Introduction Situated inland in the 'sunny south-east' of Ireland, Kilkenny is known as the medieval capital of Ireland. It is a county of gentle hills and fertile agricultural land, bordered by the Barrow and Suir rivers; Kilkenny city itself sits on the River Nore. The county covers an area of roughly 2000 square kilometers and has a population of about 75,000; 18,000 of whom are based in Kilkenny city.
Kilkenny city has been a market town since at least the fourth century, and was for a while the ecclesiastical and political centre of the country. The infamous Statute of Kilkenny that attempted to prevent the assimilation of Anglo-Normans and the local Irish was passed in 1366. Like the rest of the county, Kilkenny city is steeped in history and bears the marks of Celtic, Viking, Norman and English invaders. Today, it combines the intimacy of a large village with the attractions of a bustling entertainment and craft-orientated city. Winding cobbled streets and carefully restored or tastefully adapted shop-fronts and buildings give Kilkenny city a unique atmosphere that is worth savoring. Ancient sites, castles, abbeys and the county's ubiquitous old stone edifices ensure that many of the outlying towns also amply repay a visit. The area boasts lively pub-life, quality restaurants, a number of interesting festivals, and an array of sporting events and activities, most notably the ancient Gaelic game of hurling, at which the county traditionally excels.
Kilkenny City Historically and visually, the magnificent
The name Kilkenny is an Anglicization of the Gaelic Cill Cheannaigh, which literally translates as the Church of Canice. St. Canice established a monastery in the area during the sixth century, and the splendid thirteenth century
Incidentally Rinuccini's contribution is commemorated through the well-known Italian
The Tudor style
On John Street the County Council offices are notable as they are situated in what was once Kilkenny College. Notables who attended this establishment include the dramatist William Congreve, the philosopher George Berkeley and the incomparable satirist Jonathan Swift.
Around Kilkenny As for the villages around Kilkenny, Graiguenamanagh with the beautifully restored Cistercian
For historical interest, nightlife, and relaxed often-beautiful surroundings, Kilkenny town and the surrounding district are worthy of inclusion in any tour of Ireland.
Recent attempts to promote Kilkenny as "the oasis of Ireland" on account of its many pubs and restaurants are, by implication, a little harsh on the rest of the country. Ireland lacks pubs in the way the Sahara lacks sand. Nevertheless, this audacious claim reflects an understandable pride in the high standard of eating and drinking establishments in the Kilkenny area, and is indicative of a local desire for improvement that has seen these standards rise dramatically over the last decade or so. Kilkenny has about 65 licensed premises; a good selection of places to dine that vary in terms of price range, and quality; and five night clubs that could perhaps be seen as the city's Achilles heel. What saves the latter, apart from the regular influxes of festival-goers, is the admirable determination of the diverse local population to enjoy their nights out. Nonetheless, a little more thought as to the music that is played in these clubs would not be misplaced. Improvements might well be forthcoming, however, as it is an issue that is being aired with increasing frequency in sections of local media.
Kilkenny's eateries and pubs are rich in both atmosphere and tradition, and it seems that a concerted effort has been made to preserve the essential character of the city and surrounding areas. This is not such an easy task as it might appear, for there is a risk of sterility in any attempt to impose character. The phenomenon of the Irish theme pub that has made an unwelcome appearance in larger Irish cities like Dublin or Cork is an example of urban renewal "losing the run of itself", but in Kilkenny one senses that the ambience is organic rather than synthetic. The old-fashioned pub fronts and cosy interiors fit easily into their surroundings, and are generally complemented by friendly staff and customers. Many pubs offer entertainment, food and/or music, or have inherent historical value.
