The round tower in Kilkenny stands beside the rather wonderful and historic St. Canice’s Cathedral. It is a complete tower, although it lacks the usual capped roof. Instead, the top of the tower is a low stone wall with a modern day cage around it. This is to stop people who’ve climbed to the top of it (yes!) from falling off. The ground is a long way down – just over 30 metres in fact. And yes, it does lean a bit but let’s not think about that. The cathedral and the tower are built on top of a hill, which gives it a fine view over Kilkenny. It is thought that this led to the tower doubling up as a watchtower and why the roof was either removed or not added in the first place.
The original monastery here was founded by St. Canice in the 6th century. The original church for which the tower was a belfry has vanished without a trace. The doorway of the tower faces away from the cathedral, suggesting that the church stood elsewhere.
The original ladders and floors in the tower are long gone but happily, it can still be climbed. There are a number of wooden floors and connecting ladders which will bring you right up to the top. It’s probably not a climb for the faint-hearted or anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. The interior of of the tower is quite small and the climb to the top involves ascending a series of steps which are glorified wooden ladders. Still, if you make it to the top, the view is worth the effort. There are so few of these towers which can be ascended, it’d be a shame to pass up the opportunity.
The cathedral and tower are best visited on foot. Parking is limited in the area and a quick glance at Google Streetview might dissuade you from driving the lane-way that goes past the front gate 😉 There is ample parking in the city’s car parks (Market Yard and Market Cross Shopping Centre are 5 minutes walk away). Besides, nobody visits Kilkenny just for the tower…
Vital Tower Stats
Diameter of Base: 4.77m
Height of Door Sill: 3.3m
Suggested Date: 11th century
Stats from The Irish Round Tower: Origins and Architecture Explored by Brian Lalor
Published by Collins Press, Cork (2005)
ISBN 10: 1903464773 ISBN 13: 9781903464779
The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.
It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.
To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.
The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.
Hidden at the end of a peaceful country lane in south Co. Kilkenny is a ruined 14th-century church. The church itself is quite interesting in its own right but standing inside its walls is something quite unusual. Carved out of limestone and standing against one of its walls is a 13th century effigy of a Norman knight. The Long Man of Kifane or Long Cantwell. It’s thought that this effigy was once the lid of a sarcophagus but it has been propped against the wall of Kilfane Church for as long as anyone can remember. Just over 2m in height, it’s the tallest effigy of its type in the British Isles. What exactly effigy “of its type” means I’m not sure. He cuts a fine dash though.
One look at the knight and you can see he is armed to the teeth and ready for battle. A surprising number of clues can be picked up about him, just by looking at what he’s wearing and carrying. The main one is the coat of arms on his shield. It’s the coat of arms of the Cantwell family who were lords in the area at the time. It is believed this is Thomas de Cantwell who died in 1319, though chances are he was nowhere nearly as tall as his limestone likeness. He’s also wearing combat gear – a skullcap, chainmail and spurs on his feet. The spurs mean he fought on horseback. His legs are crossed in a similar fashion to effigies elsewhere, meaning that he probably fought in The Crusades. Usefully for a knight about to head into battle, he’s also carrying a sword.
As for the church itself, it dates back to the 14th century. It has a priest’s seat which is thought to belong to an older church. According to the internet which is always right, there is medieval paint to be seen. I didn’t notice any but maybe it was just too subtle for my eyes. There is also a tower attached to the church which is where the incumbent priest would’ve lived. Although the church is ruined and in the middle of nowhere, it’s a really lovely site to visit. I visited it one summer’s evening and even though the crows were making a racket overhead, it wasn’t creepy but beautiful and restful. It would appear that the graveyard is still occasionally used, judging by the modern headstones on the site.
Kilkenny City’s most famous tourist attraction is Kilkenny Castle. It’s large, it has been lovingly restored both inside and out, it overlooks the River Nore on one side (every tourist who has visited Kilkenny has taken a photo like the one above) and has a wide-open street leading up to it on the other. It has a long and interesting history, some nice grounds and gardens which are can be accessed by anyone for free. In short, it’s worth visiting, even if some people on TripAdvisor have complained that you can’t park right outside the door and walk in. Perhaps at some stage, I’ll write something about the castle. For now, though, I thought I’d write something about the castle nobody travels to Kilkenny to see 🙂
A 10 minute walk from the famous castle will take you back across the river and on to Maudlin Street. Today it’s a narrow, one-way residential area with houses of all shapes and sizes scattered around the place. Halfway up the street, mostly ignored and locked up, stands a 25m tall 15th-century tower house. The castle formed part of a medieval hospital in the area and it is believed it stands on the site of an older building. The hospital was originally established sometime in the 13th/14th century to treat leprosy. At the time, it was believed that leprosy was connected with sexually transmitted diseases. And so, the hospital was named after Mary Magdalene, a woman whose name has been attached to a lot of undesirable things. Despite the spelling of the modern day street/castle as maudlin, it’s pronounced locally as “Mad-Lin”. Not so different to Magdalene when you say it out loud.
