Kilkenny Castle: Ireland’s Timeless Jewel



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Nestled in the heart of Ireland’s ancient East, Kilkenny Castle stands as a majestic testament to over eight centuries of history. From its early Norman roots to its transformation into an aristocratic residence, this castle has borne witness to countless tales of power, love, and intrigue.

History of Kilkenny Castle

1. Early Beginnings (12th Century):

  • Kilkenny Castle built as a wooden castle or fort in 1172 by Richard de Clare, also known as Strongbow, who was a key figure during the Norman invasion of Ireland.

2. Stone Castle Construction (13th Century):

  • In the early 13th century, the wooden fort was replaced with the first stone castle. This structure had four large circular towers and a massive ditch surrounding it, parts of which can still be seen today.

3. The Butler Dynasty (14th – 20th Century):

  • In 1391, James Butler, the 3rd Earl of Ormonde, bought the castle, marking the beginning of the Butler family’s long association with Kilkenny Castle that lasted until the 20th century.
  • Over the centuries, the castle underwent several modifications and expansions under the Butler family. The castle was transformed from a medieval fortress into a more comfortable residence.

4. Siege and Civil War (17th Century):

  • During the Confederate Ireland Wars, the castle faced a significant siege in 1650. It was later occupied by Oliver Cromwell’s forces. In 1661 Butler remodelled it to be more modern.
  • The castle again played a pivotal role during the Civil War in 1922 when it was taken over by anti-Treaty forces. Throughout their 600 year history the Butler family had always remained loyal to the British crown.

5. Restoration and Donation (20th Century):

  • By the mid-20th century, the castle had fallen into disrepair. However, in the 1960s, Arthur Butler, 6th Marquess and 24th Earl of Ormonde, sold the castle to the city of Kilkenny for a symbolic price of £50.
  • Extensive restorations were undertaken to restore the castle to its former glory, alongside Kilkenny town the marble town.

Architectural Features of Kilkenny Castle

StyleNorman architecture, characterized by its semi-circular arches and robust masonry.
WallsThick stone walls, primarily constructed from local limestone, providing both defense and insulation.
TowersDefensive towers providing strategic viewpoints. Typical of Norman castles, they offer surveillance of the surrounding area.
GatewayA fortified entrance, ensuring controlled access into the castle’s precincts.
BattlementsParapets on top of walls with gaps for observation or firing arrows, offering protection to guards on duty.
Arrow SlitsNarrow vertical openings in walls, allowing archers to shoot while remaining protected.
KeepThe central tower and last line of defense, often the most fortified part of the castle.
WindowsInitially small and narrow for defensive purposes, but became larger and more decorative in later modifications.
MoatAlthough not always filled with water, the defensive ditch surrounding the castle acted as an additional barrier against invaders.
BaileyA courtyard area surrounded by the castle walls, housing buildings essential for daily life.
DrawbridgeA movable bridge at the entrance, which could be raised or lowered, enhancing the castle’s security.
PortcullisA heavy grilled door dropped or slid down in grooves, fortifying the entrance.
ChapelA dedicated space for religious practices, reflecting the importance of faith in medieval times.
Great HallThe main room of the castle, used for dining, entertaining, and holding court.
TurretsSmall towers on the corners of walls or towers, used for both decorative and defensive purposes.
CrenellationsThe alternating solid merlons and open crenels along the top of walls, providing cover for defenders.
Murder HolesOpenings in the ceiling of gatehouses or passageways where defenders could drop objects on attackers.
DungeonsUnderground cells or storage areas, often associated with imprisonment and storage.
ButtressesExternal supports added to strengthen walls, especially seen in later architectural adaptations.
Oriel WindowsProjecting windows, added during later periods, allowing more light and offering panoramic views.

Kilkenny Castle Features

The external features of Kilkenny Castle are a sight to behold. The castle is surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens and parkland, providing a tranquil and scenic setting.

The impressive stone walls and towers of the castle are a testament to its medieval origins. As you approach the castle, you will be greeted by a grand entrance gate and a sweeping driveway that leads to the main courtyard.

