ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #05 – Kilkenny Castle and Rock of Cashel

July 09, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

May/June 2016

ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #5 – Kilkenny Castle and Rock of Cashel

Map of our route

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From Glendalough we made our way over the remaining portion of the Wicklow Mountains as such.  Once down into the flats we again were on those narrow country roads, barely 2 cars wide with rock walls and rows of bushes right up to the edge of the driving lane.  My left side mirror introduced itself to pretty much every bush along the way.  From time to time we got a glimpse of the country side on the other side of these walls and hedges and found very picturesque green rolling farm land sectioned into a myriad of randomly sized rectangular fields separated by stone walls.  Interspersed in this scene are farm houses, falling down houses, and the odd crumbling tower from time to time

When we were here in 1981 a good 50% of the farm houses still had thatch roofs adding to the charm of the area.  However, in 2016 we saw virtually no thatched roofs except in historical sites.  It seems that the cost of maintaining thatched roofs, and re-doing them every few years, is quite high so most folks just switched to more modern roofing.  It’s also interesting that the buildings that do have thatched roofs in most cases the thatch is put over a real roof made of metal.  This was somewhat disappointing but life marches on. 

Between our exit of the Wicklow Mountains and our arrival at our next stop, Kilkenny Castle, our route followed the contours of farm fields and even though it was in general the same route number most of the way every couple of miles we’d have to make either a sharp left or sharp right turn to follow the edges of fields and farms as we meandered across the countryside.  But, near lunchtime we arrived in Kilkenny. 

We recalled that we had visited the Kilkenny in 1981 but neither of us had any real recollection of it.  But even so when we arrived we were quite sure that it had changed dramatically.  I guess this is now one of the more popular tourist attractions.  It sits right dab smack in the middle of a decent size town with tons of tourists all trying to find parking or trying to navigate around large double parked tour busses.  After driving around a bit we located a multilevel parking garage and found an open space.  This was a whole lot different than in 1981 when you just sort of pulled off to the side of the road.  But, we managed nonetheless.

Between the parking garage and the main entrance to the castle one has to cross through the main intersection in town where the East-West road crosses the North-South road at a traffic light.  You then have to plow through a gauntlet of pop up food and souvenir stands.  But, as it was lunch time and we were hungry we decided to skip trying to find a restaurant and instead grabbed some lunch at one of the stands, found an unused piece of concrete wall to sit on and scarfed down our lunch.

Unlike most castles in Ireland this is not so much a medieval castle, although it started in that era, but more a Victorian Mansion.  Another unusual feature of this castle is that instead of being a 4 sided affair enclosing a courtyard this castle only has 3 sides.  Where the 4th wall should be is just open space leading out to a park.  But, let’s go back to the beginning.

The castle in over 800 years old and as is common has had many additions, subtractions and remodels in its history.  This has resulted in a mishmash of different architectural styles being present today – including a completely out of character Moorish staircase.  The castle was originally an Anglo-Norman stone castle built by William Marshall -1st or 4th Earl of Pembroke; c.1146-1219 (Wikipedia says 1st  Earl, the castle brochure says 4th).  Whichever Earl he was, the deal was that this was the only good place to ford the river for quite a distance in either direction and this Earl wanted to control access to the fording spot – and I assume collect a large ransom for the privilege of letting you drag your stuff through the river to the other side.   

Later it was the residence of the Butler family for 600 years.  The family sold off most of the contents in a 10 day auction in 1935 and then in 1967 presented the castle and grounds to the people of Kilkenny in return for a token payment of 50 pounds.  However, the good folks of Kilkenny did not have the resources to do much with it other than charge a fee to let folks wander around the grounds and maybe peak inside.  But most of the inside was in such a terrible state that it was really dangerous to move about inside.  In 1969 it was put into the care of the Office of Public Works who had access to funding so serious preservation and reconstruction work could take place.  Over the succeeding years sections were totally gutted all the way to the stone walls, and rebuilt as close as possible to how they had been.  As of now, the NW and NE wings are refurbished and open to the public.  I’m not sure what’s going on with the SW section – it may be in use as offices.  And, there is no SE section anymore.

In the early 1800’s the NE side was rebuilt on the original foundations as a picture gallery.  At the time it had a flat roof which leaked almost from day 1.  Around 1860 they called in a different architectural firm to deal with the problems.  This new firm decided to add 5 new oriel windows, block off 8 other windows, and put on a pitched roof which now has skylights.

As the castle was in use into much more recent times than most such castles, it has more characteristics of a later period than most.  In this case it is more of a Victorian Mansion than a medieval castle.  For example, there are lots of windows and the windows are somewhat large.  In Medieval construction the windows would be quite small due to the rarity of glass but more so to provide for better defense.  Inside the décor and furnishing is distinctly Victorian.

