Sunday, 6 October 2013
A day in churches and castles in Kilkenny,
and a night in a restored Tudor-era tavern
The feeling of a lingering late summer continued yesterday [Saturday 5 October 2013]. Although I still have to get to grips with my new phone, it told me that the temperature in south-east Ireland was the same as Athens all day – somewhere between 17 and 21.
Four of us decided not to squander this blessing and gift, and spent the day in Co Kilkenny, visiting Goresbridge, Gowran and Kilkenny City – and ending the day with a visit to one of the most eccentric and unusual bars in Ireland.
Our first stop was at Goresbridge on the banks of the River Barrow, on the borders of Co Carlow and Co Kilkenny.
In Church History, Goresbirdge is known as Grange Sylvae, and, unlike many parishes in Co Kilkenny, it is part of the Diocese of Leighlin rather than the Diocese of Ossory. Indeed, the two most interesting architectural sights in Goresbridge are the bridge that gives the village its name, and Saint George’s Church of Ireland parish church, which retains the old name of Grange Sylvae.
The village takes its name from the new bridge built by Ralph Gore. The arable lands in the parish of Grange Silvae were granted to Arthur Gore by King Charles II. In the wake of the Williamite wars around 1700, the Gore family acquired land in the townland of Barrowmount, on which most of the village of Goresbridge stands today.
Some accounts identify Ralph Gore who built the bridge with General Ralph Gore (1725-1802) the first and last Earl of Ross, but I wonder whether it was built, instead, by Colonel Ralph Gore, who lived here at Barrowmount, and was MP for Co Kilkenny.
This elegant nine-arch rubble stone bridge was built over the River Barrow in 1756. This is an attractive landmark and it is an important example of mid-18th century engineering. The bridge is best known for the panoramic views from the river banks of the series of nine round arches with their granite ashlar voussoirs, and squared rubble stone soffits. The random rubble stone walls on granite ashlar piers have triangular cut-waters.
We climbed down a flight of 10 cut-stone steps on the north-east side of the bridge, leading down to the grassy banks to river, and walked along the east bank, where an arch forms a pedestrian underpass by an old abandoned mill.
Goresbridge quickly became a market and postal town. Transport infrastructure was improved with the completion of the Barrow Navigation on 1794 and its incorporation into the Grand Canal system, providing opportunities for trade and encouraging the growth of industry. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the nine-arch bridge formed a vital link between Co Carlow and Co Kilkenny.
The significance of the bridge as a strategic crossing point was central to the events on the morning of 23 June 1798, known since as the Battle of Goresbridge. As they planned to march through Goresbridge, the Wexford Insurgents were met by members of the Wexford Militia, who were billeted locally. While trying to defend the bridge and prevent the rebels crossing the river, the cavalry were defeated, 28 soldiers were captured and the survivors fled to Kilkenny
By the early part of the 19h century, Goresbridge had a thriving economy, with a weekly market and four fairs a year on the Fair Green. During this time, the roads were gravelled and new Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic churches were built, and they remain the two most prominent buildings in the town. In 1853, the Brigidine nuns built a convent at the end of Barrack Street.
But the population and economy began to decline. By 1884, the weekly market had ceased, the population fell from 634 in 1837 to a 365 by 1885.
From the convent, we continued walking north along a winding country road to the Church of Ireland parish church of Grange Silvae or Saint George’s.
Although the church is a short distance north of the village, it has a certain prominence above the landscape, perched on an embankment or grassy elevated site, where the well-kept graveyard is bounded by a stone wall with an iron-gate and stile.
Saint George’s was built with a typical Gothic Revival design. A survey in 1814 refers to an impressive steeple designed by Sir Francis Johnson. However, it appears the steeple was never built. Instead, the church, like many of churches of the time, was built with a three-staged entrance tower, with decorative granite elements to the string courses, and surmounted by finely-carved pinnacles. The nave of the church is lit by Gothic-style lancet windows, some of which have been blocked up, sadly.
A mural burial slab commemorating Arthur Gore of Barrowmount, who died in 1721, was moved to the site when the church at Powerstown fell into disuse.
From Goresbridge, we drove on to nearby Gowran, which was once an important town and borough, but is now a sleepy village. Gowran, which was once the residence of the Kings of Ossory, retained its importance after the Norman invasion.
Robert the Bruce with his army of Scots and Ulster gallowglasses and mercenaries, captured and burned the town in 1316.
James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde, built Gowran Castle in 1385 close to the site of the present castle and the town walls were built around 1415. King James I gave Gowran a charter in 1608, making it a borough that elected two MPs to the Irish House of Commons.
The most interesting building in Gowran is Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church, which was built in the late 13th century on the site of an earlier monastery and continues to serve as the Church of Ireland parish church.
The collegiate church, served by a college of priests, was a large and elaborate building, with an aisled nave, a long chancel and a tower at the crossing. The tower and chancel now form the parish church, while the rest of Saint Mary’s is now a National Monument.
The burials in the church include James Butler, who became 1st Earl of Ormonde in 1328, and his wife Lady Eleanor de Bohun, granddaughter of King Edward I. But the tower was locked, and were unable to see their monuments.
However, the Butler theme continued, for we drove from Gowran to Kilkenny, where our first stop was Butler House, once the Dower House of Kilkenny Castle.
Lady Eleanor Butler lived here after the death of her husband Walter Butler in 1783. She was the mother of John Butler, the 17th Earl of Ormonde, and her daughter, also Eleanor, was one of the famous “Ladies of Llangollen.” James Butler, Earl of Ormonde, lived in the house while Kilkenny Castle was under being rebuilt in 1831.
During the cholera epidemic of 1832, a soup kitchen was run from here, and the society that later became the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland held its meetings in Butler House in the 1870s.
