Medieval meets modern in charming Kilkenny, Ireland
By ELLEN PERLMAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 15, 2018
On a sunny Friday afternoon in April, the sleepy city of Kilkenny, Ireland, began to wake up. Chattering students filled the sidewalks, their book bags slung across school uniforms, many of the boys carrying the short, hockey-like sticks used in hurling. Locals hurried through Butter Slip, a narrow passage between two streets where butter vendors set up stalls in medieval times. And shoppers ducked into the small stores that share a main street with a 17th-century merchant’s house and an 18th-century town hall building that was served as a customhouse.
This bustle was different from the quietude I’d observed upon arriving alone a few days before. I was at the midpoint of a two-week tour of the country with a rotating roster of companions, looking for somewhere to settle down for a few days — someplace not too far from Dublin, because I needed to return there afterward. I felt a pull toward Kilkenny after reading that it had both a medieval castle and a contemporary design center.
Everything there, it seemed, had two sides.
The city was subdued when I walked the half-mile from the station — down John Street, over the River Nore, past the castle and up Patrick Street — to my hotel. Rows of quaint storefronts set a pretty scene, but many of the shops were closed. I passed a handful of people at most.
That first afternoon, I settled in at a table in the Ground Floor Cafe on High Street and studied its traditional menu of toasted sandwiches and brown baps (sandwiches on rolls), along with my maps and literature.
An hour-and-a-half south of Dublin by train, Kilkenny — a town of 27,000 residents — is a blend of old and new with a thriving arts culture woven through it. The exit from Kilkenny Castle, which was built around 1195, leads to the Kilkenny Design Center, which is filled with modern crafts in addition to traditional patterned pillows, hand-knit hats and Irish linens. A cavernous pub in a former bank building sits half a block from a tiny tavern in Ireland’s oldest surviving townhouse. A 17th-century merchant’s house is a stone’s throw from a present-day knickknack shop.
In the evening, perhaps needing a break from the delicious, rich Irish beef stews I’d been eating for days, I ended up at an Italian restaurant. My waitress, an Irish woman married to the Italian chef, lit up when she learned I was in town on my own. She, too, likes her solitude sometimes, she told me: “It gives me time to breathe.”
On the way back to my hotel, I stopped in at the vast Left Bank Pub, a former Bank of Ireland branch. Every window of the three story-building glowed like it was backlit by a roaring fire. I had the bartender to myself.
“Would you be horrified if I ordered a half pint of Guinness with blackcurrant?” I asked him. In Dublin, I’d overheard an American couple ordering it and was curious.
“It’s usually tourists,” he said.
During my junior year in England, I’d learned to drink a shandy — beer sweetened with “lemonade,” or lemon-lime soda. I was interested in comparing that to a mix of Guinness and sweet, blackcurrant syrup. A sip convinced me to stick with shandies or hard ciders if I want sweet — and just drink a draft Guinness straight up.
In the morning, I headed down the impossibly picturesque High Street — dubbed the Medieval Mile — and took in the array of brightly colored pubs and shops. Many sported black-and-amber flags, scarves and other paraphernalia of the Kilkenny Cats, County Kilkenny’s highly successful hurling team.
High on a hill in a neighborhood called Irishtown loomed the imposing, 13th-century St. Canice’s Cathedral and its Round Tower, which closely resembles a smokestack. They can be reached via a steep stone staircase. Trying to find the way in, I walked the road along the cathedral’s side and back. The only signs of life I came upon were an older gentleman, on a stroll, and a cat sunning itself.
Retracing my steps, I walked around the other way and found the front entrance. I entered the dark cathedral to find high ceilings and impressive stained glass windows. I saw enough to be satisfied without paying a fee to enter the pews. Back on High Street, it was time for gift shopping. At Gifts 4 U, I picked up a couple of bags of fudge — Guinness and whiskey flavors. And I fell for some hopelessly corny coasters with cartoon black-faced sheep on them. (“Top o’ the Morning to Ewe.”)
That evening, I went to the Watergate Theatre to see an American musical called “The Parade,” performed by the Kilkenny Musical Society. There, a gray-haired man kissed many people hello while taking tickets. I can’t say I’ve seen that at an American concert venue. This man knew half the crowd.
When we spoke at intermission, he seemed to light up at hearing my accent. “American! Well, we’re all half Irish. Or is it the other way around? Are you on holiday?” He proudly told me he was the father of the female lead.
I followed the crowd heading upstairs to find a most civilized intermission — people sipping tea from china cups and saucers. No Styrofoam here.
The day had been packed, but on my way “home,” I stopped in at the Field, a sports-themed pub established in 1620 as the Castle Tavern. Over the bar hung a Goliath-sized “hurley,” or hurling stick, covered with signatures.
Again, there were few people inside. Perhaps that was to be expected on a Thursday night near closing time. I ordered a Kilkenny Irish cream ale and pulled my stool up to a comfortably worn wooden table wet with rings from beer glasses. A duo called Rusty Springs was playing “Irish Washer Woman.”
On Friday morning, I toured Kilkenny Castle. Sun filtered through the windows, brightening the period furnishings. It is thought that the site was chosen by Strongbow — the nickname of Richard de Clare, the Second Earl of Pembroke — shortly after the portion of the Norman invasion he led in the 1170s.
An informative docent enthusiastically answered my questions about the second-floor paintings, fireplace equipment and furniture. What are those things in front of the castle’s fireplaces? They’re adjustable screens that protected women’s faces from the fire, she told me, because the heat would melt their wax-based makeup. That 16th-century painting of a white-faced Queen Elizabeth I? Women used heavy white paste to cover the pock marks left from smallpox. And that red-cushioned chair with seats for three? It was a love seat that accommodated courting couples — and their guardians.
I felt self-conscious about peppering her with questions. “No, you’re OK,” she assured me. “You’re grand.”
A staircase led down to the pitch-roofed picture gallery, a portrait-filled wing that was built during the early 19th century. I emerged into the sunshine to see a group of boys goofing around on the lush castle lawns, using their hurleys to bat around a ball much the way Americans might toss a Frisbee together.
That night, back in town, hen parties were everywhere — Kilkenny is listed as one of the top 10 cities in Ireland to hold bachelorette parties. Outside Matt the Miller’s, a woman in a white T-shirt, white jeans and a veil had a red “L” for “learner” pinned to her back — the student-driver sign usually affixed to a car’s bumper in Ireland and Britain.
At night’s end, I found myself at the Hole in the Wall, a 16th-century tavern that is as small as its name suggests. When I opened the door, everyone turned to see who had arrived. I almost backed out. But owner Michael Conway called out a welcome and waved me in. Conway is a hospital cardiologist by day, a cheery bar host by night.
“I’m going to sing a song,” he announced later. “About a woman who abandons a man. Christy Moore sings it.”
I had snagged one of the four stools that fit at the short bar and got a good view of the lyrics written on the large flip chart Conway held. My pub mates and I sang along as best we could while he turned the pages. The warm camaraderie of the tavern was the perfect coda to the evening, I thought, as I walked back through a city pulsing with energy.