Kilkenny City Such qualities are epitomized by the very attractive Marble City Bar and Jim Hollands, both on High Street. Holland's is a good spot for traditional music sessions. Caislean Ui Cuain on the same street has regular live entertainment tending towards the traditional and rock end of the musical spectrum, and is the place to go the hear the Irish language spoken in Kilkenny; it also houses an excellent value restaurant and buffet. If one continues north onto Parliament Street, Fennelly's on the left and the Flagstone Wine Bar on the right both have their own charms, with the latter catering to the upper end of the market. Bar food can be bought in Matthew Duggan's. Further along, going onto Irishtown, are O Riada's and John Cleere's. Cleere's has a small theatre attached and is worth checking out for diverse entertainment and regular traditional music sessions.
Doubling back from Parliament Street, St. Kieran's Street is the home of Bollards - a sporting establishment with good food, and the historically fascinating Kytelers Inn. Turning on to John's Bridge, the old-style pub-cum-grocers Tynan's is also steeped in tradition.
On the corner of John Street looking out on the river is the lively Matt the Millers. Further along are the Emigrant, Langton's and the plush Kilford Arms; all have restaurants. Langton's has dominated the Irish Pub of The Year award recently and is worth checking out for food, drink and atmosphere. Back on the other side of the river, Rafter Dempsey's on Friary Street offers bar food, and tunes, pints and food can be enjoyed on Patrick Street in the Club House Hotel.
Clearly one could eat well in Kilkenny without stepping outside the pub scene, but there are also many restaurants worthy of note. Sightseers and shoppers should take the opportunity to check out the self-service restaurant above the Kilkenny Design Centre in the Parade. On nearby Patrick Street the Hibernian Hotel also has recently opened a restaurant.
Both the Italian Connection on Parliament Street and theRistorante Rinuccini offer Italian food, with the latter being the more expensive. Paris Texas on High Street and Lautrec's on Kieran Street specialize in Tex Mex food. The latter is also good for vegetarian fare, as is the innovative and versatile Café Sol on William Street. For a taste of the Chinese Orient, try Pearl's on Irishtown or the slightly cheaper Emerald Gardens on High Street. Those with a preference for the heat and spice associated with the land of the Ganges might investigate either Shimla in St. Canice's Place, or Bengal Tandoori in Pudding Lane off Patrick Street.
Less exotic perhaps, but well worth a visit is the homely M.L. Dore cafe on High Street or the neighbouring Nostalgia Café. Finally, no restaurant guide to Kilkenny City would be complete without mentioning Lacken House on the Dublin Road. It is slightly out of the city centre perhaps, but should nevertheless repay the slight effort of getting there, having established an excellent reputation for its international cuisine.
Around Kilkenny Those with transport will not be disappointed by the placid countryside and towns around Kilkenny, or by the drinking and dining facilities on offer there. A trip to Thomastown village should include a visit to Murphy's and Carroll's pubs, while the Long Man does good home-cooking and the upmarket Silk's restaurant is fast gaining legendary status. The restaurant on the Mount Juliet Estate is as good (and as expensive) as one might expect in such elegant surroundings. In Bennettsbridge the Nicholas Mosse Pottery offers magnificent handicrafts, as well as quality food in a very attractive setting. In Urlingford, neither the Urlingford Arms nor the Shell Restaurant should disappoint. Inistioge village is well represented in the restaurant stakes by the beautifully situated the Motte restaurant and the rather pleasantly surreal Berryhill guesthouse. If you find yourself in Graiguenamanagh village, both the Waterside Restaurant and Café Duiske have impressive food in enticing settings. The Brog Maker Hotel on the Castlecomer Road is an award-winning restaurant that does a great pint of Guinness, while the upmarket Newpark Hotel is not cheap, but is worth it if finances are not a problem.
As for nightclubs, there are five in Kilkenny city. The Flagstone on Parliament Street and Clublife on John's Street tend to cater for younger clubbers, while Kyteler's Inn and Langton's serve an older crowd. The Venue in the Ormonde Hotel is still finding its feet, but seems to be tending toward the more youthful end of the market. All have positive aspects, and would compare favorably with most rural Irish nightclubs. Kilkenny has set a high standard in other departments, however, making the lack of cutting edge music or general innovation in these clubs is a slight disappointment. You will probably have a good night out, as the crowd and staff tend to be very friendly, but there is nevertheless scope for improvement. Still Kilkenny has many avant garde and imaginative voices, and hopefully it will not be long before they make an impact.
