Driving through Kilkenny on our way to the airport to return home, we had to stop and visit the wonderful Kilkenny Castle. Kilkenny is only an hour away from Dublin, and we had lots of time to fill. Now there are many amazing castles in Ireland. But most are either in ruins or have been turned into fancy 5-star hotels. What makes this one different is that it has been restored and fairly accurately remodelled back to the Victorian country house it once was.
The castle, gardens and adjoining parkland are open to visitors all year round. Self-guided tour tickets are reasonably priced at €8 or adults or €6 for seniors. Guided tours cost an additional €4.
Short History Of The Castle
Strongbow, otherwise known as Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, built the first castle here in the late 1100s to control a crossing point on the River Nore. Like most structures at that time, it was likely made of wood. Essentially, the castle we see today is the work of William Marshall, who married Strongbow's daughter. Kilkenny's governor owned the castle until 1391 when the crown took and sold it to the Butler family, who continued to own it for the next 600 years.
Originally, the castle was four-sided with round towers at each corner. During the 1650 Cromwellian siege upon Ireland, the Eastern wall and the North-Eastern tower were destroyed. For a short time, the Irish Confederate used the castle as a parliament building until James Butler reclaimed it a few years later.
In 1935, George Butler, Earl of Ossory sold all the castle’s contents for a mere £6,000 and moved to London. Abandoned the castle for the next 30 years until he eventually sold it to the people of Kilkenny for a £50 in 1967.
Getting To The Castle
Getting to the castle is a bit challenging in the middle of summer. Kilkenny streets are busy and very narrow. Negotiating them to find the castle can be frustrating but is well worth the endeavour in the end. GPS will help a great deal. Once you reach your destination, you can only park on one side of the street. The side closest to the castle is reserved for buses, and there are a lot of them. However, within minutes I found a spot only a few minutes walk to the entrance.
After purchasing our tickets, we headed down a short flight of stairs and walked along a corridor underneath the castle to the base of the West Tower. In medieval times, this tower was known as Strongbow’s Tower.
The Undercroft of the West Tower
This part of the castle is fairly well preserved. It is the only surviving medieval part of the castle. There are two long arrow loop windows within the wall used to fight off intruders. The ceiling of the vault was supported by wicker framing when it was first constructed. This framing is still visible in the ceiling. After a short time here, we took a short flight of steps up to the Chinese Withdrawing Room.
The Chinese Withdrawing Room
As per social etiquette in the early 19th century (at least among the rich), the women gathered to a separate withdrawing room while the men indulged themselves smoking cigars and drinking. The withdrawing room features some of the original hand-painted Chinese wallpaper from 1810, though most of the room has been redecorated in the style of its 1830s decor.
The State Dining Room
The State Dining Room was the castle’s formal dining room until about 1860 before it was turned into a billiard room. The vibrant red hand-blocked wallpaper is not original but was recreated from a sample discovered during renovations on the room in the 1980s. This would have been one of two dining rooms in the castle during the early 1800s and before. There usually was a fancy dining room for entertaining, and another simpler one for everyday use. We didn't get to see the simpler one.
The Tapestry Room
In the North Tower, a set of tapestries hang on the walls. They tell the story of a roman ambassador, named Decius Mus, who sacrificed himself to ensure the victory of the Romans over the Latins. The tapestry is one of a series of seven, believed to be the work of Jan Raes. Between 1580 and 1650, the Brussels workshops of Jan Raes created a lot of similar type tapestries for important clients (like people who owned castles). It is believed the tapestries were installed sometime in the eighteenth century.
This is one of my favourite rooms in the castle. In the mid to late nineteenth century the castle underwent a lot of renovations. This room was part of that renovation. The rich fabrics on the walls are not original, but are a fairly accurate recreation taken from a small piece of the original design found behind a wall board in the room. The garnet-red curtains of heavy silk damask were also based on an original. In fact, one of the 9 massive curtains is an original. The mahogany bookcases were reproduced based on the one surviving bookcase, which is now in the right-hand corner of the room. The carpets were based on the original designs. A research team traced an original receipt back to the manufacturer who remarkably still had the designs on file.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a privileged child living in a castle? Sure. Who hasn't. The Victorian Nursery provides an interesting glimpse into the life of children during the late 19th Century. The nursery is filled with period-appropriate furnishings including little children’s chairs, a cradle and a cot. And there are lots of antique dolls, rocking horses, and other toys on display.
In the 16th & 17th centuries, this part of the castle was a Gallery. During that time, the family had the largest collection of paintings in Ireland.
The Long Room
A must-see is the Long Room, also known as the Long Gallery. As the name implies, it is a long, dramatic room with a painted ceiling and walls lined with portraits of the Butler family throughout the centuries. Some people have described the ceiling as looking like an upside down boat. It kinda does. The room is supposed to be the second longest in Ireland. The first being library at Trinity College.
It’s amazing how this wonderful castle has stood the test of time. The guided tour takes about 45 minutes and leaves you with a good understanding this castle’s vast history. Afterwards, relax and stroll the gardens or have a bite to eat in the café. Touring Kilkenny Castle is a great way to spend a couple of hours.