01 September 2018

Former Kilkenny College
building is an elegant
presence on River Nore

Kilkenny County Hall, the former premises of Kilkenny College, seen from the banks of the River Nor, below Kilkenny College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As I made my way along John Street in Kilkenny a few times this week, I passed Kilkenny County Hall, now the principal offices of Kilkenny County Council, but for over 300 years the site of Kilkenny College, one of the oldest secondary schools in Ireland.

What was once the main school building at Kilkenny College is a seven-bay, three-storey classical-style building, built in 1782 on the site of the earlier college, built in 1667.

Despite the dates 1667 and 1782 given for this building, the origins of Kilkenny College date back to the College of Vicars Choral established at Saint Canice’s Cathedral in 1234. In 1538, Piers Butler (1487-1539), 8th Earl of Ormonde, and his wife, Lady Margaret FitzGerald, founded a school to the west of the cathedral, where the library now stands. Both Piers and Elizabeth are buried in a fine tomb in the cathedral.

The Library, to the West of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, stands on an earlier site of Kilkenny College, provided by Piers Butler, Earl of Ormonde (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Kilkenny College was closed for a period in the 1650s during the Cromwellian era.

When James Butler (1610-1688), 1st Duke of Ormonde, re-established Kilkenny College in John Street, around 1666, he was following the Butler tradition of promoting education in the city. At one time in the late 17th century, the college received a royal charter from James II and had aspirations to become a university.

Kilkenny College became a famous school, and in the 1780s a new college was built on the same site, overlooking the River Nore.

Yet, numbers had fallen to one pupil at one time in the 19th century, and an amalgamation with the nearby Pococke school roved to be a life-saver. More recently, Kilkenny College was amalgamated with the Collegiate School, Celbridge, in 1973, and it became co-educational.

The best-known past pupils must be Jonathan Swift (1668-1745), author of Gulliver’s Travels, satirist and Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and George Berkeley (1685-1753), philosopher, Bishop of Cloyne, and benefactor of Yale and Harvard, who gave his name to Berkeley in California.

Other past pupils include: Peter Lombard (1555-1625), Waterford-born theologian and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh; his cousin Luke Wadding (1588-1657), Waterford-born Franciscan theologian; William Congreve (1670-1729) and George Farqhuar (1677-1707), both Restoration playwrights; Thomas Prior (1681-1751), founder of the Royal Dublin Society; Kilkenny-born novelist John Banim (1798-1842); William Magee (1821-1891), Archbishop of York; Wellesley Bailey (1846-1937), founder of the Leprosy Mission; Admiral of the Fleet David Beatty (1871-1936), 1st Earl Beatty, First Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet during World War I; and Victor Griffin (1924-2017), Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (1969-1991).

Recent past pupils include Daryl Jacob, winning jockey in the 2012 Aintree Grand National, and Irish international hockey players Lisa Jacob and Daphne Sixsmith, along with many leader figures in business, agriculture, sport and the professions.

Past headmasters have included Edward Jones, later Bishop of St Asaph. and John Mason Harden.

When Sam McClure was headmaster, Kilkenny College moved in 1985 to a new campus that an attractive complex of classrooms, dormitories, catering and dining facilities on a landscaped 50-acre site. The newest extension of classrooms is called the Jonathan Swift block in honour of Dean Swift.

Kilkenny College is the Church of Ireland school of the Diocese of Cashel, Ossory and Ferns. Today it is the largest co-educational boarding school in Ireland, and also has a large number of day pupils from Kilkenny City and the surrounding area.

The coat-of-arms of the Ormonde Butlers over the entrance to Kilkenny Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The 18th century college building was designed in 1782 by Charles Vierpyl on the site of its earlier counterpart, built in 1667 through the patronage of James Butler, Duke of Ormonde.

The building has classical proportions, with each range of windows diminishing in scale on each floor. The building is slightly obscured and often missed by passers-by because of it is set well back from the line of John Street, and I find it is often best seen from the opposite bank of the River Nore beneath the walls of Kilkenny Castle.

This building has an eight-bay, three-storey side elevation, and the old school building was extensively renovated almost a quarter of a century ago, in 1994, when it was converted into the county hall. The interior was remodelled at the same time, but many of the original features have been retained, including the enriched doorcase, regarded as one of the best in Ireland, with its delicate fanlight of considerable design significance.

The coat-of-arms used by Kilkenny College is derived from the coat-of-arms of the Ormonde Butlers

The school’s coat-of-arms, derived from the coat-of-arms of the Ormonde Butlers, has evolved with some changes over the centuries. The modern version is supported by the letters K and C at the sides, and the date 1538, the year the college was founded, is at the bottom. The motto, Comme je trouve (‘As I find’), also come from the Ormonde Butler coat-of-arms.

The school history, Where Swift and Berkeley Learnt, by Lesley Whiteside and Andrew Whiteside, was published in April 2009.

The former buildings of Kilkenny College, now Kilkenny County Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Mark Switzer said...

I recently read about the 4th Sir William Barker (of Kilcooly in Co. Tipperary) attending Kilkenny College in his youth. As I reside in the U.S.A., I found it of great interest to learn more about the establishment and history of Kilkenny College. Thank you for the post.

Anonymous said...

Not just one of the oldest in Ireland, but one of the oldest schools in Europe.