Among the towns and cities of Ireland, Kilkenny is my favourite. Its mediaeval, renaissance and Georgian buildings survived not only because of the patronage of the Butlers in Kilkenny Castle and through the blessings of the bishops, deans and chapters in the cathedral, but because the failure of the canal, planned by the Comerford and Murray partnership, and the bad planning of the city’s access to the railways, ensured that much of the city’s streets and buildings remained intact.
Over the centuries, Ireland’s mediaeval capital lived out its civic and commercial life between the Butlers and the Bishops, between the castle and the cathedral. And the doorways on the streets and the lanes of the city invite the visitor into the story of Kilkenny and its people.
But this is part of my story too and the story of my family. After the Comerfords were dispossessed of Ballybur, a few miles south of Kilkenny, in the 1650s, and failed to recover it in the 1660s, the family eventually moved into the city, living for a few brief generations in the Langton House in the Butterslip and then in King Street (now Saint Kieran’s Street). My own ancestors moved eventually to north Co Wexford, but Kilkenny still has a real attraction, and I have been delighted over the past few decades to work briefly as a freelance contributor to the Kilkenny People in the early 1970s, and in more recent years as a visiting lecturer in Islamic and Byzantine studies at the NUI Maynooth campus at Saint Kieran’s College.
A year has never gone by without returning to Kilkenny, and I was back a week ago for a three-day visit, staying in the Zuni Hotel in Patrick Street, visiting some of my favourite places, eating in some of my favourite restaurants, and ending it all with the Eucharist in Saint Canice’s Cathedral.
Over those three days, between the castle and the cathedral, I was captivated by the double doorways in the streets, lanes and churches of Kilkenny captivating, and tried to capture some of them with my camera.
1: Bridge House, John Street
Close to John’s Bridge, on the east bank of the River Nore – but still standing beneath the splendour of Kilkenny Castle – Bridge House is made up of Numbers 88 and 89 Lower John Street. This side of Kilkenny is known colloquially as the “Continent” because it lies across the water from the rest of the city
Bridge House is a fine three-storey building and has what is perhaps the best-known pair of double doors in Kilkenny and is now part of the Rivercourt Hotel. Seven steps, flanked by railings, lead up to this beautiful double doorcase. There, two Tuscan engaged columns support an entablature with pateras and a fluted frieze, with a breakforward over the columns.
Despite its Georgian appearance, this house dates back to the Tudor period, and may have been in the hands of the Butler family from its beginnings. Charles Butler (1671-1758), Earl of Arran and brother of the second Duke of Ormond, made Bridge House his principle residence when he was living in Kilkenny in the early 18th century. 1704. The Butler family remodelled and rebuilt the house later in that century, so that the interior reception rooms with their later stucco ceilings and mantelpieces made this one of the finest houses in Kilkenny. Here Dr Butler, who is buried in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, entertained the young author from Lichfield, Maria Edgeworth.
2: Nos 40 and 41 Parliament Street
The double doorway of the Bridge House should be compared with the double doorway of Nos 40 and 41 Parliament Street.
Parliament Street, which links High Street with Watergate and Irishtown, was once known as Coalmarket. It takes its present name from the Confederate Parliament which met in a house on this street from 1641 to 1648 in the townhouse of Robert Shee, who was the father-in-law of William Comerford of Castleinch and an uncle of Ellen Shee who married my ancestor Garret Comerford. The house has since been demolished and the site now provides an entrance to a public car park.
Three shared steps lead up to the fine double doorway of numbers 40 and 41 Parliament Street, a pair of fine Georgian houses. The doorways have three engaged Tuscan columns, a fluted entablature with five pateras, and a wide fanlight topped by a brick relieving arch.
No 41 is the offices of Michael Buggy and Company, Solicitors. In 1867, John Buggy – who was descended from the Comerfords of Ballybur through the O’Rourke and Madden families – became the first elected Catholic Mayor of Kilkenny. His son, Michael Buggy, was chairman of the Kilkenny Journal in the last century.
3: Nos 42 and 43 Parliament Street
Next door, Nos 42 and 43 Parliament Street may not have a shared double doorcase, but these two Georgian houses have a beautifully paired set of doorways. Once again, three shared steps led up to these adjacent doors, with their Gibbsian surrounds and their original fanlights.
No 42 is now the offices of Barrow Nore Suir Rural Development and No 43 next door is the offices of Smithwicks, a well-known legal family in Kilkenny.
4: Double Gates, Rothe House, Parliament Street
The two pairs of doorways on 40-43 Parliament Street stand opposite Rothe House. These double gates may not be double doors but they provide many visitors with their first glimpse of the doors, the courtyards and the glory of Rothe House. This splendid merchant’s house was built by John Rothe fitzPiers and his wife Rose (née Archer) between 1594 and 1610, at the end of the Tudor era and the beginning of the Jacobean period, on the site of the former townhouse of the Cistercian Abbots of Duiske. John Rothe was Mayor of Kilkenny in 1613.
