A Glipmse of Kilkenny

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Lonely Planet says that much of Kilkenny's mysterious charm owes a huge debt to the Middle Ages. Since this is true for most old European towns, I was suspicious.  But when we entered the outskirts of the Irish city of Kilkenny, it all made sense.  
Although rain was pouring down and the noon sky looked as if it were closer to midnight, the first glance at Kilekenny told me that she had aged gracefully.  Her narrow crooked streets paved with old cobblestone were lined with the olden fronts of modern shops and hip pubs. The refined buildings of earlier times were still standing looking as young and vibrant as they had in their prime, with their thick dark window frames and heavy doorways.  There was an underlying mature elegance to her look, and she carried it with great satisfaction.  Kilkenny was still young at heart.
With our travel companions, David and Lucy, we parked the rental car and walked the short remaining distance to Kilkenny Castle.  Its gardens were walled but we could see the tips of the castle's towers peaking from above, which already seemed grand.  As we followed the walls, we found a little stone entrance which led to the castle grounds.  The lawn, which was mowed to perfection, collected the rain water which had been falling all day as we squished and squashed upon it.  Suddenly, past the plum colored foliage of a nearby tree, we were in full view of Kilkenny Castle.
Used to the ruined castles of Great Britain, I was expecting exactly that: ruins.  But here I was presented with a powerful building, the kind of architecture that reminds us of how small and insignificant we really are.  Its elegance whispered of extravagant banquets and political conclaves, of midnight trysts and quiet rain-filled afternoons, also reminding us of the plain lives we lead in comparison.
We entered the castle and paid our €5.40 entrance fee.  We were gutted when we found out that no photography was permitted inside the castle, and that we were to leave our cameras in the cloak room. It's always infuriated me that in a tourist attraction one is not allowed to take pictures; it just seems pointless although I do understand the jealous and overprotective reason behind it. 
Our tour started off and we were captivated by the stories and legends that the castle held, but most of all by the rooms, halls, and salons we were led into.  One after another, each space had a different personality which shone with the same splendor as in earlier times.  They had done such a good job preserving everything that it looked as though the entire castle had been embalmed for posterity. 
It is said that Richard de Clare, also known as Strongbow, famous for his leading role in the Norman invasion of Ireland, built the first tower in 1172.  The castle was then bought by the Butler family in 1391 after arriving in Ireland with the Norman invasion and becoming the wealthy Earls of Ormonde.  James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde established himself as ruler of the area, setting precedence for the Butler dynasty which ruled these parts of over 500 years. 
In the 17th century, the Butler family remodeled the castle as a modern chateau thus becoming the symbol for British presence in Ireland. By the 19th century the castle had fallen into deterioration by the failing fortunes of the Butlers and was eventually sold in 1967 by Arthur Butler, 6th Marques and 25th Earl of Ormonde for the sum of 50 to the Castle Restoration Committee. 
The castle's furniture pieces had been auctioned off after the Irish Civil War in 1935, so the Castle Restoration Committee had the arduous task of tracking down and buying back the art and furniture that had been sold off more than half a century ago.  Since there was never an inventory, most of it is still unaccounted for. 
The most agreeable room was the library, decorated with golden ocher damask on the walls, its tall mahogany bookcases towering to almost 3 meters high keeping watch over the hundreds of old leather-bound books.  A Victorian love seat upholstered in crimson brocade sat in the center of the room, and facing the marble chimney was a chaise lounge where I imagined the lady of the castle reading a book on a quiet rainy afternoon such as this. A wooden clavichord sat near a window draped in thick curtains, giving view to the green Irish landscape beyond.  
After the tour we strolled under the drizzle around the rose garden, with its austere fountain in the center.  It was hard to tear ourselves away from the castle, but we exited though a side gate unto the now busy streets of Kilkenny.  Finding a pub for lunch and a pint wasn't hard as there were more pubs than people; the tough choice was picking which one.  We settled for a dark tavern-looking pub with a bad menu and a grumpy bar tender.  
Although the setting wasn't what I hoped it'd be, I think it's important that I commemorate my first Irish Guinness.  I normally don't drink Guinness because I personally find it revolting.  However, there is world-known myth which claims that Guinness is only worth drinking in Ireland, a puzzle which I had to investigate.   After my first sip I was pleasantly surprised at the thick but cool foam which easily went down and the delicious coffee-like after taste in my mouth.  So the myth is true!
Ed, Lucy and David all drank Kilkenny, a reddish cream ale brewed in this very town.  I tasted a couple of sips but didn't enjoy it too much, not after my icy cool Guinness. 
After lunch we walked over to St. Canice's Cathedral, a 13th century building which didn't have the pomposity of a standard cathedral, but rather the solemnity of an old town church.  It was surrounded by an ancient graveyard, its large tombstones slanted and crooked by time, the engravings faded by rain and wind.  We walked around the grounds for a while, until it started to rain heavily.  They were charging a fee to enter the church, but since David always finds a way to escape monetary duty, we followed him through a backdoor that no one was guarding.  It's ridiculous to pay to enter a church anyway.  
The inside was grander than the exterior, with stained glass windows which replicated their 13th century originals but still let beautiful colored light shine in. The old stone floors were cold and eroded but were adorned with flower motifs and the occasional tomb.  The faded relief of a knight in armor lay on one of the tombs on the floor, his arms folded across his chest firmly hanging on to his sword.  It is in this cathedral that the bishops of Ossory are still enthroned. 
Adjoined to the church there was a 9th century round tower which again, you had to pay €3 to climb.  Had I seen the stairs leading to the top before actually paying to go in, I would have declined.  They weren't really stairs, but wooden steep ladders.  We reached the top after 110 steps of wondering why €3 was necessary for this, but soon forgot when the ladder turned into small stone steps leading to the rounded platform.  From here, all of Kilkenny and its green Irish countryside were visible.  The weather didn't allow us to stay long: only long enough for some pictures and for David to strike up a conversation with strangers, as he often does.  
It was soon time to move on.  We headed out towards the car park, past the tiny flower shops and old pharmacies, the antique jewelry shop and cake shop, where enticing plumes of fresh chocolate fudge came.  By now the slanted streets of Kilkenny were buzzing with the din of people and cars, all out and about despite the rain and the glum weather.  But then again, the Irish are vibrant like that.
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