Butler House was in restored 1972 by Kilkenny Design, the state design agency. In 1989, the Kilkenny Civic Trust acquired both Butler House and the Castle Stables. Sweeping staircases, magnificent plastered ceilings, marble fireplaces and a charming walled garden are among the features of this Georgian residence.
The house then opened to the public as a guesthouse and conference centre. In 2000, the Kilkenny Civic Trust had the gardens landscaped, returning them to their original splendour.
We strolled back through the walled gardens to the Kilkenny Design Centre, which is housed in the stables and coach houses between Butler House and Kilkenny Castle. There we had lunch, before crossing the Parade for a visit to Kilkenny Castle.
Two of my favourite architectural features in Ireland are the Picture Gallery in Kilkenny Castle and the ‘Moorish Staircase.’
The Picture Gallery Wing was built during the early 19th-century building programme carried out by the William Robertson, and was built on earlier foundations. Robertson’s Picture Gallery was in castellated baronial style, in keeping with his work on the rest of the castle. Initially the gallery was built with a flat roof, but this began to cause problems shortly after its completion.
The distinguished architects, Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (1827-1899) and Benjamin Woodward (1816-1861), were called in during the 1860s to make changes to the overall design of the Picture Gallery block, and other corrections to Robertson’s work. Their changes included inserting four oriels in the west wall and blocking up eight existing windows, while adding another oriel was to the east wall. A pitched roof was put in place, with central glazing.
The hammer-beam roof structure is worth as much attention as many of the paintings hanging in the gallery. This roof is supported on carved stone corbels by the stone carver Charles William Harrison (1835-1903).
The ceiling was decorated by John Hungerford Pollen (1820-1902), then Professor of Fine Arts at Newman College, Dublin, using a combination of motifs ranging from the quasi-mediaeval to the pre-Raphaelite, with interlace, gilded animal and birds’ heads on the cross beams. This decorative scheme was criticised in The Irish Builder, where it was described as “a roof probably intended to be Byzantine but is merely bizarre.”
The staircase, based on “Moorish” design, was designed by the Deane and Woodward to provide access to the Picture Gallery and to provide another major staircase in the circulation of a castle with an awkward shape. It is a rising half-turn stairs around a square sky-lit well. The stone carver Harrison carved the naturalistic foliage and the small animal details that decorate the stairs.
Deane and Woodward worked in a Gothic style that was influenced by the principles of John Ruskin. Their works include the Museum Building in Trinity College, Dublin, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Deane also worked on the conservation of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.
From the castle, we walked back down The Parade, where a Gospel choir was performing for a gathering that included bishops and the mayor, and into Rose Inn Street to see the late 16th century Shee’s Alms House.
We walked on trough to the churchyard behind Saint Mary’s Church, where the late mediaeval graves and renaissance sepulchral monuments of the Shee family are still in a disgraceful state. This churchyard is in the care of Kilkenny Corporation, yet despite years of strong complaints and protests, these monuments continue to be vandalised and to be daubed in wanton graffiti.
The graves and monuments are a unique collection in Ireland, and their neglect should be matter of shame and embarrassment for the city officials. The neglect itself is a form of vandalism I cannot understand why this has continued. Any other European city would be proud of this unique collection and its place in civic heritage, linking today’s Kilkenny with the ruling mercantile families of the 16th and 17th centuries.
We strolled on down High Street, stopping to look at the Butter Slip and the Market Slip and the modern sculpture of Saint Cainneach (feast day 11 October), who gives his name to Saint Canice’s Cathedral. In Parliament Street, we looked at Rothe House, the site of the Parliamentary Assembly of the 1650s, and Saint Francis’s Abbey at Smithwick’s Brewery.
In Irishtown, we climbed the steps and looked at Saint Canice’s Cathedral and the round tower. By now it was late evening, and most of the major sites were closed. And so we made our way back into the heart of this mediaeval city to look for the Hole in the Wall on High Street, which should have been open all day.
The one last late mediaeval site I had planned to visit as part of our tour was closed, and we retired to Café Sol for dinner.
We were about to head back to the car park, when we saw that the Hole in the Wall was open. This eccentric pub is housed in one of the oldest surviving townhouses in Ireland.
The Archer Inner House behind 17 High Street was built in 1582. This Elizabethan building, with its tavern, snug and Archer room has been fully restored over the last 10 years by Michael Conway, who has opened it to the public for the first time in hundreds of years.
The Hole in the Wall is the inner house of a Tudor mansion built in 1582 by Martin Archer, a future Mayor of Kilkenny. The family lost everything in 1654 with the Cromwellian confiscations, and the Archer complex became part of the Ormonde estate after 1660.
The High Street mansion was let independently from the inner house and an 18th century tenant of the inner house was Judith Madden, mother of Edmund Madden who married Jane Comerford in nearby Saint Mary’s Church in 1781. In the late 1700s, the Hole in the Wall was frequented by people such as the Earl of Ormonde, Henry Grattan, Sir Jonah Barrington, and the future Duke of Wellington.
The Hole in Wall has been undergoing conservation and restoration since 1999. The building is typically Tudor in style, with a tall pitched roof, cut-stone hooded Elizabethan mullioned windows, original flagstones, hexagonal chimney and oak doors.
The ground floor is divided into a rustic tavern made from 1582 oak beams, floor boards and other original oaks. Outside, there is a moderate sized enclosed New Orleans-style courtyard.
Michael Conway regaled us for hours about his work and with his own interpretation of Kilkenny history and Irish history, and we left Kilkenny hours later than we had planned.
It was a dark night as we drove back to Dublin. But the night sky was filled with bright stars, and the view was so clear this could truly have been a summer’s night.