Introduction Situated inland in the 'sunny south-east' of Ireland, Kilkenny is known as the medieval capital of Ireland. It is a county of gentle hills and fertile agricultural land, bordered by the Barrow and Suir rivers; Kilkenny city itself sits on the River Nore. The county covers an area of roughly 2000 square kilometers and has a population of about 75,000; 18,000 of whom are based in Kilkenny city.
Kilkenny city has been a market town since at least the fourth century, and was for a while the ecclesiastical and political centre of the country. The infamous Statute of Kilkenny that attempted to prevent the assimilation of Anglo-Normans and the local Irish was passed in 1366. Like the rest of the county, Kilkenny city is steeped in history and bears the marks of Celtic, Viking, Norman and English invaders. Today, it combines the intimacy of a large village with the attractions of a bustling entertainment and craft-orientated city. Winding cobbled streets and carefully restored or tastefully adapted shop-fronts and buildings give Kilkenny city a unique atmosphere that is worth savoring. Ancient sites, castles, abbeys and the county's ubiquitous old stone edifices ensure that many of the outlying towns also amply repay a visit. The area boasts lively pub-life, quality restaurants, a number of interesting festivals, and an array of sporting events and activities, most notably the ancient Gaelic game of hurling, at which the county traditionally excels.
Kilkenny City Historically and visually, the magnificent Kilkenny Castle at the southern end of the town is the jewel in the county's crown. With beautifully tended public gardens and a magnificent view of the Nore, the twelfth-century fortress has undergone frequent restoration and renovation during the five and a half centuries in which it was owned by the Butler family; and throughout the six decades since the Butlers donated it to the public. The resulting palimpsest of styles from different architectural eras (Gothic, Classical, Victorian and Tudor) is an effect that is repeated throughout Kilkenny. A very worthwhile tour of the Castle is usually oversubscribed and it is advisable to make arrangements in advance. The pretty old stables of the Castle now house the Kilkenny Design Centre , a mecca for those wishing to purchase Irish crafts. Behind the Centre, meanwhile, are a selection of craft workshops.
The name Kilkenny is an Anglicization of the Gaelic Cill Cheannaigh, which literally translates as the Church of Canice. St. Canice established a monastery in the area during the sixth century, and the splendid thirteenth century St. Canice's Cathedral is the second largest in Ireland. It is situated on Dean Street, at the northern end of the town, and was infamously used by Oliver Cromwell to house his horses in 1650. Cromwell's army brought to a close what was arguably the most distinguished period in the county's history, when the Confederation of Kilkenny (1642-1648) came into effect. This was effectively an independent Irish parliament formed through a brittle union of Anglo-Irish Catholics and the Old Irish in opposition to English rule. The arrival in 1645 of Papal Nuncio Archbishop Rinuccini with troops and financial support must have seemed auspicious to the confederates, but their hopes were to be shattered. The Confederation fell apart when a treaty between the Anglo-Irish and the English Viceroy was compounded by the untimely death of the legendary Old Irish leader Owen Roe O'Neill. The Irish army surrendered (albeit with honor), after several days of a Cromwellian siege, and the area's political influence dissipated.
Incidentally Rinuccini's contribution is commemorated through the well-known Italian Rinuccini Restaurant on The Parade. Admission to both St. Canice's Cathedral and the adjoining library, which houses thousands of sixteenth and seventeenth-century manuscripts, is free.
The Tudor style Rothe House on Parliament Street dates from the 1590s and was a meeting place for the leaders of the Confederation. It is now a museum and the home of the admirable Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Seventeenth-century Kilkenny is celebrated in the Cityscope display in the Shee Almhouse , which is also where the Tourist Information Office is situated. Not far from here is the Dominican Black Abbey , which was first built in 1225. This building has had a turbulent history and suffered greatly during the Cromwellian campaign, but it has been restored to its former glory and contains a beautiful example of stained glass work. The Black Freyre gate is an interesting remnant from Kilkenny's days as a walled city. Another abbey, St. Francis' Abbey (1234), is now the site of St. Francis' Brewery and offers tours and quality ales.
On John Street the County Council offices are notable as they are situated in what was once Kilkenny College. Notables who attended this establishment include the dramatist William Congreve, the philosopher George Berkeley and the incomparable satirist Jonathan Swift.
Around Kilkenny As for the villages around Kilkenny, Graiguenamanagh with the beautifully restored Cistercian Duiske Abbey is worth visiting. Gowran, the seat of the Kings of the ancient kingdom of Ossory, has the thirteenth-century St. Mary's Church to explore, and the beautiful Gowran Racecourse for the less spiritually-minded. Inistiogue has a marvellous ten-arch bridge from the eighteenth century and is a picturesque village in which it is a pleasure to spend a day. Thomastown is equally attractive it is the home of splendid Mount Juliet , which has hotel and golfing facilities that are unsurpassed in the country; it is also close to Jerpoint Abbey , a fascinating monastic ruin. There are also some lovely old mills in Thomastown. Visitors to Kilkenny would be well advised to check out the Dunmore Caves on the Castlecomer Road, which have a gruesome reputation dating from Viking times, and contain one of Europe's largest unsupported stalagmite. Make sure your visit is during opening times.
For historical interest, nightlife, and relaxed often-beautiful surroundings, Kilkenny town and the surrounding district are worthy of inclusion in any tour of Ireland.
