Want to spend a day exploring castles with hidden chambers or wandering around monasteries that were bigger than small towns? Here’s how to visit three sites for €6! Although you’ll probably only have heard of one – Kilkenny castle, the others – Clara castle and Kells Priory are equally interesting. They are all close to each other and easily seen in a day if you have a car.
Kilkenny castle is an incredible structure. It has been redesigned on several occasions so it has both aspects of a Norman fortress and a French chateau rolled into one. Its overall shape is quite unique in that it only has three sides; originally it had a fourth, but it was blown away by Cromwell in a siege in 1650!
The castle was built by William Marshall in the early 13th century, possibly on the site of a wooden fortress built by Marshall’s father-in-law Strongbow.
Marshall’s life was like something out of a novel – he was the quintessential Norman knight. He was the younger son of a relatively minor English aristocrat but rose to be one of the most powerful men in England and lead the Norman drive into the South-west of Ireland. As part of this he drove the Gaelic Irish from Co. Kilkenny and constructed the stone castle amongst many other buildings to hold this new territory. The original castle he built still survives in parts . One of the first stages of the tour of the castle leads you to a room in the base of one of the towers – this is one few visible 13th century parts.
In the late 14th century the castle was bought by the Butler family and they lived there until the 20th century. When you reach the upper floors you will see the family living quarters renovated to their 19th century grandeur. The tour ends in the Butler gallery which houses portraits of the great, good and not so good of the Butler family. Indeed there are numerous portraits throughout the castle. The collection came to prominence earlier this summer when some prize clown slashed a 16th century portrait for apparently no reason (Read more here).
The “tour” itself is something that deserves a mention. We have all heard the buzz word of out-sourcing, well in Kilkenny castle they have outsourced the tours. You the visitor, are now the tour guide. On entering the castle, in return for your entrance fee of €6, you are given an A4 piece of paper with a very poor standard of Information. The poorly laid out sheet is all the information available. It’s shocking to be honest but unfortunately with the current economic climate it’s probably a sign of things to come. This said the castle is well worth a visit, however if you’re interested in the details of the castles history you’ll need to do some prior research as the level of information provided is abysmal….
When you leave the castle, drive south to Kells, see map ( Kells Co. Kilkenny – nothing to do with the book). Before you cross the bridge into the town turn left and park in the second mill on your right (yes there are two mills side by side!). Walk around the mill and follow the river for about ten minutes to the Priory, you can’t miss it – you arrive to a modern footbridge and the priory is on the other side.
Kells priory is, in a word, outstanding. It has a uniquely medieval feel to it, so much so that it is often used as a set in historical films. This Augustinian priory was one of the largest monasteries in Medieval Ireland with the walls enclosing an area over five acres. You can easily get lost in time being so totally surrounded by medieval/early modern buildings. The priory is rarely marked on tourist maps but is one of the best medieval attractions of its kind in the country.
When you approach the priory, it has the appearance of a medieval fortification rather than a religious site. However as you get closer you will see the remains of church gables towering up above everything else. Attached to the church is a large tower house which is presumed to be the Prior’s quarters. Within the grounds are the remains of the cloister, chapter house and kitchens. The extent of the grounds is really impressive and although it’s in ruins now it is really amazing to walk around. The fact that the curtain wall is intact really gives you a sense of being in a medieval structure. This is so often lacking in cities and towns when you look through a medieval window onto a neon sign advertising the local chip shop.
The fortified appearance of the priory is a testimony to the chaotic world of late medieval Ireland. The Royal policy through the late Middle Ages in Ireland was to promote several powerful families and then chose a favourite. While this prevented any one family getting too inspirational in their goals, it ensured almost constant strife between the various families vying for top spot. To protect themselves from this violent world the priory constructed this protective wall.
To wrap up your day, head back to Kilkenny and make your way to Clara castle (although it may seem counter intuitive its worth going back into Kilkenny rather than trying to navigate your way across the county on poor roads). As you get close to Clara you will be on very narrow winding roads but don’t worry – your not getting lost! It is rather hard to find but following a map you should get there. When you arrive you can get a key from the farmers house across the road (it’s often hanging on the wall).
Clara Castle is almost totally unknown but is one of the best preserved Norman Tower houses in Ireland. A tower house was essentially a fortified home, several stories in height. Clara is so well preserved that the original timbers that supported the floor are still in place!
As you enter you pass through a tiny fortified forecourt added after the original 15th century construction of the tower. It’s worth taking a look at the carefully designed gun loops that protect the entrance to the forecourt. As you explore inside, care is needed, because while the timbers that supported the floor are in place, some of the floors aren’t!
While you move from the ground up it’s worth bearing in mind tower houses operate in the opposite way to modern houses. People lived in the upper floors so the room you face when you walk in the door was probably storage space and would have been cold and damp, while the top floor is the equivalent of a modern day living room.
One great attraction in Clara is the hidden chamber. This chamber is built into the walls on the third floor and only accessible through a hatch on the fourth floor. An ideal prison it probably functioned as storage space for most of its lifespan, but even the thoughts of languishing in there is grim.
Clara castle is one of the few tower houses in Ireland that wasn’t blown up, burnt down or stripped of everything reusable in the last 400 years. Remarkably it was inhabited all the way into the 20th century changing hands numerous times. While its a pretty cool place to visit it definitely has an eerie feel to it and living there wouldn’t be the most appealing.
To see Clara and Kells a car is necessary. The whole trip will cost no more than the €6 into Kilkenny castle. Kells and Clara are both free.
For more info Check out
Kells Priory – http://www.kells.frantzen.de/index.htm (great history source for the priory)
Kilkenny Castle – heritagecouncil.ie/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Education/kilkenny_book_l_res.pdf (good introduction to medieval Kilkenny)
There’s not a very good online source for Clara, indeed there are few sources in general however If you can lay your hands on this article, its fantastic: Journal of royal society of antiquaries 67, 1937, 284