It’s a well-known fact that to get to the heart of any Irish town, you must reluctantly sniff your way to at least two of its pubs.
“Just don’t ever call Kilkenny a town,” counsels our guide, Ciaran Ganter, as we arrive at Kyteler’s Inn, founded in 1324 and set among the city’s medieval mile of ancient buildings.
“It might be small of stature and population,” Ganter continues, “but it holds city status thanks to a 1609 royal charter and locals don’t take kindly to being underestimated.”
The four husbands of this inn’s original owner, Dame Alice de Kyteler, may well have underestimated her. One wealthy man after another wedded Alice, only to die suddenly and mysteriously in the early years of marriage, leaving Kilkenny’s “Merry Widow” with a sizeable fortune of her own. By the time her fourth husband, affluent landowner Sir John de Poer, became ill, losing his hair and nails, and altered his will in Alice’s favour, she could no longer evade suspicion.
Accused of witchcraft by the English-born bishop of Ossory, Richard de Lederer, Alice fled. But the ensuing Kilkenny Witchcraft Trials saw her maid, Petronella, tortured, paraded through the streets and burned at the stake.
We’re told this tale, laced with humour, by musician Damien Walsh, during a raucous class in playing the bodhran, upstairs at Kyteler’s.
The bodhran is a traditional Irish drum, not unlike an outsized tambourine without the metal jingles, with a goatskin surface stretched over a round wooden frame. I’m gripping mine tight, sitting in a circle of 10 visitors, including a Guinness-swilling Irish American, a giggling German couple and an earnest Kiwi, and somehow Walsh is coaxing us all into some sort of rhythm.
After 20 minutes of riotous tuition, we can all feel the swaggering Irish beat in our veins, our knees jiggling and our knuckles pounding the bodhrans to produce a feverish but astonishingly musical sound.
Our jam session at Kyteler’s is my introduction to this lively medieval city on the River Nore. Close enough to Dublin, 117 kilometres to the south-east, to attract weekend revellers, a dynamic pulse thumps through Kilkenny’s old veins.
Roaming Kilkenny’s streets at night, you can’t go far without being lured into a bar by the hubbub inside. They’re not all easy to find, though. It takes our guide Ganter’s local knowledge to lead us down a narrow alleyway, through a small courtyard and into somebody’s front room.
Only it’s not a front room but the aptly-named “Hole in the Wall Tavern”, on the ground floor of a Tudor mansion built in 1582, and presided over by local heart specialist Dr Michael Conway.
“It’s probably the smallest tavern, in the oldest surviving townhouse in Ireland,” says Conway, as seven of us crowd around the bar, filling the room.
If his venue has Elizabethan origins, Conway himself is the epitome of a Renaissance man, a cardiologist who has written more than 20 singspiels (musical dramas) on subjects ranging from Edith Piaf to polar exploration, performed in an upstairs studio, and is working on the script for a second Commitments movie.
Conway would probably be happier being called a “Kilkenny cat”, the nickname given to locals, and the county’s hurling team, the most successful in Irish history, for their tenacious fighting spirit.
Either way, Conway is clearly one of many “cats” who adhere to the advice given by another Irish scribe, Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, a student in Kilkenny from 1674 to 1682:
“May you live every day of your life.”
The saying rings particularly true in Kilkenny during the warmer months, when three festivals come to town, sorry, the city. First is the Rhythm and Roots music event, in May, and then there’s the Cat Laughs comedy festival, in early June, which this year featured British comedian Jack Dee and American Rich Hall as well as Ireland’s funniest talent. Finally, there is the Arts Festival, second only to Galway’s in prestige and popularity, which every August fills the streets, churches and castle of the “Marble City” with drama, music, art and audiences from across the world.
Year-round, Kilkenny’s heritage draws visitors keen for a sticky-beak into feudal Ireland, with its tales of bully landowners and exploited peasant folk.
