Kilkenny is often described as both the Marble City and the Mediaeval Capital of Ireland. Parliament met in the city on occasion, and the name of Parliament Street – which links High Street with Irishtown – recalls the meetings in the city in the 1640s of the parliamentary assembly called by the Confederation of Kilkenny.
Throughout the centuries, the civic life of Kilkenny has been lived out between the cathedral and the castle, between the monastic town and the mediaeval fortifications, and this year marks the 400th anniversary of the charter from James I in 1609, giving Kilkenny its status as a city, with its own Mayor, Aldermen and city council.
The round tower on the south side of Saint Canice’s Cathedral tells us that Kilkenny or the Church of Saint Canice (Saint Kenny), who died in the year 599, was there for more than 1,000 years before Kilkenny became a city. But mediaeval Kilkenny owes its origins to the arrival of Strongbow and the first wave of Normans in 1170, when they occupied the fortress at the bend on the River Nore, where Kilkenny Castle stands today.
Kilkenny received its first charter over 800 years ago in 1207, and a spate of building work in the first half of the 13th century between the cathedral and the city, between the castle and the point where the Bregah River joins the Nore, threw up a walled town with its own parish church and its own monastic foundation – Saint Mary’s, the Black Abbey and the Abbey of Saint Francis.
Prosperous, well-planned city
For centuries, civic and commercial life was tightly controlled by a closely inter-married nexus of ten families: Archdekin, Archer, Cowley, Langton, Lee, Knaresborough, Lawless, Ragget, Rothe and Shee. These families, with the exception of the Shee family, were of Anglo-Norman origin, and they created an orderly, prosperous and well-planned town.
In 1335, a new Market Cross was erected with great pomp and ceremony in the High Street, just north of the Tholsel. As well as being a sign of the new mercantile prosperity of Kilkenny, where hirings and bargains were agreed, the Market Cross served as the venue for mediaeval mystery plays. A generation later, in 1366, Parliament met in Kilkenny and enacted the Statutes of Kilkenny, enforcing an apartheid-style separation of the Anglo-Norman settlers and the Gaelic Irish, prohibiting inter-marriage, or the adoption of Irish language and customs.
Kilkenny Castle ... its purchase by James Butler in 1391 was a crucial moment in the history of Kilkenny (Photograph, Patrick Comerford)
A crucial turning point in Kilkenny’s history came in 1391 when James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond, purchased Kilkenny Castle from the descendants of William Marshall. Despite the Statutes of Kilkenny, Ormond was a fluent Irish speaker and yet was fiercely loyal to his cousin, King Richard II, the first of many monarchs to visit Kilkenny Castle.
Rewards for loyalty
At the Reformation, Kilkenny remained loyal to the Butlers and the crown, and many of the leading civic families, including the Rothe, Archer and Shee families, actually profited from the dissolution of the monastic houses,. The city prospered from 1580 until the fall of the monarchy and the Cromwellian wars in 1648. During that period of prosperity and expansion, John Rothe built his famous town house in Parliament Street.
The loyalty of ‘Black Tom’ Butler (1532-1614), 10th Earl of Ormond, protected Kilkenny throughout the reign of his friend and cousin, Queen Elizabeth, and he has been described as “the most adept magnate survivor of the Tudor conquest.” In 1609, Ormond’s loyalty was rewarded when James I granted a Royal Charter, giving Kilkenny the status of a city, complete with a Mayor, Aldermen and Councillors. In the same year, Lucas Shee of Uppercourt obtained a royal charter for Shee’s Alms House in Rose Inn Street, which was founded and endowed by his father Sir Richard Shee, who died the previous year; and Nicholas Langton built his new mansion in the Butterslip, between High Street and Kieran Street.
The Langton House in the Butterslip was built by Nicholas Langton around the time Kilkenny received its charter as a city in 1609 (Photograph, Patrick Comerford)
The new city’s first Mayor was Thomas Lye or Lee, who was the Sovereign of Kilkenny when James I granted his charter. However, he died in office a few months later on 29 September, and was succeeded by Robert Rothe. For the next 40 years, five of the ten principal merchant families in the city – Archdekin, Archer, Cowley, Langton, Lawless, Rothe, Shee – elected 28 of the city’s 30 mayors from among their own members; the only exception was Patrick Murphy (1642-1643).
A city divided
During the Cromwellian wars, Kilkenny once again became the capital of Ireland, with the Parliament or Confederation of Kilkenny, the Supreme Council, and the Roman Catholic bishops and clergy meeting and assembling in Kilkenny Castle and in the homes of prominent merchant and civic families, including Rothe House and the Shee House in Parliament Street from 1642 to 1648. The conflicts of the day were played out even within the Butler family, with James Butler, Earl of Ormond, acting for King Charles I, while his cousin, Richard Butler, 3rd Viscount Mountgarret, was President of the Supreme Council of the Confederation.
