Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

WRITE AROUND IRELAND

Kilkenny 2006 - Cool for Cats

1500 years ago, there lived a well-regarded Irish monk by name of Canice. With a click of his fingers, he could turn barren rocks into sturdy walls, fallen trees into vaulting roofs and barbaric hedge monkeys into gentle Christians. In time Canice - whose nickname was Kenneth or Kenny - arrived upon a gorgeous stretch of the River Nore. Here he built a church that would become a cathedral. The church was duly named for him - the Church of Canice. Or, in the Irish language, the Kill of Kenny.

Such is the origin of Kilkenny, arguably Ireland's liveliest inland city, now famous for providing non-stop entertainment throughout the sunny season and plenty of ceol agus craic on the other 365 days too. Such a reputation has been secured by close on ten successful summers of back-to-back festivity - the Rhythm & Roots Festival in May, the Cat's Laugh Comedy Festival in June, the highly acclaimed Arts Festival in August and regular concerts by rock legends such as Bob Dylan and The Flaming Lips (Nowlan Park, 24 June 2006).

Kilkenny is essentially a very small city, a population of 25,000. As such, the best way to see it all is to get lost. Wander off-piste and see where your ambles take you. You may clunk against the wall of a cul-de-sac but there's every chance that the wall you clunked was erected by French-speaking stonemasons 800 years ago seeking to keep the Irish hoards out of the fledgling Norman settlement. Perhaps you'll stumble upon an ancient friary where monks still wear the brown robes made famous by the Franciscans in the 13th century. Or find your feet walking through the doors of a tiny wee pub where there's three fellows in the corner cranking out some feisty tunes on a bodhran and the auld codger behind the bar is awaiting your order whenever you please. The people of Kilkenny are a friendly tribe and if you're panicking about the way home, they'll direct you with grace and panache.

To be a city, one ideally needs to have a cathedral and here Kilkenny comes up trumps. St. Canice's is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Western Europe. Visitors are welcome to confront their fear of heights and clamber up a spiral staircase of a Round Tower built so petrified monks could hide from axe-wielding Vikings. The Black Abbey offers another excellent slice of medieval history. It was built for the Dominicans in 1220 by William Marshall, a remarkable chap whose achievements included unseating Richard the Lionheart in a jousting tournament, bullying King John into signing Magna Carta, marrying the sole heiress of Strongbow and Aoife, touring the Middle East on several Crusades and encouraging rabbit breeding in Ireland because he liked the taste of them. Marshall was also responsible for the creation of the original four towers of Kilkenny Castle. Considerably modified by the Earl of Ormonde in the 1820s, the castle today houses an impressive collection of 17th - 19th century art. Guided tours are colourful and informative.

Two of Kilkenny's great landmarks date from the Elizabethan Age - Rothe House on Parliament Street (a Tudor townhouse built for a prominent merchant family) and Shee Alm's House (where the poor and destitute gathered to receive food and medicines, now home to the Kilkenny Tourist Office).

One of the unexpected delights of the city is its ample parkland. Between the Fair Green, the Castle Park and the banks of the River Nore, there is plenty of space for people of all shapes to wander amid rolling meadow and lush woodland.

Kilkenny is a city synonymous with arts and craft par excellence. Some of the finest shopping is to be found in the Kilkenny Design Centre, former stables to the Ormonde's horses. But jewellers, woodworkers, potters and craftsmen of great skill are burrowed down many a side-street or slip-way and again, one only need ask for directions. The annual Arts Festival has bequeathed a legacy of artistic merit, perhaps best exemplified by the ongoing exhibitions in the Butler Gallery. The Watergate Theatre on Parliament Street regularly hosts plays that go on to grace the stages of Dublin. In the immediate vicinity, there are plenty of golf courses, go-kart tracks, equestrian and leisure centres to keep visitors in full trim, or perhaps one's visit coincides with a horse race meeting at Gowran Park or a busy schedule in the city's greyhound track.

Kilkenny is the Gourmet Capital of the Sunny South East. With some 100,000 international visitors passing through the city every year, every pub or restaurant worth its salt thrusts hypnotic menu-filled blackboards out onto the street to lure the punters in. The majority are randomly spread around the southern or Castle side of the River Nore which splits the city into two halves.

Kilkenny's pubs are too numerous to mention but rest assured there are pubs to suit all types. Noisy pubs, silent pubs, sporty pubs, fiddily-diddily pubs, gay pubs, newspapery pubs, foody pubs, old codger pubs, young buck pubs, funny pubs, funny ha-ha pubs, you name it.

Kilkenny is a city that does not disappoint. It has a confidence about it stretching back 1500 years to its first days as a refuge for hermits and engulfs most of the major events subsequent to Irish - and often international - history. And today that self-belief, perhaps best summed up with the county's champion hurlers, has created a delightful city of marble pavements, stately trees, epic streetscapes, rural aromas and an excellent understanding of a good night out.

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