The South Tower

The South Tower is one of the most visually striking elements of Kilkenny Castle. This tower features a tall, pointed roof and intricate stone carvings. From the top of the South Tower, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and the River Nore.

The East Side of the Courtyard

On the east side of the courtyard, you will find a series of elegant buildings that were added to the castle in the 18th century. These buildings feature Georgian architecture, with symmetrical facades, sash windows, and decorative moldings. Inside these buildings, you can explore various exhibition spaces and learn more about the history and heritage of the castle.

The Courtyard Arch

The Courtyard Arch is a stunning architectural feature that divides the main courtyard of Kilkenny Castle. This stone archway is adorned with intricate carvings and provides a dramatic entrance into the heart of the castle. Walking through the arch, you will immediately feel transported back in time, surrounded by centuries of history and tradition.

The Guard Rope and Sally Port

As you explore Kilkenny Castle, you may notice a unique feature known as the Guard Rope and Sally Port. The Guard Rope is a raised walkway that runs along the inner wall of the castle, providing a secure path for guards to patrol and keep watch. The Sally Port is a small door or gate that allows for controlled access in and out of the castle. These features were essential for the castle’s defense and security.

The Talus

The Talus is a sloping embankment that surrounds the base of the castle walls. It serves both as a decorative feature and as a practical defense mechanism. The sloping nature of the Talus would make it difficult for attackers to scale the walls, offering an additional layer of protection for the castle.

The Niches

Throughout Kilkenny Castle, you will come across numerous niches carved into the walls. These niches were used to display religious icons and artifacts, adding a touch of spirituality to the castle’s interior spaces. The niches serve as a reminder of the castle’s role as a place of worship and reflection.

The Private Chapel

One of the most intimate spaces within Kilkenny Castle is the Private Chapel. This small chapel was used by the castle’s inhabitants for private worship and prayer. The chapel features beautiful stained glass windows, intricately carved wooden pews, and a peaceful atmosphere. It is a serene and contemplative space that provides insight into the spiritual life of the castle’s former residents.

Focus on the Parkland

In addition to its impressive architecture, Kilkenny Castle is renowned for its expansive parkland. The castle is surrounded by carefully manicured lawns, vibrant flowerbeds, and majestic trees. The parkland is the perfect place for a leisurely stroll or a picnic, offering visitors a chance to connect with nature and enjoy the peaceful ambiance.

The Mounting Block

As you explore the parkland surrounding Kilkenny Castle, you may come across a curious stone structure known as the Mounting Block. This block was used in the past to help riders mount and dismount their horses. It serves as a reminder of the castle’s equestrian heritage and its role as a center of social and recreational activities.

The Picture Gallery

The Picture Gallery is a must-visit space within Kilkenny Castle. This room is adorned with exquisite paintings from the castle’s extensive art collection. The paintings showcase a range of styles and subjects, providing a glimpse into the tastes and interests of the castle’s former residents. The Picture Gallery is a visual feast for art enthusiasts and history lovers alike.

The Butchers on the West Side

On the west side of the castle, you will find a row of buildings known as “The Butchers.” These buildings were originally occupied by butchers who provided meat to the castle’s inhabitants. Today, these buildings have been repurposed and are home to a variety of shops and cafes. They offer visitors a unique shopping and dining experience within the castle’s walls.

The Oriole Window

One of the most picturesque features of Kilkenny Castle is the Oriole Window. This beautifully crafted window is adorned with delicate stone tracery and intricate carvings. The Oriole Window is located on the second floor of the castle and provides stunning views of the surrounding landscape. It is a favorite spot for visitors to capture memorable photographs.

The Rose Garden

No visit to Kilkenny Castle is complete without a stroll through the Rose Garden. This enchanting garden is filled with a variety of roses in different colors and fragrances. The carefully designed layout and the vibrant blooms create a romantic and serene atmosphere. It is the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature.

What is inside Kilkenny Castle?

