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Museum of the month: Kilkenny Castle

By Ciarán McCabe

A recent trip to Kilkenny offered the opportunity to tour Kilkenny Castle, which I had long heard about but had never visited. The Anglo-Norman castle was built for William Marshall, 4th Earl of Pembroke, in the early-1200s. From the late-fourteenth century, the castle was the principal Irish residence of the Butler family (the Dukes of Ormonde) and in 1967 the Sixth Marquess of Ormonde presented the castle to the people of Kilkenny for the token sum of £50. Since then, it has been managed and restored by the Office of Public Works and is open to the public for tours.

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The castle is located on a prominent site in the middle of the city, overlooking the River Nore, and is, therefore, easily accessible for anyone staying, or travelling through, Kilkenny.

The most surprising feature of the entire visit was the view immediately upon coming through the entrance courtyard: turning to the right, one is met by far-reaching parklands, as far as the eye can see, and utterly (yet refreshingly!) out of place in a castle setting in a modern city centre. As with so many medieval castles and early-modern ‘big houses’, Kilkenny Castle underwent extensive renovation in the nineteenth century. The entrance hall is one part of the complex that was remodelled in this period, and today is dominated by a marble table which was spared from auction in 1935 (like many landed familes’ houses, Kilkenny Castle was subjected to a clear-out sale, as the family could no longer the upkeep of the building) due to the fact that it was simply too heavy to move! A notable feature of the library is a wooden table specially commissioned to mark the passing of the Act of Union (1800) and which is emblazoned with the shamrock, rose and thistle of Ireland, England and Scotland. (I cannot recall whether the Welsh were represented by the leek). The picture gallery is a highlight of the visit, from the hammer-beam roof to the Carrara marble fireplace, which carries depictions of various events from the building’s history, such as the purchase of the castle by the earl of Ormonde in 1391 and the triumphant return to Dublin of the Duke of Ormonde in 1662. (The late architectural historian Maurice Craig famously wrote that this event marked the Renaissance’s eventual arrival in Ireland). A favourite engraving of mine is a depiction of a lady from the Ormonde family dispensing alms to the poor, emphasising the family’s self-image of itself as exerting a paternalistic duty of care to their tenants.

Kilkenny Castle is certainly one of the most significant sites, and the home to one of the most important families, in Irish history. A visit, which takes approximately two hours, is highly recommended, particularly if you are in Kilkenny during the forthcoming Arts Festival (8-17 August 2014).

(As photos are not allowed inside the castle, these pictures are all from the exterior. But, we hope that you enjoy them all the same!)

Visit: http://www.kilkennycastle.ie

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