We visited Kilkenny, a lovely medieval city just southwest of Dublin, on our way to Waterford on Ireland’s southeast coast. A charming, if confusing, labyrinth of narrow streets lined with picturesque shops, hotels and restaurants leads you across the River Nore to Kilkenny Castle.
Originally a wooden tower structure, the castle was built in the early thirteenth century, and then expanded by the powerful Butler family from 1391 on into a four-sided structure with individual towers at each of its corners. As the Butlers’ influence grew with English royalty, the castle underwent more extensive renovations. Thomas Butler, who died in 1515, was the grandfather of Anne Boleyn, 2nd wife of England’s Henry VIII.
James Butler, the 1st Duke of Ormond, was Viceroy of Ireland from 1677 to 1685. The most important aspect of the family’s prominence included an award granting them a 20% commission on all wine shipments coming into Ireland. This endowment ensured a tremendous annual income and cemented the family’s power.
The castle suffered under siege by Oliver Cromwell’s forces after which time one of its walls was so badly damaged that it was removed. Today, the castle is a three-sided structure surrounding a central court. The castle’s extensive park and grounds are enjoyed by Kilkenny residents, and the former stables complex across the road has been converted into a retail design community with shops featuring Irish art and traditional crafts such as weaving and pottery.
The castle remained the Butler family residence through the beginning of the 20th century, and they entertained notables such as English royalty frequently. By the mid-1930’s however, it became economically unfeasible for the family to retain the castle as the seasonal home, which it had become, and it was closed. Much of the family emigrated to the United States and settled in the Chicago area.
In 1969, after the castle had lain vacant for over 30 years, the Butler family proposed the castle be opened to the visiting public, and sold it to the Irish people for the sum of 50 Irish pounds. Kilkenny Castle thus became the only publicly owned castle in Ireland, and a great restoration was begun.
The castle today has been authentically restored as it appeared in the Victorian era. Of special note are the enormous “picture gallery” which features a portion of the extensive and highly-renowned Butler family art collection, and the large marble-topped funeral table in the entry foyer, which was used for formal viewing of deceased Butlers.
We enjoyed our visit to Kilkenny Castle very much. It’s a fairly quick 40 minute tour; the guide was very knowledgeable and had a charming, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.