Kilkenny is one of Ireland’s oldest cities, and its rich history is a huge part of its charm. The many ancient features that still stand today tell stories of civilisations past, and all these stories come together to form the famous Marble City you can explore today. At Segway Sights, we’ve crafted our tours to showcase Kilkenny’s fascinating history in a way that’s easy to follow and fun to learn. Check out our tours page to see all the historical sights our tours cover, and how you can experience these stories for yourself.
What existed before Kilkenny?
Despite its ancient beginnings, there was still a time before Kilkenny existed. Remnants of Stone Age, Bronze Age, and other early cultures have been found in the area. Pre-historic stone tombs known as portal dolmens and Iron Age pottery have been found in the area where Kilkenny now stands. Millennia-old treasures have also been unearthed in Dunmore Cave, showing that people lived in the area before it became Kilkenny.
Early Christian beginnings
The name “Kilkenny” comes from the area’s early Christian beginnings around the 6th century. Its Irish translation, “Cill Chainnigh”, means “Church of Canice”. St. Canice was a Catholic monk who settled in the area and built a substantial Catholic settlement, including a monastery and a church on the site where St. Canice’s Cathedral now stands. All of this was built in an area named Ossory, which was a kingdom within the larger kingdom of Leinster. As Kilkenny’s monastic settlement grew, it became more powerful and regarded as an important ecclesiastical power outside of Dublin.
In the 400-year period between the 10th and 14th centuries, Kilkenny grew immensely. It all began with the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169, which was led by Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare- famously known as Strongbow. Strongbow built a motte and bailey castle in 1172, making it easier to cross the River Nore. At the turn of the 11th century, Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall rebuilt the castle in stone- this is Kilkenny Castle, which still stands today. The castle was bought by James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond, in 1391, beginning a family history in the castle that would last until the 20th century.
At this time, Kilkenny was divided by the river into two townships; Irishtown and Hightown. Irishtown came from the old kingdom of Ossory, and the Irish natives lived there. Hightown was formed and occupied by Anglo-Norman settlers. These populations were kept very separate, surrounded by walls and locked gates. This strict segregation was reinforced by the Statutes of Kilkenny, a set of 35 acts that were written into law in 1366. The purpose of these laws was to prevent Anglo-Norman settlers from becoming “too Irish”. The laws included forbidding Anglo-Normans from speaking Irish, marrying Irish people, or using the Irish versions of their names. Many of these English settlers had been born and raised in Ireland, as their families had settled in Kilkenny generations before. These people were forced to learn English and give up a way of life that felt like their own in order to keep their lands. The statutes ultimately failed.
Battles and banishment
Kilkenny was granted the status of “city” by King James I of England in 1609. In 1641, the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny had established a provisional government in the city. Their aim was to resist the English persecution of Catholics in Ireland, and historians believe they did a lot of good for Kilkenny. In 1650, the city was sieged by the infamously brutal Oliver Cromwell. Gaelic landowners were banished to Connacht, Ireland’s western province, and their lands were given to Protestant English settlers. The Banishment Act of 1697 also forced any ecclesiastical members of the Catholic Church, such as monks, to leave the county.
For much of the second half of the 17th century, Kilkenny was deeply affected by the Williamite War. This war was between King James II, a Catholic, and William of Orange, a Protestant usurper to the English throne. The Irish Parliament declared their allegiance to James II and confiscated the lands of William’s followers. One of these followers was the 2nd Duke of Ormond, who owned Kilkenny Castle. James II took refuge in Kilkenny Castle in 1689 and 1690, until losing the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 made it clear that William the Orange had won the war. In the same year, the Williamites returned to the city and the Jacobites, James’ followers, were forced to flee.
Kilkenny grew a lot during the industrial revolution, through revenue from the wool, mining, and brewing industries. The 20th century brought a lot of civil unrest, and Kilkenny Castle was taken over by anti-Treaty forces in 1922. However, the Castle was peacefully surrendered after two days.
Ireland became an independent state in 1949 and like the rest of the country, Kilkenny’s population decreased due to emigration. However, several positive changes happened in the following decades that allowed the city to rebuild itself. In 1967, the Marquess of Ormond gave Kilkenny Castle to the people of the city for a token sum of £50. This was seen as a great symbolic gesture, representing the end of feudal and colonial life in Kilkenny. In 1965, the Kilkenny Design Workshops were opened. These workshops allowed Irish artists and craft specialists to work on their art, and began to establish Kilkenny as a centre for the arts. To this day, Kilkenny has a strong artistic culture, the high point of which is the Kilkenny Arts Festival, held every August.
Kilkenny celebrated its 400th anniversary as a city in 2009, though this fascinating hub of history and culture has stood for so much longer. There’s so much to see in Kilkenny that allows you to experience the facts you’ve read here in real life. Make sure to check out Segway Sights to learn how you can view the history of Kilkenny first-hand, and become a part of the city’s history.