Until Oliver Cromwell's troops ransacked the city in 1650, Kilkenny was an important political centre in Ireland, and at times in the middle ages was the de facto capital of the country. Now, with a resident population of about 20,000, it struggles to retain its city status, and occasional unkind voices are heard to suggest that Kilkenny be downgraded to the category of town! However, such bureaucratic wrangling should not deter potential visitors from spending some time in what has become colloquially known the 'Marble City', a reference to the polished limestone used in much of Kilkenny's magnificent architecture, which bears a marked resemblance to shiny black marble. This feature, along with its cobbled side-streets, medieval remains, hand-painted shop-fronts, and a spire-dominated skyline, make a walk through the centre of Kilkenny a pleasant and informative experience in itself.
Local imagination, entrepreneurial spirit, and Kilkenny's singular atmosphere also combine to make it an exciting place to visit. Government initiatives beginning in the 1960s have helped the area become known as the Craft Centre of Ireland. It has gained a name as a conducive haven for artistic types, being both lively and removed from the larger metropolitan areas. This is reflected in the array of creative work on offer locally. The following is a brief guide to some of the entertainment on offer in Kilkenny and surrounding areas, including festivals, sport, cinema, theatre and handicrafts.
Festivals The June Bank holiday weekend sees Kilkenny play host to the phenomenally popular Cat Laughs comedy festival. The feline connection with Kilkenny originates from a limerick about two wildcats of Kilkenny who thought the town wasn't big enough for the both of them, and fought fiercely until their mutual destruction was assured. Today, Cats Laughs aims, not to tear one to shreds, but to be riotously funny instead, and with over thirty comedians from home and abroad, a sprinkling of world class cartoonists and the recently-added short comic film section (Kitty Flicks), there is no shortage of amusement in the nine utilized venues.
The Perrier award-winning Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan, recently portrayed the official mindset of the councilors of his home town of Navan (Co. Meath) as being encapsulated in the apocryphal query: "What would we need an Arts festival for when we've already got a shopping centre?" Whatever the veracity of this statement in relation to the Irish rural mindset, such an accusation certainly cannot be brought against Kilkenny's officialdom. The ten day Kilkenny Arts Festival in August presents a fine blend of classical and cultural entertainment that incorporates film, opera, theatre, literary activity and music from a range of styles. The Kilkenny Arts Festival recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and has become one of the highlights of Ireland's artistic calendar.
On the May bank holiday weekend, most of the venues used in the June comedy extravaganza see an influx of musicians for the Kilkenny Roots Festival festival. An eclectic mix of international country and blues is traditionally offered. For those of more esoteric tastes the recently inaugurated Kilkenny Music Festival aims to promote choral and instrumental music in the Kilkenny district. One should also look out for the annual Confederation of Kilkenny Festival in June, during which the area's proud medieval past is celebrated with pageantry and style.
The Kilkenny Beer Karnivale is perhaps of less obvious cultural merit, but for those with a taste for Latin music, funk or jazz, the line-up from the previous years of this October festival would probably whet the appetite. The Karnivale is run in conjunction with the Kilkenny Racing Festival in nearby Gowran.
Sport There can be few more pleasant locations to enjoy horseracing than the picturesque Gowran Park, which is situated about ten kilometres from the centre of Kilkenny. In addition to the October festival, there are regular National Hunt hurdle and flat meetings throughout the year. For those who wish to go to the dogs there is year-round greyhound racing in James' Park on Freshford Road. Entry is only IRL£3 with children going free and so an evening at this dogtrack represents good value for money - provided of course that you aren't overly generous to the bookies....
