06 June 2011

A summer Sunday in south Kilkenny

Summer sunshine in the Square in Inistioge, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Three of us spent Sunday driving around south Co Kilkenny – and most of it in glorious sunshine too.

We arrived in Kilkenny in time to have a short stroll through the city, looking at the castle, the Kilkenny Design Workshops, the Parade, the Tholsel and the late mediaeval merchant houses in High Street, including the Butterslip and Rothe House, before continuing on to Saint Canice’s Cathedral, for the Cathedral Eucharist, celebrated by the Revd Elaine Murray.

Later, we had a second stroll through the city, looking at Saint Mary’s in its sad and neglected state, and visiting Shee’s Almshouse, the late 16th century almshouse on Rose Inn Street now used as a tourist office.

Visiting Ballybur Castle, home of the Comerfords until the mid-17th century

After some browsing in the Kilkenny Book Centre – a shop I could spend hours in, if not days – we then drove south, stopping first at Ballybur Castle, the ancestral home of the Comerford family. There we received a warm welcome from Frank Gray, who has lovingly restored the 16th century tower house over the past three or four decades.

From Ballybur, we drove on south to Callan, where the local historian Joe Kennedy was waiting to greet us at Saint Mary’s Church. I wanted to photograph a Comerford family monument and a Comerford family tomb, both dating back to the early 17th century.

The church is a detached, seven-bay, double-height rubble stone mediaeval parish church, built around 1460, but possibly incorporating the fabric of an earlier church, dating back to 1250. It includes a three-bay, double-height nave with a four-bay double-height chancel to the east with a single-bay, double-height lower vestry to the south, and a single-bay three-stage tower, dating from 1250, to the west, built on a square plan.

There is a local story, retold for us by Joe Kennedy, that three “maiden” ladies of the Comerford family provided substantial funds for the 15th century rebuilding of Saint Mary’s. But because they could not agree on the style of architecture to use, they were each given their own way and allowed to design a section each. This, he said, explains why the windows at one side are different from the windows at the other side, why the pillars are shaped differently between the south aisle and the nave and the north aisle and the nave, and why the arches are different also.

Joe recalled how these three legendary Comerford sisters were known as the “Three Shaughrauns.”

However, the bulk of the funds for rebuilding Saint Mary’s came from Sir James Butler, who founded the Augustinian Abbey in Callan in 1471. The church was completed by 1530, with three-bay double-height side aisles added to both the north and to the south.

The chancel was used as the Church of Ireland parish church until it closed in the early 1970s. The former parish church is disused, although inside it is covered with scaffolding and under restoration that appears to be proceeding slowly. It is a reminder of the once-prosperous Church of Ireland community in the locality, but hopefully may soon find a new use for the whole community.

Gerald Comerford’s altar tomb in the ruined north aisle of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The nave and side aisles of Saint Mary’s are now in ruins. At the east end of the north aisles, I photographed the tomb of Gerald Comerford, dated 1604, an ornate altar tomb with sculptured emblems of the passion on its front panel and the Comerford coat-of-arms on one of the side panels.

Thomas Comerford’s monument in the ruined south aisle of Saint Mary’s Church, Callan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

At the east gable wall in the south aisle, I photographed the Renaissance monument of Thomas Comerford, dated 1629. This monument, with a Latin eulogy in raised Roman capital letters, displays the coat-of-arms of the Comberford family of Comberford, between Lichfield and Tamworth in Staffordshire.

The North Aisle door with its “Whispering Stone” in Saint Mary’s Church, Callan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

On our way out of the ruins of Saint Mary’s, Joe pointed out the doorway into the north aisle with a carving above it of a lady’s head adorned with the horned headdress fashionable in the 15th century. Was she one of the “Three Shaughrauns” from the Comerford family, he asked jokingly.

The door is low arched and around its curved is a hollow, pipe-like stone known as the “Whispering Stone.” When you whisper softly into it, a person standing with her ear at the side hears clearly what you say. But is the Shaughraun above listening it on those sweet whispers?

There is a local saying:

Kells was,
Kilkenny is,
and Callan will be
the greatest city of the three.

Having seen Kilkenny and Callan, we drove on to Kells, but took a scenic route there through Dunamaggan, Danganamore – one a Comerford estate – and Kilree, where we stopped in search of another Comerford grave and to look at the round tower, the church ruins and the high cross.

Richard Comerford’s altar tomb (1622) in the ruined church in Kilree, south of Kells, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The old monastic site is in the middle of a cow field, with a warning on the gate that there is a bull in the field. Undeterred, we crossed two stiles and visited the site.

Kilree High Cross and Round Tower probably date from the ninth century. The images on the high cross include a hunting scene, the Adoration of the Magi and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Tradition says the high cross was erected to commemorate Neill Callan, High King of Ireland, who was drowned while trying to save the life of a man who had fallen into the King’s River at Kells.

The round tower is a capless, battlemented tower that is 20 metres high. The doorway is relatively low to the present cemetery ground level. The squared plinth-like foundation is unusual: the only other tower with a similar is to be found the south at Aghaviller. The tower doorway faces the ruin of an early church with pronounced antae, though nothing appears to be known of the monastery here.