Recent attempts to promote Kilkenny as "the oasis of Ireland" on account of its many pubs and restaurants are, by implication, a little harsh on the rest of the country. Ireland lacks pubs in the way the Sahara lacks sand. Nevertheless, this audacious claim reflects an understandable pride in the high standard of eating and drinking establishments in the Kilkenny area, and is indicative of a local desire for improvement that has seen these standards rise dramatically over the last decade or so. Kilkenny has about 65 licensed premises; a good selection of places to dine that vary in terms of price range, and quality; and five night clubs that could perhaps be seen as the city's Achilles heel. What saves the latter, apart from the regular influxes of festival-goers, is the admirable determination of the diverse local population to enjoy their nights out. Nonetheless, a little more thought as to the music that is played in these clubs would not be misplaced. Improvements might well be forthcoming, however, as it is an issue that is being aired with increasing frequency in sections of local media.
Kilkenny's eateries and pubs are rich in both atmosphere and tradition, and it seems that a concerted effort has been made to preserve the essential character of the city and surrounding areas. This is not such an easy task as it might appear, for there is a risk of sterility in any attempt to impose character. The phenomenon of the Irish theme pub that has made an unwelcome appearance in larger Irish cities like Dublin or Cork is an example of urban renewal "losing the run of itself", but in Kilkenny one senses that the ambience is organic rather than synthetic. The old-fashioned pub fronts and cosy interiors fit easily into their surroundings, and are generally complemented by friendly staff and customers. Many pubs offer entertainment, food and/or music, or have inherent historical value.
Kilkenny City Such qualities are epitomized by the very attractive Marble City Bar and Jim Hollands , both on High Street. Holland's is a good spot for traditional music sessions. Caislean Ui Cuain on the same street has regular live entertainment tending towards the traditional and rock end of the musical spectrum, and is the place to go the hear the Irish language spoken in Kilkenny; it also houses an excellent value restaurant and buffet. If one continues north onto Parliament Street, Fennelly's on the left and the Flagstone Wine Bar on the right both have their own charms, with the latter catering to the upper end of the market. Bar food can be bought in Matthew Duggan's . Further along, going onto Irishtown, are O Riada's and John Cleere's . Cleere's has a small theatre attached and is worth checking out for diverse entertainment and regular traditional music sessions.
Doubling back from Parliament Street, St. Kieran's Street is the home of Bollards - a sporting establishment with good food, and the historically fascinating Kytelers Inn . Turning on to John's Bridge, the old-style pub-cum-grocers Tynan's is also steeped in tradition.
On the corner of John Street looking out on the river is the lively Matt the Millers . Further along are the Emigrant, Langton's and the plush Kilford Arms; all have restaurants. Langton's has dominated the Irish Pub of The Year award recently and is worth checking out for food, drink and atmosphere. Back on the other side of the river, Rafter Dempsey's on Friary Street offers bar food, and tunes, pints and food can be enjoyed on Patrick Street in the Club House Hotel .
Clearly one could eat well in Kilkenny without stepping outside the pub scene, but there are also many restaurants worthy of note. Sightseers and shoppers should take the opportunity to check out the self-service restaurant above the Kilkenny Design Centre in the Parade. On nearby Patrick Street the Hibernian Hotel also has recently opened a restaurant.
Both the Italian Connection on Parliament Street and the Ristorante Rinuccini offer Italian food, with the latter being the more expensive. Paris Texas on High Street and Lautrec's on Kieran Street specialize in Tex Mex food. The latter is also good for vegetarian fare, as is the innovative and versatile Cafe Sol on William Street. For a taste of the Chinese Orient, try Pearl's on Irishtown or the slightly cheaper Emerald Gardens on High Street. Those with a preference for the heat and spice associated with the land of the Ganges might investigate either Shimla in St. Canice's Place, or Bengal Tandoori in Pudding Lane off Patrick Street.
Less exotic perhaps, but well worth a visit is the homely M.L. Dore cafe on High Street or the neighbouring Nostalgia Cafe. Finally, no restaurant guide to Kilkenny City would be complete without mentioning Lacken House on the Dublin Road. It is slightly out of the city centre perhaps, but should nevertheless repay the slight effort of getting there, having established an excellent reputation for its international cuisine.
Around Kilkenny Those with transport will not be disappointed by the placid countryside and towns around Kilkenny, or by the drinking and dining facilities on offer there. A trip to Thomastown village should include a visit to Murphy's and Carroll's pubs, while the Long Man does good home-cooking and the upmarket Silk's restaurant is fast gaining legendary status. The restaurant on the Mount Juliet Estate is as good (and as expensive) as one might expect in such elegant surroundings. In Bennettsbridge the Nicholas Mosse Pottery offers magnificent handicrafts, as well as quality food in a very attractive setting. In Urlingford, neither the Urlingford Arms nor the Shell Restaurant should disappoint. Inistioge village is well represented in the restaurant stakes by the beautifully situated the Motte restaurant and the rather pleasantly surreal Berryhill guesthouse. If you find yourself in Graiguenamanagh village , both the Waterside Restaurant and Cafe Duiske have impressive food in enticing settings. The Brog Maker Hotel on the Castlecomer Road is an award-winning restaurant that does a great pint of Guinness, while the upmarket Newpark Hotel is not cheap, but is worth it if finances are not a problem.
As for nightclubs, there are five in Kilkenny city. The Flagstone on Parliament Street and Clublife on John's Street tend to cater for younger clubbers, while Kyteler's Inn and Langton's serve an older crowd. The Venue in the Ormonde Hotel is still finding its feet, but seems to be tending toward the more youthful end of the market. All have positive aspects, and would compare favorably with most rural Irish nightclubs. Kilkenny has set a high standard in other departments, however, making the lack of cutting edge music or general innovation in these clubs is a slight disappointment. You will probably have a good night out, as the crowd and staff tend to be very friendly, but there is nevertheless scope for improvement. Still Kilkenny has many avant garde and imaginative voices, and hopefully it will not be long before they make an impact.