River Nore from Castle

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Castle from Formal Garden

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Back of Castle where missing wall used to be

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Classic Entrance

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Victorian Dining Room

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Moorish Staircase

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Picture Gallery

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Ceiling Detail in Picture Gallery

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Picture Gallery end wall

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Our last stop for the day before heading to our hotel in Limerick was at the Rock of Cashel aka St. Patrick’s Rock.  Ok, it’s our 4th day in Ireland and it seems that a sign at every historic site we’ve visited has proclaimed that site as one of the most important historic sites in Ireland.  This one is no exception.  I wonder if we’ll ever stumble upon one where the signage does not make that proclamation.  Oh well. 

The “rock” is a bulge of granite in an otherwise mostly flat area.  So, what better place to build a Castle than on top of this rock where you can see the bad guys coming from many miles away and you have the high ground once they got there.   They can trace the history of buildings on this site back to the 4th century when it was the seat for the kings of Munster.  Ok, what’s Munster?  Well even though we tend to parcel Ireland into 26 odd counties; those counties, in turn, are contained inside of 4 provinces: Connacht (middle part of the west side), Leinster (middle part of the east side), Munster (Southern) and Ulster (Northern).  Apparently in the 4th to 10th centuries each of these areas had its own king and this was the castle for the king of the Province of Munster.

In 1101 it was presented to the church.  Not sure if the provinces no longer had kings at that time or the King of Munster went to some other (probably more modern) castle.  Over the centuries it was in use, several important buildings were placed on the top of this rock including the Castle itself, Cormac’s Chapel (finished in 1134), St. Patrick’s Cathedral (built in the 13th and used until 1748), Bishops Residence (where the Earl massacred hundreds in 1647) and the Round Tower (Build in the 12th century). 



The only building that is still intact, and in fact still in use, is a building called “The Hall of the Vicars Choral” that the bishop built for the choir to live in.  It seems that Archbishop O’Dedian liked his music and was less than satisfied with the local folk’s ability to carry a tune.  So, he brought in a dozen or so “professional” singers to become his personal choir and built this building as a place for them to live, practice and dine. Singing for the Archbishop was their only duty.  Today this building houses the visitor center, offices, and a museum including some restored rooms from the choir days.

Restored Kitchen from the “Hall of the Vicars Choral”

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Window on the “Hall of the Vicars Choral”

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A portion of “The hall of the Vicars Choral” building is now a museum which contain an original “St. Patrick’s Cross”.  This particular one is quite unusual as far as Irish High crosses go.  For one thing it does not have the characteristic ring around the intersection of the vertical and horizontal portions of the cross.  This one also had two support columns under the arms of the cross (only one of which still remains).

St. Patrick’s Cross

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The castle itself was not all that large as such things go and is in pretty bad shape.  You can walk through a ground floor room from one side to the other but that’s about it.

The castle (building on the left)

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Of much more interest is Cormac’s Chapel which according to the brochure is one of the earliest and finest churches in Ireland built in the Romanesque style.  The inside sports a curved ceiling built under a peaked roof. 

Nave area of Cormac’s Chapel

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Curved or Barrel Romanesque style ceiling

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Until recently the inside of the chapel was covered in a white plaster forming more or less smooth walls curving up to the barrel shaped ceiling.  During some conservation work done in the 1970’s where some of the plaster had come loose, they noticed that there was something odd behind the loose plaster.  So they investigated and discovered that the plaster had been put right over a full color mural of the Baptism of Christ as well as over a series of carved heads and intricate carved stone details of the original chapel.  During the 1980’s and 1990’s they did an extensive cleaning and removal of the overlaying plaster revealing the mural, carved heads and carved stone details.  The mural has retained much of its color over the centuries as it was protected by the plaster and now considered quite rare.

Carved heads adorning the Nave

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Intricate stone work

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Remnants of full color mural depicting the Baptism of Christ

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Decorations along ceiling ribs

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More Intricate details

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The gothic style cathedral was built between 1230 and 1270.  When it was built space on the top of the rock was getting a bit scarce so it was awkwardly wedged in between the Round Tower, Cormack’s Chapel, and a rock-cut well.  Only the exterior walls remain but you can get a sense of the place if you imagine it covered with religious art work, gold leaf everywhere and statues galore.  Speaking of statues, folks who designed and built such buildings in that period – at least the ones who built such buildings that didn’t fall down – had pretty big egos.  And, much like today they liked to sign their work.  Of course not many people could read so instead of carving their name on stone, they plunked down a statue of their head someplace in the building.  In this case it’s at the intersection of the transepts overlooking the audience.

What’s left of the Cathedral

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The Architect and Builder

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Whatever space on the top of the rock that is not covered with buildings is for the most part a cemetery.  At one point in the history of the place it was decided that the cemetery was getting too crowded and would be closed to new members.  However, due to standard law, if someone is buried in a cemetery, then all their direct descendants are permitted to also be planted there.  So, even today a new burial takes place here from time to time.

Part of Cemetery next to the Cathedral

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Round Tower

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After leaving the Rock of Cashel we continued west and spent the night in Limerick

So ends our 4th day in Ireland, again Bright Sun, mid 70’s (f), and yet again, o rain.


Next on our agenda – Adare and a long drive to the Connemara region

I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.  


- Images of this trip can be found on my website at.



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Thanks for reading -- Dan


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