The church and lands belonged to the dean and chapter of the Ossory before they were transferred to the Priory of Kells in the 13th century. Inside the church is the altar tomb of Richard Comerford, and his wife Joanna St Leger, who both died in 1622. Richard Comerford was the second son of Richard Comerford of Ballybur, and his tomb against the north wall of Kilree Church, like Gerald Comerford’s altar tomb in Callan, is decorated with the symbols of Christ’s Passion. In all, there 20 symbols of the Passion on the Kilree tomb, which the Kilkenny historian Margaret Phelan believed was carved by Walter Kerin or his son Patrick.

The cemetery surrounding the church is heavily wooded, giving the place a hushed and surrealistic but peaceful feeling.

The monastic ruins by the King’s River in Kells, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Kilree, we drove north to Kells, which claims it is the mediaeval capital of Kilkenny. This is a small village on the banks of the King’s River, with the extensive ruins of the fortified 12th century Augustinian priory, mills, round tower and high cross, nestled in the fertile farmlands of south Co Kilkenny.

The priory was founded in 1193, and although it was sacked and burned in 1252 and again in 1327, the priory continued to prosper. After the priory was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII in 1540, the once affluent town of Kells began a slow decline.

From Kells, we drove back through Kilree and Danganmore, and then through Knocktopher, Jerpoint and Thomastown, and south along the banks of the River Nore to Inistioge, where the village was alive in glorious bank holiday sunshine, celebrating the Inistioge Sumer Festival. People were enjoying the arrival of summer, there was music in the Square, on the streets and by the river banks.

Because of its rich archaeological heritage, Inistioge is a National Monument. The village stands at the lowest river crossing on the River Nore, and so it may have its origins in a Viking settlement. History records that the people of Ossory (Osraige) defeated King Olaf Cuaran of Dublin at Inistioge in 964.

The area was granted in 1169 to Thomas FitzAnthony Walsh who established an Augustinian Priory in Inistioge in 1206. The motte of Thomas FitzAnthony’s first fortification is located behind the houses halfway up the hill from the Square and survives to a height of 10 metres and 12 metres wide at the top.

The priors developed the settlement, but Inistioge declined after the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540, and in 1566 the priory lands were granted to Sir Edmond Butler.

Inistioge was incorporated as a town with a charter from King James I in 1608, with weekly markets on a Friday and an annual fair on 13 December. The combination of a steep hill and the earlier mediaeval walled settlement resulted in a dense concentration of buildings.

Inistioge prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries and its development of the town was intimately linked with the prosperity of the Woodstock Estate. Woodstock was built by Francis Bindon in the late 1740s for the Fownes family. Although the house is remote from the village, the main approach to Woodstock, the River Gate, Lower Avenue and lodge and the almshouses on the Square are all testimony to the importance of the estate in the development of the village.

This density and the elegance of the developments give Inistioge an urban quality that unusual in a small town of this size that has been compared with pre-renaissance Italy.

The Almshouse in the Square was built in 1788. The building was of particular significance in Inistioge. It was as an almshouse for local widows by Sarah (Fownes) Tighe (1743-1820), who had inherited nearby Woodstock House. This is a terraced seven-bay two-storey widows’ almshouse, with a three-bay two-storey pedimented central bay, incorporating classically-derived elements, including block-and-start door-cases and a pediment, lending a formal quality to the street scene.

The almshouse closed in 1973, was renovated and subdivided, to form two separate four-bay two-storey and three-bay two-storey houses.

The ten-arch bridge at Insitioge, spanning the River Nore, is an imposing landmark in the village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Below the village, the bridge at Inistioge is a ten-arch, rubble stone, classical-style road bridge over the River Nore, built in 1763, on site of an earlier bridge. The bridge forms an imposing landmark in the townscape, with its combination of unrefined and dressed stone producing an appealing textured visual effect.

Five us spent about half an hour sipping wine at the Woodtstock Arms, before crossing the street to Saint Mary’s, the Church of Ireland parish church, for the institution of the new rector, the Revd Martin Hilliard.

Saint Mary’s Church, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny ... incorporates parts of the mediaeval Augustinian friary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Saint Mary’s shares the same site as the Roman Catholic parish church, which was built in 1836. The fact that the two parish churches stand side-by-side in the heart of the village is said to indicate a long tradition of religious tolerance in Inistioge down through the ages.

Although the present Saint Mary’s was built in 1824, the church incorporates parts of older parish churches and fabric from the mediaeval Augustinian abbey. To the immediate west of the church is a single-bay, four-stage mediaeval tower house known as White Castle. This was built ca 1525 on a square plan and has been adapted as the entrance tower of the church.

William Tighe (1794-1878) – who with his wife, Lady Louisa Lennox (1803-1900), developed the Woodstock Gardens and Arboretum in 19th century – donated the belfry and clock. The Black Castle in the churchyard behind, was also part of the Priory, and is now the Tighe family mausoleum.

On a slightly elevated site in the churchyard is the mausoleum of the local poet, Mary Tighe (1782-1810) of Woodstock House, built in 1810. This is a free-standing, square single-bay, single-storey, granite ashlar pedimented Greek Revival mausoleum.

By the time we left the reception in the community centre across the street from Saint Mary’s, the music in the square had become much quieter. There was a crescent moon above, but there was still a feeling of summer in the air. As we drove back through Thomastown, Dungarvan and Thomastown, there was a beautiful and lingering sunset in the west.

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