of guitar-playing singer soloists and they all seem to have the same playlist. I’d be hard pushed to make a recommendation except to say that that one of the lads behind the bar at the Hibernian knows how to make a decent whiskey sour and made a good fist of an espresso martini, both reasonably priced at €10.
I felt sorry for the locals though. Kilkenny is a favourite destination for hens and stags, few of them well-behaved. One elderly local told us how they’ve ruined the city and how the women are worse than the men. Shrill voices shamelessly teetering on high heels isn’t quite the image the tourist board had in mind. Yet the jury is out – is it the visitors causing the mayhem or the locals or perhaps it’s just the logistics of 4000 punters being turfed out onto the streets at closing time, all in a concentrated area. A piece in the Irish Times back in 2007 highlighted the problem. Fast forward 15 years and it’s still an issue. A quick search of the Net coughs up a list of companies providing bespoke hen and stag weekends in the city so there’s money in it. And jobs. It would seem that Limerick has seen what Kilkenny has done and is set to follow suit.
The river walk alongside the River Nore, by the back of Kilkenny Castle, is a lovely way to pass a few hours. The high stone walls speak of times gone by, echoing the unspoken thoughts of the millions of feet that have walked this way.
Sitting on the 50 acres of Castle Park, the castle is a wonderful example of tenacity and staying power.
Few buildings in Ireland can boast a longer history of continuous occupation than Kilkenny Castle. Founded soon after the Norman conquest of Ireland, the Castle has been rebuilt, extended and adapted to suit changing circumstances and uses over a period of 800 years.
Take a virtual tour of Kilkenny Castle or visit for yourself. Walk the grounds and perhaps stop to think a while of those who have gone missing from the province. To date, eight women remain on the books classified as missing from what the media called the Vanishing Triangle. One of them, JoJo Dollard, hailed from Co. Kilkenny and inspired the monument in the holly round in the grounds of the castle.
Walking around the city, watch out for the narrow laneways and stone passageways like the Butter Slip, once lined with butter vendors, and old buildings like the Shee Alms House, one of a handful left in the country. It was built in 1582 by Kerryman Sir Richard Shee ‘to accommodate twelve poor persons’. He said in his will that it was to be kept in the family and that whoever let it go would be cursed. It’s been a Catholic chapel, a hospital, a shop, and more recently a tourist office.
Apparently, Kilkenny coal is smokeless and the city never sees fog. Mattheo and Honora: A Tale, a poem written in the 1750s includes the lines:
No smoky vapours from her coals arise to stain her houses or obscure her skies
Upon her hill no lazy fog abides low-ring at top or flitting round the sides.
I’ve often heard the hurling team referred to at the Kilkenny Cats and the annual comedy festival, Kilkenny Cat Laughs draws comedians from all over. But I’d never known where the expression came from. The books tell us that back in 1798, the British contracted German soldiers, Hessians, to help fight their battle. About 1000 of these were billeted in Kilkenny. Short of something that passed for entertainment, the boys would tie the tails of two cats together, throw them over a line, and watch them fight, something their officers didn’t approve of. But being forbidden didn’t stop the lads. One day, two cats hanging from a line were fighting away when the soldiers heard an office coming towards them. One quick thinker took out his sword and cut down the cats, leaving the two tied tails hanging. When the officer asked where the cats were, the quick-thinking soldier explained that they’d fought so hard, they’d eaten each other. Hence the expression, to fight like a Kilkenny cat.
Kilkenny has its fair share of historical figures. While Dame Alice Kyteler was accused of heresy after the death of her fourth husband, it was her maid Petronilla de Meath who was flogged and burnt at the stake on 3 November 1324, the first known case in Ireland or Great Britain of death by fire for heresy. Kyteler managed to flee the country and get to safety.
Jonathan Swift attended Kilkenny College along with the philosopher George Berkely. The Kilkenny man who would later lend his name to Berkeley Univesity in California. James Butler, who rebuilt Kilkenny Castle back in the late fourteenth century, descended from Theobald Fitzwalter, the Chief Butler of Ireland whose job it was to make sure that there was plenty by way of food and drink for the king and his entourage. The family was conferred with the Prisage of Wine meaning that 15% of all the wine imported into the country was given to them. The seventh Earl of Ormond, Thomas Butler, had a daughter, Margaret who married Sir Thomas Boleyn. Their granddaughter Ann Boleyn would go on to be the second wife of Henry VIIIth and their great-grandaughter would become Queen Elizabeth 1. The list of notables hailing from Kilkenny is a long one and makes for interesting reading with the country hurlers featuring strongly.
If you’re visiting Ireland, Kilkenny is worth a visit. Even a day trip by train from Dublin. Venture forth. There’s more to Ireland than the capital.