The History of Kilkenny Castle


Kilkenny Castle is, without a doubt, the biggest attraction of the Marble City. Its regal stone façade, centred between a beautiful rose garden and rustic woodland, is a perfect representation of the history of the city. If you’re visiting Kilkenny, the castle is an absolute must-see. On the Segway Sights tours, you can visit the castle and see this historic landmark for yourself. But why is it worth seeing? We’ve put together a history of Kilkenny Castle so you can see why this fantastic fortress is something you won’t want to miss.

Building Kilkenny Castle

What stands today is not the first castle Kilkenny has had. In 1169, Kilkenny was invaded by Anglo-Normans, who were led by Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare (known to history as “Strongbow”). Strongbow built a motte-and-bailey castle in 1172, making it easier to cross the River Nore. A motte-and-bailey castle is a wooden keep and enclosed courtyard (a bailey), surrounded by a raised earth wall (a motte). This style of fortress was very popular in the early medieval era, and gave Strongbow the defensive features he needed to hold on to his new lands. After his death at the beginning of the 11th century, Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall re-built the castle in stone. The castle was completed in 1213 and three of the castle’s four towers you see today have survived from this era.


Medieval Kilkenny

The castle was purchased by James Butler, the 3rd Earl of Ormond, in 1391. The Butler family lived in the castle for almost 600 years, playing a central role in Kilkenny’s political and civil history. For much of the medieval period, the Butler family were loyal to the English monarchy. They were part of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy who had been given large portions of land by Henry II, and lived separately from the native Gaelic population. They even housed Richard II in the 1390s, just one of many English kings who stayed in Kilkenny Castle. This was a time when there were very strict laws against Anglo-Norman settlers adopting Gaelic customs, so the Butler family’s decision to stay close to the crown was very logical.


17th Century: Councils and Cromwell

The 17th century was a very turbulent period in England’s history, so English-controlled Ireland was also greatly affected. From 1641 to 1652, the English Civil War waged as people tried to determine if the king or the parliament should be the empire’s most powerful governing body. Many people in Ireland supported the Confederates, who believed the parliament should hold power. The Confederation of Kilkenny, a Confederate council that acted as an Irish parliament, was held from 1642 until 1648. The Confederation worked to keep affairs running, and to put an end to English persecution of Irish Catholics. Viscount Mountgarrer, a member of the Butler family, was a prominent member of this council. This clashed with other members of the Butler family such as his cousin James Butler, who had grown up in the English court and was fiercely loyal to King Charles I. While the Confederation worked from Kilkenny, James Butler was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, as well as Army commander.

Ultimately, all this internal conflict was ended by the infamous Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. Oliver Cromwell led merciless sieges across Ireland, including in Kilkenny in 1650. Cromwell’s first attack in Kilkenny was on the castle itself, which is when the now-missing south wall was destroyed. Despite the castle being defended, Cromwell’s army took over the city and the Butler family were forced to go into exile in Europe. This is the only time between 1391 and 1936 that the Butlers did not live in Kilkenny Castle.

In 1680, Charles II was restored to the throne and the Butlers were free to return to Kilkenny. In recognition of their service to the English crown, the family was given a Dukedom. Successive Butler heirs now inherited the title of the Duke of Ormond. The 1st Duke of Ormond took the opportunity when returning from exile to have major construction work done to the castle. Inspired by the European architecture he’d encountered while exiled, he had certain castle features remodelled in the French style, and had the rose garden constructed.


The Williamite War

Despite only returning to the castle in 1680, the Butler family were deeply embroiled in another English war before the end of the 17th century. The Williamite War between King James II and William of Orange saw the 2nd Duke of Ormond, a Williamite, lose his right to Kilkenny Castle. The castle was given to his cousin Lord Galmoy, who supported King James. King James stayed in Kilkenny Castle in 1689 and 1690, seeking refuge from the war. King James officially lost the war after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. William assumed the throne, and Kilkenny Castle was returned to the Duke of Ormond. Soon after, the Duke hosted King William in the castle.


Kilkenny Castle today

Kilkenny Castle has been owned by the people of Ireland since the Marquess of Ormond sold it to the State for a token sum of £50. The castle was re-opened to the public in 1976 and since then, can be explored all year round. Inside the castle, you’ll find rooms that have been restored to how they would have appeared centuries ago, filled with furniture of the time. Rooms like this include the Long Gallery, the Chinese Bedroom, and the Nursery, filled with Victorian toys. The castle now also has the Butler Gallery, where Irish and international artwork is showcased. The land surrounding the castle is also open to the public, and lots of public events are held in the woodlands.


Kilkenny Castle is included in all of our tours, and should definitely be on the top of your Kilkenny bucket list. Our tours leave at 10 AM and 2 PM, so you can fit one in no matter your schedule. Don’t miss your chance to experience the home of these fantastic stories in person! Kilkenny Castle has attractions for all the family and its event calendar can tell you what to look out for during your visit.

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