The rest of the hospital complex has long since vanished but it’s believed there were gardens and orchards in the area. There are still a few remnants from the hospital on the street. There’s what appears to be a partial tower which might have formed part of the city walls at some stage. Off the street is an old cemetery which surely must have been used to bury the dead when the hospital was still open. There once was a church here too but it’s largely gone. The castle itself became a retirement home of sorts for members of wealthy local families. Archaeological digs carried out in the area suggest that beef, lamb, bacon and wildfowl were on the menu.
Today the castle is locked up and mostly ignored. As an article in the local newspaper pointed out a few years ago, nobody knows what’s in the castle because it’s always locked up. It may or may not have a roof at this stage. There appear to be stone steps inside but as to how far they go…again it’s a mystery. So it just stands there unheralded at the side of a little street, mostly unnoticed by passing motorists and pedestrians. Perhaps the newly launched Medieval Mile will give this castle a little more attention than it has had to date.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. Its destruction is one of the more notorious episodes in the history of the Irish state. But first, let’s scroll back a bit.
Nelson’s Pillar was originally built in 1808-09 to commemorate Admiral Nelson. It was a granite column which stood almost 40m tall, including a 4m tall statue of Nelson on the top. Arguably, it was the presence of the good Admiral that led to the pillar’s demise. The pillar was a monument that divided opinion from when it was first built. On the one hand, it was a popular visitor attraction. For a small fee, visitors could climb the 166 steps to the top of the pillar and enjoy the views of the city centre. It also became a popular meeting place on the street. On the other hand, having Admiral Nelson on the top of the pillar didn’t go down well with everyone. Especially seeing as he was such a prominent icon of British imperialism, plonked right in the middle of the main street of Ireland’s capital city. The debate about this rumbled on, especially after Ireland gained independence. Occasionally there were debates about what, if anything, to do with the pillar. It was suggested that Nelson should be taken down from the pillar and replaced with someone or something more fitting. Executed 1916 patriots such as Pádraig Pearse and Jim Larkin were suggested, as was the Blessed Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy. Nobody could quite agree on what to do with the pillar.
In the end, the decision was taken out of everyone’s hands. At 1:32 a.m. on 8th March 1966, the pillar was badly damaged by a bomb. The bomb was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The explosion destroyed the top third of the pillar. It was decided that the damage to the pillar had made it unsafe. 6 days later, the rest of the pillar was blown up by the army and that was the end of that. The head from Nelson’s statue enjoyed an eventful afterlife. It was “liberated” from storage by a group of university students who proceeded to lease it out to the highest bidder. So the head spent some time in the window of an antique dealer’s shop in Soho, London. It made an appearance on stage at a live Dubliner’s concert and even featured in a commercial for ladies stockings. Sadly, its wandering days are over – it’s now to be found in the reading room of the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street
Many urban myths sprang up about the pillar and some have survived to this day.
Contrary to the rumours, it wasn’t the IRA who blew the pillar up. They had form when it came to blowing up imperial monuments in Dublin but they’d not blown any up for several decades. In fact, when Nelson’s Pillar was blown up, they distanced themselves from the bombing. It’s now believed that the late Liam Sutcliffe (he died in 2017) and two others who had broken away from the IRA did the deed.
Legend has it that when the army blew up the rest of the pillar, that the explosion shattered every window on O’Connell Street. In truth, this did not happen. There was what was described as a “dull thud” and some windows were broken. Mostly though, the street continued as normal.
What’s less well known is what happened to the rest of the pillar. It’s not so widely known that some of the remnants from the plinth have been sitting in the gardens of an old house turned hotel in Kilkenny since the late 1960s.
In 1969 Kilkenny Corporation (as it was known then) asked for some of the stones from the rubble be sent to Kilkenny. They weren’t of any particular value to anyone and were headed for landfill somewhere. There was a debate at the time as to where they should be left in the city. Originally it was thought that they could be placed on The Parade – the street that leads up to Kilkenny Castle. However, it still being a politically charged time, it was decided that this wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Instead, they were placed in the grounds of Butler House. At that time it was a house in private ownership and the owner, a Dr. Harry Roche, was happy to have them sit around his pond.
Rumour has it that the 16 blocks of granite spell out some sort of code but sadly this isn’t true. Still, if you look hard enough….