Many people have a vision of what Ireland is like, and for many Kilkenny is the epitome of all that visitors are seeking. It has a majestic castle perched above a river, tangled streets with colourful shopfronts, 17th century passageways and dozens and dozens of traditional pubs. Its prominence dates to the 13th century when it became the capital of medieval Ireland. One hundred years later, the Anglo-Norman Butler family came to power here and directed the comings and goings for the next 600 years.
The Butlers lived and expanded the Kilkenny castle until 1935, but the financial strain of maintaining such a massive estate forced them to sell off most of the furnishings. Thirty years later, the castle was handed over to the city for a mere €50. The horse stables have been turned into the Kilkenny Design Centre and which now enjoys nationwide reputation for fine artistry.
In 1366, the parliament passed the so-called Statutes of Kilkenny whose aim was to prevent the assimilation of the Anglo-Norman citizens with the local Irish. The city was divided into Englishtown where most of the grand public buildings are located and Irishtown where St. Canice’s Cathedral looms high above the residential homes. The Anglo-Normans were prohibited from attending Irish sporting events, singing Irish music, dressing like the Irish and above all, from intermarrying. The laws remained in effect for over 200 years, but were rarely enforced. Such is the power of the Irish culture that today there is little distinction evident.
Kilkenny is often referred to as the ‘marble city’, because of the distinctive local black limestone used for many of the buildings. When highly polished, the limestone resembles marble. Kilkenny is also known as a ‘brewery city’ and there is no dearth of drinking establishments here. Most of the city’s major sights are conveniently located in and around the city’s 80 official pubs.
Kyteler’s Inn is one of these attractions. This medieval coaching inn is named for Dame Alice Kyteler, a woman whose four husbands all died under mysterious circumstances. She and her handmaid were both accused of witchcraft. Dame Alice escaped to London, but the poor maid was burned at the stake in 1323 on the spot where the City Hall, the main landmark on the High Street now stands.
Grace’s Castle, has a gruesome history as well. It was built in 1210 but was lost to the family 350 years later. The ramshackle building was converted into a prison where rebels from the 1798 Rising were executed. The exterior has been beautifully restored, and presumably the interior as well, because today it serves as the Kilkenny Courthouse.
Butter Slip, built in 1616 is the most striking of all of Kilkenny’s narrow walkways connecting the High Street with St. Kieran’s Street. The former butter stalls have now been replaced with modern stops, but the relative darkness still lends an atmospheric quality hard to describe. I remember reading about the butter industry here in Ireland and was astounded to learn that County Cork once had the world’s largest butter market.
The Butter Exchange first opened in 1770 in Cork and by 1892 it was exporting 500,000 casks, not pounds, of butter a year.
That helps to explain the pastures full of dairy cows all over the southern counties of Ireland. I knew there were a lot of sheep here, but didn’t expect to see so many black and white cows. My sister Donna and my best friend Cathy would be delighted to be surrounded with their favorite animals here.
St. Kieran’s Street has been made pedestrian-friendly and many of the restaurants and pubs along its length have outdoor seating so diners and drinkers can enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. Ireland was the first was the country in Europe to ban workplace smoking, so since 2004, there has been fresh air in the pubs too. A surprising achievement if you ask me, but none too soon for sure.
Kapoors On The Road
I have to say I don’t have any recollection of hearing about Kilkenny’s many charms, but Anil reminded me that Kilkenny is a brand of frothy beer that he has tried in Canada. We learned that the Smithwick Brewery, an institution in Kilkenny for the past 300 years, decided to change the recipe and name of their brew for export because most foreigners wanted a stronger taste and most could not pronounce the brand name correctly. For some reason, we tend to pronounce the silent ‘w’. I am no expert, but Kilkenny has a more bitter taste and a Guinness-like head while Smithwick’s is thinner and milder.
Editor’s Note: Strange comments from my wife who normally abstains from beer, but who took a great liking to Guinness draft.
We arrived in Kilkenny after dark and headed for the Butler’s Court guesthouse because we liked the description we’d read in the Lonely Planet. We received a very warm welcome from our host John, who told us he really likes Canadians, though I bet he says that to all the guests. The room was lovely and we especially enjoyed the fact that the continental breakfast was all set out in our room, waiting for us to eat on our own schedule and in our pajamas if that’s what we preferred.
