The City of Kilkenny owes a huge architectural debt to the Middle Ages. This inheritance can still be experienced today and not just by visiting the large medieval buildings that dot the city but by also walking the laneways and checking out the small artisan houses that hide behind more modern facades. Kilkenny is bookended by the spectacular Kilkenny Castle to the south and the magnificent St. Canice’s Cathedral to the north. For a time during the 17th century it was the unofficial capital of Ireland with its own parliament. Today, Kilkenny is famed for its medieval streetscape which hides a wealth of culinary, cultural and artistic delights. Keep an eye out of the local ‘marble’, a black limestone used decoratively throughout, giving the city its moniker – the Marble City.
A brief history of Kilkenny
The earliest sustained settlement in Kilkenny can be traced back to a pair of Early Medieval sites – Domhnach Mór, St. Patrick’s Graveyard which may have its origins in the 5th century, and Cill Chainningh, the church of Canice which grew in influence in the north of the settlement to become the principal ecclesiastical power in Leinster outside Dublin. This influence resulted in the development of a substantial monastic town – later to become Irishtown. Four years after the 1169 Anglo-Norman invasion the focus of the settlement shifted to the south – later to become Hightown. It was here, on a hill overlooking the river Nore that Kilkenny Castle began its life as an earth-and-timber defensive structure. In 1301 the castle was purchased by James Butler, third Earl of Ormond, thereby beginning half a millennium of profound influence on the fortunes of Kilkenny by the Earl’s or Ormond.
From the 13th to the mid 14th centuries Kilkenny flourished. Some 300 burgesses along with free-tenants, artisans and servants comprised a population of up to 4,000. Kilkenny, as seat of the lordship of Leinster, grew to become the chief market place for a wide hinterland. This resulted in the development of a wealthy merchant class whose power and influence helped to shape the medieval town to such an extent that by the middle of the thirteenth century Kilkenny was the largest inland town in Ireland.
A period of decline in the wake of the Bruce invasions (1315-1316), the Black Death, climatic deterioration and bad harvests was followed by a period of consolidation despite intermittent Gaelic assaults and feuding. The Late Medieval period saw the re-construction of much of the city‘s building stock with churches, abbeys and townhouses added to and modified. By the time Kilkenny finally ‘shook itself free of the Middle Ages’ it had a population of some two thousand and a prosperous economy.
Described as ‘a great lord who had also been a good lord‘, the influence of Thomas Butler, the tenth Earl of Ormond on Renaissance Kilkenny was enormous. It was during his tenure that Kilkenny was elevated to the status of ‘city’. While the aftermath of the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Cromwellian conquest robbed the city of its position at the centre of both political and military power- a position it never regained – the cultural legacy of Renaissance Kilkenny endures to this day. With the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 the city’s fortunes greatly improved.
The 18th century saw Kilkenny propelled to the forefront of Ireland’s industrial revolution with woollen milling, coal-mining, limestone quarrying, ironworking, brewing and tanning all providing significant sources of employment. Grand Georgian houses transformed the streets while more modest artisan dwellings colonised the medieval lanes. The now redundant city defences were mostly pulled down, the Tholsel and Courthouse were restyled and impressive stone bridges were built. The gentry moved out of town and built themselves Classical and Neo – Palladian mansions in the countryside. The 19th century brought political and social change, rebellion, famine and land reform. Two thirds of the city’s population lived in poverty, a promised canal was never delivered and Kilkenny became little more than a provincial backwater. Today though, Kilkenny is a vibrant city where heritage is essential not only to its character, but also the confidence of the residents and its attractiveness as a place to visit.
The Kilkenny Walled Town Committee is co-ordinated and managed by Kilkenny Borough Council.
For further information on the city’s history contact:
Kilkenny Archeology Society
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