The most popular spectator sport in Kilkenny is undoubtedly hurling, which is amongst the fastest team-sports in the world, and one about which Kilkenny people are passionate. The county's vertical black and amber stripes are ubiquitous on match days, and home games are played at Nowlan Park. The Kilkenny team (affectionately known as The Cats) are amongst the most successful in the country and frequently contest the All-Ireland final in Dublin.
Gaelic football is the other major GAA sport, and the Kilkenny team have the dubious claim to the worst record of any county in Ireland. The unfortunate Cats had only won two games in five seasons when they temporarily opted out of the league in 1999. As their manager explained to the Irish Times newspaper, "all the other teams were going all out to hammer us". When Kilkenny's Gaelic team resumes their struggle, they too will play in Nowlan Park and they undoubtedly deserve your support.
Kilkenny also boasts a soccer team, Kilkenny City, who tend to vacillate between Ireland's Premier and First Divisions. They play at Buckley Park in which a new thousand-seater stand is planned. Crowds tend to be relatively small, but derbies against local rivals Waterford United can be torrid affairs, and there are often attractive pre-season friendlies against English clubs. True soccer fans should probably make a point of going to see the Cats in action if possible.
For those who prefer active participation to sitting on the sidelines, Kilkenny offers several options. Golfers of a certain income can enjoy a round at the magnificent Jack Nicklaus-designed Mount Juliet course in nearby Thomastown. The green has played host to some of the world's best players in the Irish Open. Less expensive is the Kilkenny golf course at Callan, a flat, tree-lined championship-standard course, while one could also check out the testing nine-hole course at Castlecomer. If you don't feel up to scratch there is always the Kilkenny Driving Range to put you back on track.
Coarse fishermen might investigate the River Barrow, while salmon and trout can be caught in the Nore. Permits are easily got from angling suppliers (including the Sports Shop, on High Street). Graignamanagh is a particularly popular haunt for keen anglers, and boats can also be rented here. Richer fishermen might wish to try their luck in the water at the Mount Juliet estate, where tutorials are also available. The fishing season lasts from early March through to the end of September.
For horse-riding enthusiasts there is no shortage of equestrian centres around Kilkenny. hese include in no particular order: Vocational School Equestrian Centre, Thomastown; Graiguenamanagh Riding Centre, Graiguenamanagh; Nuenna Farm Riding School, Kilkenny Road, Freshford; and Wallslough Equestrian Village, Sheestown.
Adventurous travelers might try go-cart racing at Reggie Booths, New Road, Mooneeroe, Castlecomer; while those at Kilkoran House in Cuffesgrange recommend their clay pigeon shooting as and excellent way to unwind. Still more sedate however, for those who prefer mental activity to the physical kind, is a visit to the cinema or theatre.
Cinema And Theatre Filmgoers can now check out the digital technology on offer at the Kilkenny Cineplex at the top of Friary Street. More serious film buffs might like to investigate what the laudable Kilkenny Film Society has to offer usually a selection of less commercial offerings, projected on 18mm equipment in the magnificent setting of Kilkenny Castle.
Kilkenny has one major theatre, the Watergate on Parliament Street, that is both cosy and well-designed. The Kilkenny area is home to a few excellent theatre groups, including Bickerstaffe and Barnstorm, and the Watergate offers a wide range of plays performed by professional companies and amateur ensembles of varying degrees of ability. Cleere's Pub, across the road, incorporates a small theatre (less than a hundred seats) and also boasts a high standard of dramatic output and poetry readings. See the local press for details of cinema and theatre showings.
Handicrafts The diversity of art and handicraft work on offer in Kilkenny makes it unfair to single out some outlets over others. Keen shoppers will certainly not be disappointed, and, bearing in mind that one person's kitsch is another person's art, it is worth the visitor's while browsing the shops and studios in the city centre and surrounding areas.