When Kilkenny fell to Cromwell in 1650, the cathedral was ransacked and the merchant families suffered gravely with the almost total confiscation of their properties. Many of those banished to Connaught and Clare refused to move and remained in the Kilkenny area, but few recovered their ancient estates after the restoration in 1660.
Despite these upheavals, James Butler returned to Kilkenny Castle as Duke of Ormond and his family recovered their dominant place in Kilkenny society. The failed Jacobite plot in 1715 was suppressed and the Mayor – who was unmasked as a secret “Papist” – was unseated, while James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormond, fled to France, avoiding a treason charge and leaving Kilkenny castle unoccupied for 50 years.
By the time a new Tholsel or City Hall was built in 1761, the crumbling Market Cross was taken down in 1771, and Kilkenny College was rebuilt in 1782, life was settling down in Kilkenny once again. The Ormond Butlers had returned to the castle and the Georgian era ushered in a new wave of prosperity.
Saint Mary’s monuments
Throughout those centuries, Saint Mary’s Church, between the Tholsel and Shee’s Alms House, served as the parish and civic church of Kilkenny, and the church and churchyard were filled with the graves, tombs and monuments of the dominant civic and merchant families. Saint Mary’s ceased being used as a church in 1960.
Today, the churchyard is little more than a scruffy car park, and the once splendid late mediaeval monuments are dilapidated, crumbling and in sad state of decay, many covered in graffiti and vandalised.
Inaccessible but still visible is the once impressive monument to Sir Richard Shee, the founder of Shee’s Alms House, which was erected on the site of the chancel of the ancient church. This monument had a fine superstructure depicting Faith, Hope and Charity, with the 12 Apostles around the base. This monument was unique as the only place in the Diocese of Ossory where all 12 apostles were present on one tomb. Today, it is impossible to inspect this monument closely, and its threatened loss is a great shame. Another similar and equally endangered monument lies to the north of the church. Although not in its original location, this is the monument to John Rothe fitzPierce fitzJohn, the builder of Rothe House.
The name of Saint Mary’s was used when a new cathedral, based on the plans of Gloucester Cathedral, was built for Roman Catholic Diocese of Ossory between 1842 and 1857. Today, the Church of Ireland in Kilkenny is served by both Saint Canice’s Cathedral and Saint John’s Church in John Street. The city also has Methodist and Presbyterian congregations.
Celebrating the charter
Rothe House ... headquarters of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2009)
The sad state of Saint Mary’s is no reflection on the city’s church life or on the pride that most people in Kilkenny have in the history of their city. On Saturday 4 April, the Kilkenny Archaeological Society marks the 400th anniversary of the city charter with a seminar in Rothe House. The programme includes lectures by Michael O’Dwyer on “Nicholas Langton – in relation to his time,” Professor Raymond Gillespie of the NUI Maynooth on “Kilkenny and the Kingdom of Ireland 1660-1685,” and John Bradley on “The city charter of 1609.” In addition, the participants have been invited to City Hall to see the city charters in the Tholsel.
To mark this anniversary, members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland are also visiting Kilkenny in April. The RSAI, probably the oldest history society in Ireland, was founded as the Kilkenny Archaeological Society 160 years ago on 19 February 1849 “to preserve, examine and illustrate all Ancient Monuments and memorials of the Arts, Manners and Customs of the past, as connected with the Antiquities, Language, Literature and History of Ireland.”
The society’s two key founding members were two prominent members of the Church of Ireland in the Diocese of Ossory – Canon James Graves (1815-1886) and John G.A. Prim (1821-1875) – who were then collaborating on a history of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, and later became involved in the 19th century restoration of the cathedral.
The one missed opportunity of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society in the late 19th century was its refusal of an offer of Shee’s Alms House for a museum and library in 1897. Nevertheless, after a successful half century in Kilkenny, the society moved to Dublin, and under a royal charter became the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
The transformation of the old archaeological society into a national body for archaeologists and historians and the demise of the short-lived Ossory Archaeological Society (1874-1883) left Kilkenny without a local history society. A new Kilkenny Archaeological Society was founded in 1945. In 1962, the society bought Rothe House, which was restored under Percy Le Clerc. A museum and library were opened in 1966, and Rothe House now serves as the society’s headquarters, with an archive library, museum and a genealogy service. The society publishes the Old Kilkenny Review, which can be justly described as the country’s pre-eminent local history journal, and has recently restored the late mediaeval walled garden behind Rothe House.
Over the past few decades, the restoration of Kilkenny Castle, the former Palace, Rothe House, Shee’s Alms House, the Black Abbey and other buildings, including Tudor, Jacobean, Caroline and Georgian townhouses, has enhanced Kilkenny’s attractiveness. Sadly, some of the finest Georgian houses in Chapel Lane, leading from High Street to Wellington Square, are now in need of attention, and no-one appears to have any vision for the restoration of Saint Mary’s and its late mediaeval monuments before they are lost for ever.
● Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. His recent essay, ‘The Double Doors of Kilkenny,’ is at: The double doors of Kilkenny
This essay was first published in the April 2009 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory), and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).