Few things catch the imagination like the glimpse of a looming castle or a wander through weaving medieval lanes. As guest blogger, Rick le Vert discovers, the castles and alleys come steeped in mystery, especially in the undisputed heart of medieval Ireland – Kilkenny City.
’s urban fabric is a Norman maze of twisting narrow alleyways, abbeys and cathedrals, restored houses and crumbling city walls. These stony ramparts still exude an aura of mystique, and that patchwork of narrow twists and turns still resonates with some long-forgotten pattern of life. Of course, it’s not the stones and streets that set our imaginations on fire, but the stories embedded in them.
Pat Tynan has spent years introducing visitors and locals alike to the tales hidden between the nooks and crannies of medieval Kilkenny. One favourite is Dame Alice Kyteler who was accused of the deeply feared practice of witchcraft in the 14th Century.
Dame Alice’s story begins with the inheritance of her father’s successful banking business. Being a moneylender and female to boot made her doubly suspect in the eyes of the church, especially when each of her four marriages ended with the mysterious death of the well-to-do husband. Despite the corpses she left in her wake, the prosperous men of Kilkenny continued to gravitate to her popular Kyteler’s Inn to lavish her with gifts.
An inquisition found her guilty of witchcraft, ordering her to be burnt at the stake. She was kept in the dungeon of until her powerful connections – possibly demonic but most probably worldly – subdued the guards and spirited her away to London. “What became of her afterwards remains a mystery”, says Pat.
So who was Dame Alice? Just an independent and alluring woman who ran afoul of the social mores of the times? A Black Widow who amassed wealth with the death of each successive husband? Or a necromancer who danced at crossroads and kept bowls of evil-smelling bits and pieces in a cupboard in the basement? It’s a mystery best pondered over drinks in Alice’s own .
The site of her temporary incarceration continues to dominate the city from its hulking perch above the River Nore. A series of 19th century renovations means a stroll around Kilkenny Castle now is a step into the most visually pleasing of time machines: the Picture Gallery Wing drips with intricate artwork literally from the roof beams, while the library surprises with its yellow and pink colour scheme. More modern, but no less fascinating, art can by found at the in the castle’s depths.
Towering above Kilkenny’s north side, represents a jewel of Gothic Architecture and another chapter in the legend of Dame Alice. Alice’s nephew, William Outlawe, bought himself free of implication in the sorcery scandal by agreeing to finance the roofing of a part of St Canice’s – but the lead tiles used caused the new roof to collapse under their weight. It remains a beautifully atmospheric venue – being host to countless choir, piano and singing performances at August’s .
Another medieval wonder moonlighting as a festival venue is the Dominican , where a performance by EU Baroque Orchestra will perfectly complement its stoic grandeur on August 7. Black Abbey suffered somewhat of an identity crisis in 1543 when it was converted into a courthouse, which it remained until the late 17th Century before being properly restored to its religious intent two centuries later. Remains of the early church include the old nave and isle, as well as 13th Century Norman tombstones.
Even holes in walls have a history in this city. The winebar on High Street is Ireland’s oldest surviving townhouse, being built in 1582 by the Archer family. Visit today and you’ll probably think new owner Dr Michael Conway fancied the 18th Century tavern decor enough to keep it – making this a very atmospheric stop for the musicians who play this cosy spot.
A few minutes’s walk from the pub is , a wonderfully restored 16th century Tudor house where archaeologists found the remains of an earlier medieval townhouse thought to be the ‘city pad’ of the Abbot of nearby Duiske Abbey. More specifically, they found the Abbot’s loo, a rare and unique discovery providing insights into what he ate and drank.
Turns out he out ate, drank, and lived pretty well, dining on swan and T-Bone steaks and washing it down with his favourite Bordeaux. This begs the question: did the frugal-living monks back at the abbey know what a grand life the Abbot was leading in town? The dig revealed yet another perplexing mystery with the discovery of the Abbot’s rusted belt buckle. How do you suppose his belt ended up in the loo – an overindulgence of Bordeaux or witchcraft?
With Kilkenny, you’d never know.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival takes place 5 – 14 August
To experience Kilkenny’s medieval heritage on a walking tour, there’s no better man than master storyteller Pat Tynan.
Our new Great Irish Road Trips Brochure PDFhas a special section on how to explore Medieval Ireland, including the cities of Waterford and Cork as well as Kilkenny.