Monday 19 February 2018

Walking through history in old Kilkenny

Shine on Kilkenny - a view of the castle and the riverbank, where you can stroll off the delicious limoncello cheesecake served in Rinucci’s
Shine on Kilkenny - a view of the castle and the riverbank, where you can stroll off the delicious limoncello cheesecake served in Rinucci’s
Anthony tries out glass-blowing

Anthony Tormey

It had been many years since I visited Kilkenny city, so I took the opportunity to renew my acquaintance in the week of St Patrick's Day.

My wife and I travelled there to explore this part of the Ancient East, a Failte Ireland-promoted historic trail from Cork to Cavan.

We stayed in the four-star boutique Pembroke Hotel. All the attractions we visited in the city were within a five-to-seven-minute walk.

After we settled into our sumptuous room, it was time to take in our first sight. Kilkenny Castle was just around the corner.

The castle, the seat of the Butler family, was built in 1195. The Butlers moved out in the 1930s, and the State took over in 1969. The Office of Public Works has since done extensive refurbishment. The result today is a magnificent historic building.

One of my favourite rooms was the Withdrawing Room, where the ladies went to leave the gentlemen to their brandy and port after dinner.

Just off this is the Formal Dining Room, a beautiful room with an array of crockery, cutlery, glassware, and silver salvers etc.

My wife said it was the dining room she'd always wanted, and foolishly I agreed to extend our house to accommodate one like it. Unfortunately, as we live in Meath I'll have to extend to Belfast to fit it in.

The castle is the jewel in Kilkenny's crown and is a must-see.

After our visit, it was back to the hotel for a delicious dinner in the Pembroke. That old reliable, steak, sent us off sated to a great night's sleep. The complimentary cocktail, called a Grease Monkey, also helped to send us into the arms of Morpheus.

Next day we headed for Stoneyford, a few miles outside the city, to Jerpoint Glass Studio. Rory Leadbetter is a glassblower there. His father started the business in 1979, and Rory has been working there for 18 years. Sadly, Rory's father died in January.

There were some fabulous pieces of glassware on view. They sell their glassware from the craft shop beside their studio. Rory's brother Eoghan has some lovely wood furniture on display too.

We watched Rory and fellow glassblower James Long at work. I tried some glass-blowing when Rory let me blow a 'bubble'. It appears I am quite full of hot air. Rory got out his calipers and measured my effort at 34cm. He said that was pretty good, but the record was 38cm.

We travelled back to the city to walk the Medieval Mile. This trail goes from the castle to St Canice's Cathedral. It's a compact journey through hundreds of years of Kilkenny history. You can climb St Canice's Round Tower, the oldest standing building in the city. For something on terra firma, you could visit the Rothe House and Garden, three separate townhouses from the 16th/17th centuries.

The city is a walker's delight. Take a detour down any of the Roman-style archways to one of the little side streets. Take a stroll down St Kieran's Street and savour the smell of food wafting from the little bistros and cafes, with customers sitting outside people-watching. You could be in any chic Parisian side-street.

The mile also features a visit to the old Smithwick's brewery. Beer was brewed here from the early 1700s to just a few years ago.

The Smithwick's tour features interactive videos of members of the Smithwick family.

In one room of the house where the family lived, there are 'paintings' of family members. The subjects of these 'paintings' come to life and talk to us. Actors play the individuals (former Fair City and Clinic actor David Herlihy played one). They tell their story and interact with each other. It's an entertaining way of telling the narrative, and the audience loved it. And at the end of it all, there is the welcome pint of Smithwick's in the bar.

The new Medieval Mile Museum, which opened on February 28, is also on the mile. Our guide was archaeologist Grace Fegan.

Technology allows the tourist to call up photos and videos explaining the history of Kilkenny. There are tombs and artefacts, including some associated with the Rothe family, merchants who were an important part of Kilkenny's history.

There are also some fascinating ancient documents on view. My favourite was one which outlined the fee paid to a man whose job it was to whip 'foreign' beggars out of the city environs. And by foreign was meant beggars from as far away as, oh, Tipperary. And the whipper's fee for this was 12 shillings and sixpence per quarter.

After such a packed day, it was time for dinner. Our meal in Rinuccini's, across the road from the castle, was memorable. I'm not usually one for starters, but as I was in an Italian restaurant I tried the ravioli. I was hoping it wouldn't be too heavy and spoil my main course, what with cream and cheese in the ingredients, but my fear was groundless. It was delicious, and was as light as a butterfly's wing. My main course of duckling was wonderful, and the whole meal was topped off by another Italian classic, limoncello cheesecake.

Next day we left Kilkenny to visit another of the Ancient East highlights, Hook Head Lighthouse.

On our guided tour, the sepulchral figure of St Dubhan, a Welsh monk, appeared as a hologram to tell us how he came to Ireland in the fifth century and lit the first fire to guide ships. William Marshall, First Earl of Pembroke, was also on hand to explain how he built the lighthouse 800 years ago. The interactive Earl even engaged in some conversation with our guide. Today, the lighthouse is the oldest working lighthouse in the world.

If there is such a thing as a boutique city then the Medieval city of Kilkenny is it - small, compact, attractive, where the modern sits comfortably beside some fabulous historical treasures and ancient ways.

It's a delightful place, and, like music, it 'hath charms to soothe a savage breast'.

Sunday Independent

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