Few visitors to Kilkenny will leave without visiting Kilkenny Castle, and what was once the Castle Stables, across the parade, is now the Kilkenny Design Centre in which quality craftwork from throughout Ireland is sold. Behind the Centre are the workshops of many local craftspeople and designers. This tasteful blend of history, commerce and art could be regarded as the Kilkenny experience in microcosm.
Alternatively those seeking leatherwork might try Chesneau Leather Goods in Bennetsbridge, Toner Leathers in Thomastown or Padmore and Barnes on Wolfe Tone Street. The Kilkenny Crystal Workshop in Callan, Duiske Glass in Graiguenamanagh and Jerpoint Glass Studio in Stoneyford all offer cut and engraved glass. For pottery try Mary O'Gorman, Nicholas Mosse, or Stoneware Jackson Pottery all in Bennettsbridge, or Jenkinstown House in Jenkinstown. Handmade jewellery is available from Rudolf Heltzel on Patrick Street and from Liam Costigan on Collierslane. It should be re-iterated, however, that these lists are not exclusive the pleasure of a real bargain or find might well lie in any of the small craft outlets that are dotted throughout the area.
Ireland's medieval capital is satisfyingly compact and, with a modicum of planning, a stroll through the city centre can easily serve as a fascinating historical tour. A good starting point is the 13th century St. Canice's Cathedral (at the north-western end) from which the town takes its name: Cill Cainneach is Gaelic for 'Canice's church'. Enquire about climbing the 30 metre round tower, and view the limestone effigies of Piers and Margaret Butler that lie within the Cathedral. The stone andtimberwork in evidence here is breathtaking, while the ubiquitous black marble, most notably in St Ciaran's chair in the north transept, suggest why Kilkenny is also known as the 'Marble City'. The library next door is also worth visiting as it stores thousands of 16th and 17th century manuscripts.
Follow Vicar Street onto Dean Street. Take the second left onto Abbey Street, cross the bridge and you will see the walls of the Black Abbey, which also dates from the 13th century. In the 1300s eight priests here were lost to the infamous Black Death, although the Abbey itself is more prosaically named after the colors of the Dominican robes. While here, look for the adjacent Black Freren Gate that is the sole standing gate from the original town walls.
Continue onto Parliament Street, turn right and Rothe House is a short distance down on your right. Home of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, this magnificently preserved Tudor merchant's house dates from 1594. Take time to see the brief audio-visual show that is offered and look out for temporary exhibitions. Where Parliament Street diverges into High Street and St. Kieran's Street, take the holy option and check out Kyteler's Inn on your left. In addition to it being a nice spot for refreshments, this is the oldest house in Kilkenny, and was the home of Dame Alice Kyteler who led a remarkable life here in the 13th century before being forced to flee after accusations of witchcraft. Her unfortunate maid Petronella was burned at the stake for the same alleged offense.
From Kytelers, cross the road and head through the Butterslip (opposite Dunnes Stores). This attractive, narrow lane was built in 1616 and was once lined with butter-sellers. It will bring you onto High Street. The beautiful Italian-looking Georgian building on the right as you emerge is the Tholsel, and dates from 1761. Built of black Kilkenny marble, it was once a tollhouse and now functions as a city hall. From here, head southwards (ie away from Canice's cathedral), until you reach Rose Inn Street on the left. On this street is the Shee Alms house, which was founded by one Sir Richard Shee to help the indigent of the town. It is now a tourist office and offers a half-hourly 'Cityscope' exhibition that is worth checking out. Further up Rose Inn Street is St. John's College. This has beautiful grounds and can be explored for a small fee. The walk to it is worth it, if only because it takes you across John's Bridge, and it can be glorious to relax by the riverside in good weather, perhaps with a beverage from nearby Tynans or Matt the Millers.
Retrace your steps along Rose Inn Street, where there is ample selection for those who desire further refreshment and turn left up The Parade. Here, fittingly at the end of our tour, is the jewel in the city's crown, the majestic Kilkenny Castle, and across the road, the Castle Yard. While much has been written about the Castle, its sheer grandeur undoubtedly speaks for itself.