In 1642, Bishop David Rothe (1573-1650) called the National Ecclesiastical Assembly, which met in Rothe House in May 1642. Those who attended included the Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Rinucinni, who was then a guest of the Comerford family in Ballybur Castle, and the Augustinian Patrick Comerford, who was then Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. The assembly led to the formation of the Confederate Parliament, which met across the street in the house of the Shee family in October 1642.
Later, Rothe House was used as a school, whose pupils included the Banim Brothers. The house was facing almost certain ruin when it was bought by the Kilkenny Archaeological Society in 1962, and it opened to the public as a library and museum in 1966.
5: Wellington Square
Chapel Lane – one of the many lanes leading off High Street – leads to Wellington Square, a surprising, quiet oasis in this old part of Kilkenny, with a quaint charm and with views of the old city walls, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and the site of an old convent and an old chapel.
Many of the houses in this square share double doorways in arched recesses, often retaining the original fanlights.
6 and 7: Nos 1 and 2, and Nos 3 and 4 Wellington Square
Nos 1 to 4 Wellington Square is a group of three-storey houses with basements beneath them. They have charming, double doors, each pair in an arched recess, separated by a hollow pilaster – although the paintwork on Nos 3 and 4 disguises the character of the separating pilaster – and each with a superior fanlight.
8 and 9: Nos 13a and 13b, and Nos 14a and 14b, Chapel Lane
These two pairs of modern houses are an admirable essay in replicating the style and visual impact of the original houses in Wellington Square and Chapel Lane, with double doorways in their arched recesses, and the panelled doors painted in primary colours. However, there are no pilasters separating the doors, and no fanlights.
10 and 11: Nos 8 and 9, and Nos 10 and 11, Chapel Lane
Numbers 8 to 12 Chapel Lane once formed a pleasant terrace of two-storey houses built in brick and stone to a good scale. Once again, the pairings of numbers 8 and 9 and numbers 10 and 11 have double doorways in arched recesses, with fanlights over the each door. However, the houses have been vacant for a few years, they have been vandalised, and the doors and walls have been covered in graffiti.
The houses are now for sale, and offer a challenging opportunity to restore two pairs of houses that are among Kilkenny’s architectural gems.
12: Nos 20 and 21, Saint Kieran’s Street
On the other side of High Street, the steps of the Butterslip lead down to Saint Kieran’s Street, known in times past as Low Lane, Back Lane, King Street and Kieran Street. This was a fashionable street in the 18th century, when the west side consisted of the high rear facades of the mediaeval merchant houses of High Street, while the east side consisted of a row of fine residences with long gardens and orchards – many with summerhouses – that led down to the banks of the river.
Numbers 20 and 21 bear some similarities with the double doorways in Chapel Lane. They form a pair of three storey houses that share three stone steps leading up to their double doorway, which is topped by a basket arch.
13: Two red doors, Methodist Manse and Methodist Church, William Street
William Street, once known as Bolton’s Lane, leads off the High Street, starting at a point opposite the Tholsel. At the end of the street stand the Methodist Manse, now known as Wesley House, and the Methodist Church. Although this is not another pair of shared doorways, the doors of the manse and the church are both painted in the same red, and provide an interesting photographic pair of doors.
John Wesley first visited Kilkenny in 1756, and the first Methodist chapel in Kilkenny was built in 1771. This was replaced in 1802, and the present church is the third Methodist church to have been built in Kilkenny.
The church is flanked by the manse which is unusual for manses in having a timber doorcase with a fanlight.
14: Double doors in the sanctuary, Saint Canice’s Cathedral
The chancel is the oldest part of Saint Canice’s Cathedral and after the Eucharist there last Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but notice this unusual pair of doors in the cathedral sanctuary, partly hidden by the Mothers’ Union banner.
15: West Door, Saint Canice’s Cathedral
Before a Bishop of Ossory is enthroned, he knocks on the great west doors of the cathedral with his crozier, demanding that the dean and chapter allow him to enter his cathedral. Saint Canice’s is Ireland’s second largest mediaeval cathedral, with a great sense of abundant light and space, and the West Door of Saint Canice’s has been described as the “finest surviving Gothic doorway in Ireland …” It was built about 1260, and was probably the work of the master mason known as the Gowran Master, one of the most gifted craftsmen in 13th century Ireland.
But if these double doors are the point of entrance to the cathedral for new bishops about to be enthroned, they are also the point of exit for old bishops too. And it was through these doors that we followed the coffin of Bishop Noel Willoughby at his funeral, as he was taken to be buried in the cathedral churchyard beside Archbishop Henry McAdoo.
In life and in death, the story of Kilkenny has played out for centuries between the castle and the cathedral. And the double doors of domestic, civic and ecclesiastical architecture are a charming introduction to the grandeur of Ireland’s mediaeval capital.
Photographs and text © Patrick Comerford 2009.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.