The guesthouse is located right in the heart of Kilkenny and we were delighted to find that parking in a secure parking garage was included. We negotiated a slight discount due to the fact that it was now low season, and when I thanked our host for our great stay, he suggested I write a review on TripAdvisor. I was only too happy to do so. We had dinner in a pub John suggested. The Hibernian is located in an old bank with its original décor, more formal than one’s we’ve been to before, but clearly popular with the young crowd.
We spent a quick hour and a half walking through the town, though locals prefer to refer to Kilkenny as a city. We didn’t have a great deal of time there because we wanted to take advantage of the fine weather and head to Carnew in neighbouring County Wicklow to visit the ancestral graves of my mother’s family, the Walkers.
There is so much more of the world for us to see, but if we ever see it all and make our way back to Ireland, we’ll be sure to come and spend some more time here in Kilkenny. It would take plenty of time to work our way through most of those 80 pubs, but we would be sure to come again in the spring or fall to avoid the lineups that must exist in this most popular of Ireland’s inland city.
Before I sign off on Kilkenny, I have to share this poem I found in the Lonely Planet.
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they hit
And they scratched and they bit
‘Till excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails
Instead of two cats there weren’t any!
Though the origins of this limerick (with its extra two lines) are unclear, the citizens are often referred to as ‘Kilkenny Cats’. The Kilkenny hurling team, usually the best in all of Ireland, is called ‘The Cats’ and their team colours are black and orange. My cat-loving daughter Adia and will appreciate this bit of trivia.
It was easy to find our way out of town, across the plainly named Green Bridge and on towards Carnew. If we had wanted to take the major highways navigation would have been easy, however, we preferred to take the byways instead and got hopelessly lost. We stopped at a tiny hamlet where we saw two men working on some machinery in their yard. One man directed us back on the highway and was puzzled when we explained we had just escaped its clutches. The second man seemed more understanding of my request to follow the tertiary roadways, and pointed us in the right direction with his very grease-stained fingers.
We had eaten early, unusual for us, so we were feeling hungry as we drove through the countryside. When we saw some people having lunch on the patio of an attractive pub, we pulled over to join them. They had a special that day that we thought included three courses, so we ordered the soup, the roast chicken and the apple crumble with warm custard sauce to share. Not wanting to share our Guinness, we ordered too half-pints, one for each.
Anil ate the soup with homemade bread while I started in on the bacon-wrapped chicken piled high on two mounds of mashed potatoes smothered in dark gravy. To my delight, the bacon held delicious bread stuffing inside the moist chicken breast. The chicken fell apart at the touch of my fork, and I encouraged Anil to make sure he ate his share before I devoured it all. I remembered that Vy is busy planning her Thanksgiving menu and I decided that this great dish, though it was chicken and not turkey, would be considered my Thanksgiving dinner a little early. It was the best chicken dish I have ever eaten.
While we were sitting in the sun, enjoying our meal, I happened to look across at the house on the opposite side of the lane. While I was admiring the bicycle parked near the front door, I noticed a group of what looked like sporting bats lined up against the wall. They were unlike any I had ever seen before and my curiosity was piqued. They looked so cute and colourful that I just had to have a photo of them.
I got up my courage and went into the yard and rang the doorbell. I felt I could easily asked the homeowner what they were and ask if I could take a picture. When no one answered, I felt entirely justified in snapping a quick shot. Later that evening, when Anil was reading the local newspaper, he happened to see a photograph of the same sort of bats, identified as hurleys.
It was then we both came to understand that they were sticks used in the national sport of hurling. It had been one of my goals to see a hurling match, one of the few goals we weren’t able to achieve. The morning we were due to leave Ireland, a news report happened to catch my eye; a man had been clubbed to death with a hurley bat in a road rage incident in the south of Dublin. Not the greatest news to hear about just as we were finishing up a marvelous three weeks in a country once torn apart by the ‘Troubles’ and now mostly at peace.