There are few greater emblems of that divide than Kilkenny Castle, poised high above the River Nore and the seat of the Butler/Ormonde family, the most powerful dynasty in Anglo-Irish history, for 600 years.
Dating back to the 13th century, the castle retains the gravitas and grandiloquence required of it by the ruling clan, with four-metre-thick walls and black marble and locally mined limestone throughout its interior. Its cavernous Long Gallery is full of self-important portraits and the family’s wake table, two tonnes of 17th century Italian marble, is an immoveable symbol of their empire.
Yet, in 1967, in a very Irish transaction, Arthur, the 6th Marquess of Ormonde, gave this castle to the people of Kilkenny, for the princely sum of £50.
Across the road in what used to be the castle stables, is the National Craft Gallery, with modern studios dedicated to jewellers, basket weavers and other designers. Strolling around and meeting with potter Rory Power and silversmith Desmond Byrne, who produced a silver statue for the Pope’s visit in 1979, I’m stuck by the centre’s quiet industry and genial communality. In 1988, some Scandinavian designers visited and liked it so much they’re still here, adding their expertise to the mix of crafts, which these days lean heavily on Celtic history and motifs.
Kilkenny’s creative bent stretches back as far as its dominant dynasty. While the Ormondes were busy bossing the countryside from their lofty pile, something was brewing at the local abbey. Drawing water from the stream flowing beneath it, monks set about making it safe to drink by turning it into beer.
I learn this and much more besides, from the best brewery tour I’ve attended, The Smithwick’s Experience, at the site of the original abbey on the medieval mile. With portraits of Smithwick ancestors coming to animated life and relating the brewery’s history to visitors, the tour goes way beyond hops and barley, blending the past and present as effortlessly as does Kilkenny.
The amber potion itself, which smells of caramel and roasted coffee during production, may not have the cachet of Guinness, but it was first brewed in 1710, making it Ireland’s oldest beer.
The following day, keen to balance merrymaking with activity, I hire a bike and set off for Bennettsbridge, a riverside hamlet. Cycling in downy Irish drizzle, I follow a canal-side path through ancient woods and a country lane threading between chunky farmlands. I stop for lunch at the local craft centre, a piping-hot chicken and mushroom pie served by beaming mother hens who remind me of my Irish grandma. Then, by arrangement with Kilkenny Cycling Tours, I tether my bike outside the local butchers and trek back along the River Nore, with herons and herds of cows for company.
Dinner that night is at award-winning restaurant Campagne, another sign that Kilkenny isn’t stuck in the past. Set in a slick, stylish space, the restaurant emphasises seasonal produce and French cuisine, making excellent use of ingredients like wild Irish venison, cured and made into a tartare with pickled mushrooms as a starter, Jerusalem artichokes and my favourite meaty fish, turbot, presented as a main with clams, mussels and saffron sauce.
After that, there’s inevitably more research required into Kilkenny’s beating heart. It’s a task enthusiastically embraced by the Aussies in my group and by our Irish pal, Aiofe, who gets her Gaelic name from a legendary warrior princess and is therefore right at home among Kilkenny’s ribald “cats”.
We end the night – “just one more for the road” – at Tynan’s Bridge House Bar where a rousing jam, featuring musicians aged 19-75, is already well under way. We’re quickly caught up in the warm fug, which mixes misty-eyed sentimentality in songs like Danny Boy, the mournful defiance of nationalist ballads and the stirring modern Pogues instrumental, The Wild Cats of Kilkenny.
After an hour of prodding – “what will you Aussies be singing for us now?” – from those at the front, several Irish whiskies, and protestations – “trust me you don’t want to hear me sing” – from us, there are no excuses left. Fortunately, though, we have an Irish warrior princess among us ready to step up to the plate.
Turns out Aiofe is a guitar-playing songstress who nearly knocks the local “cats” off their bar stools with three songs, including a note-perfect rendition of Linger by 1990s Irish band, the Cranberries.