Kilkenny Castle, with its imposing structure and storied past, houses a range of historically significant and aesthetically pleasing interiors:

  1. State Rooms: The castle’s state rooms are ornately decorated and contain pieces of period furniture, offering visitors a glimpse into the lives of its former residents. These rooms were used for formal occasions and showcase the affluence and tastes of the Butler family.
  2. The Long Gallery: One of the most impressive rooms inside the castle, the Long Gallery boasts a hammer-beam roof and is adorned with portraits of the Butler family, detailing the lineage and history of those who once called the castle home.
  3. Library: The castle’s library contains an array of books and manuscripts, some of which date back several centuries. This room gives insight into the intellectual pursuits and interests of its former inhabitants.
  4. Bedrooms: The castle has several bedrooms, each decorated in the style of a different period, providing a tangible journey through the evolving interior design tastes from the medieval era to the 20th century.
  5. Dining Room: The grand dining room provides a view into the social customs and gatherings of the time. With its ornate decorations and period-specific table settings, it paints a vivid picture of aristocratic life.
  6. Butler Gallery: Located in the former servants’ quarters, the Butler Gallery is a space dedicated to contemporary art. It hosts rotating exhibitions featuring works by both Irish and international artists.
  7. Kitchen: The old kitchen, with its vast hearth and period utensils, showcases the culinary practices of bygone eras and gives an understanding of domestic life in the castle.
  8. Chapel: The private family chapel inside the castle offers a peek into the spiritual lives of its inhabitants.

Beyond these specific rooms, the castle also contains various hallways, anterooms, and nooks, each echoing stories of its long history.

As you walk through, the combination of architecture, furniture, art, and personal items provides a comprehensive and immersive experience of Irish aristocratic life over the centuries.

Common Questions on Kilkenny Castle Ireland

Why is Kilkenny Castle famous?

Kilkenny Castle is renowned as one of Ireland’s most iconic historic sites, up there with Windsor castle. Established in the 12th century, it represents over 800 years of Irish history. The castle’s significance is heightened due to its connection to the powerful Butler family, who resided there for nearly six centuries, and its role in pivotal events like the Irish Confederate Wars.

What happened at Kilkenny Castle?

Over its vast history, Kilkenny Castle has witnessed numerous significant events. Originally a wooden fort, it was replaced by a stone structure in the 13th century. The castle underwent architectural changes, survived sieges during the Irish Confederate Wars, and played a role in the Civil War in 1922. It transitioned from a medieval fortress to a stately residence under the Butlers.

Is Kilkenny Castle worth visiting?

Absolutely! Kilkenny Castle offers a rich tapestry of history, architecture, and art. Its well-preserved interiors provide a glimpse into different eras, while its gardens offer serene beauty. The castle’s role in shaping regional history and its stunning visual appeal make it a must-visit destination for those interested in Irish heritage.

Why was Kilkenny Castle sold for £50?

Kilkenny Castle was sold for a symbolic price of £50 in the 1960s by Arthur Butler, 6th Marquess and 24th Earl of Ormonde, to the city of Kilkenny and the Castle Restoration Committee. This gesture underscored the Butler family’s commitment to ensuring the castle’s preservation and ensuring its accessibility to the public as a historic landmark. They had abandoned the castle during the Irish civil war when it was sieged.

Visiting Kilkenny Castle

Getting There: Kilkenny Castle Located in the heart of Kilkenny city, the castle is easily accessible by car, bus, or on foot if you’re staying in the city center. There are signposts throughout the city directing you to visit Kilkenny castle.

Tours: Guided tours are available, offering deep insights into the castle’s history, architecture, and art. You can explore well-preserved rooms, each echoing a different era. The guided tour often covers the library, drawing room, bedrooms, and the long gallery filled with portraits.

Facilities: There’s a café on the premises where you can enjoy some refreshments. Also, the castle shop sells souvenirs, books, and crafts.

Accessibility: The castle has been adapted to be more accessible for visitors with disabilities. There are ramps, lifts, and adapted restrooms available.

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