Kilkenny Castle, Ireland: The Story of Two Modern Sieges in a Medieval Castle

Kilkenny Castle is one of the most recognisable - and most visited - buildings in Ireland.

Kilkenny Castle was founded in Medieval times, but its most significant moments have been played out during more recent history. The castle was featured in Oliver Cromwell's re-conquest of Ireland in 1650; and was besieged during the Irish Civil War in 1922.

It's easy to spot the influence of Cromwell when you visit Kilkenny - he destroyed one entire side of the castle! Despite this, sections of the castle have been rebuilt and the site hosts tens of thousands of tourists every year.


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Kilkenny Castle Approach and Fountain On approach to Kilkenny - the attractive fountain. Credit: LuMag00, CC-BY-2.0.

Kilkenny Castle: A Fortress and Chateau, on Medieval Foundations

Kilkenny Castle grew from the work of one Norman Knight - Richard de Clare, who was nicknamed Strongbow. Strongbow was one of the devout knights who helped Henry II of England seize control of some regions of Ireland, from 1171 onwards.

Strongbow laid the original wooden Motte and Bailey castle buildings in 1172. He died four years later, and his lands eventually passed to his daughter's husband - William Marshall.

William Marshall was one of the most successful and fearless of all Norman knights at that time. As a result of his might, he was granted vast portions of land. He chose to settle in Ireland, and, in 1207, he established the Medieval town of Kilkenny.

Kilkenny Castle Drum Tower One of the c13th 'Drum Towers' of Kilkenny. Note that 'drum' just refers to its shape. Credit: Jamin Gray, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

In about 1209, he started to rebuild Kilkenny Castle where the wooden castle had once stood (it had since been burned to the ground). The stone curtain walls and the round drum towers (of which three remain - see below!) were all the work of William Marshall.

The Missing Wall of Kilkenny Castle: The Castle and the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland

It doesn't take a genius to figure out the fact that, nowadays, Kilkenny Castle is effectively three-sided. One of the four walls - and one of the great round drum towers - has disappeared over time.

Where did it go? Well, the Eastern wall and the North-Eastern tower were blown to bits during the 1650 Cromwellian siege of Ireland.

The Cromwellian siege was an exceptionally bloody re-conquest of Ireland, emerging from the fall-out of the English Civil War.

For about ten years prior to the reconquest, Ireland had briefly been able to claim self-governance, with the Catholic Irish Confederate governing large chunks of the country. Cromwell, then leader of England and devout Protestant, viewed the arrangement with antipathy.

His resultant reconquest of Ireland was exceptionally blood-stained - sparing few devout Catholics, and killing, according to different sources, anywhere from 15-50% of the Irish population.

Cromwell's assault upon Kilkenny Castle had symbolic, rather than strategic, significance. Although the then-owner of Kilkenny (James Butler) was a Protestant, his castle had been seized and was used as the Parliament (of 'supreme council') of the Irish Confederate.

Cromwell's bombardment of Kilkenny marked his dominance over the Catholic Irish Confederate, and hence his reconquest of Ireland. Indeed, Cromwell's efforts really completed the British domination of Ireland, which, just a few years later, became part of the British Commonwealth (alongside Wales and Scotland).

Kilkenny Castle Art There's a fair amount of art and sculpture dotted around the park outside the castle. Credit: Jamin Gray, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Kilkenny Castle: Reconstruction and Repurposing

A bizarre two-and-fro occurred within Kilkenny Castle during the c17th and c19th. In the early 1650s, James Butler (the Protestant owner) returned to his castle from his self-imposed exile in France.

The history of Kilkenny is intimately entwined with the life of the Butler family, one of Ireland's most important blood-lines. Indeed, the Butlers were owners of the castle from 1328-1967.

It's no exaggeration to say that, if you've got any Irish blood and your surname is Butler, you'll be related to the clan (however distantly).

Seeing the damage that'd been inflicted upon his castle, and inspired by the grand palaces and chateaux he'd visited in France, he returned with grand ideas - to remodel Kilkenny in the style of a true French palace.

By all accounts, although his ideas might have been eccentric, they weren't distasteful. His grand plans included a Jacobean house within the North West wing; and also the foundations of the grand galleries in the base of the castle.

Kilkenny Castle Front Elevation Looking onto Kilkenny, it's easy to spot that while the Drum Towers are original, much of the facade is a modern addition (especially those weird chimney-pots). Credit: Marcus Meissner, CC-BY-2.0.

However, in the c19th, the descendants of the Butler family (now enjoying wealthier times) had a dramatic change of heart. Likely inspired by the Romantic movement - which emphasised the beauty and significance of historical context - they decided to demolish the 'chateau' elements of the castle, and rebuild it in a romanticised, 'Medieval' fashion.

Some of their additions were frankly bizarre - building an entrance archway through the c13th curtain wall, as one ill-advised example. The consequence of their work was that Kilkenny became a muddle of architectural styles, somewhat detracting from its historical significance.

Kilkenny Castle You can see the Butler coat of arms on this ill-advised archway. Credit: Irish Typepad, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

The Modern Day Siege of Kilkenny Castle

The second most dramatic moment in Kilkenny Castle's history happened very recently indeed - back in 1922.

The Butler family - namely Lord and Lady Ossory - were still residents of the castle. The Irish Civil war, however, raged around them. Lord Ossory memorably wrote that he was woken at the "unreasonable hour of 5.30am" by his butler, who brought the news that Republican forces had seized and occupied his castle.

Kilkenny Castle at an Angle An alternative view of Kilkenny. Credit: Irish Typepad, CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Admirably, both the Lord and Lady stayed put, despite the arrival of a "heterogeneous body" of "about 22 men", who were equipped with "bombs and rifles".

Things quickly took a turn for worse, however, when the opposing force - the Irish Free State - laid siege to the occupied castle. The castle contained the Lord, Lady, servants and Pekinese dogs - along with the 22 members of the opposing Republican force.

Quite incredibly, the Butlers chose to hole themselves up in one of their bedrooms - barricading the door with nowt but a machine gun outside. The siege lasted for two days, and despite significant damage to the castle, no-one was hurt. The siege ended when Free State forces crashed a car into the castle - and, surreally, both their side and the Republicans subsequently claimed credit for 'saving' the Butlers from the opposition.

Kilkenny Castle: From Ruin to Tourist Hot-Spot

In 1935, the Butler family, who had fallen on difficult times, decided that the hour had come for Kilkenny Castle. They sold their possessions and moved to London; leaving the castle abandoned and in a perilous state of disrepair.

The family still owned the castle, however; and for the following 30 years, it decayed rapidly - a sad, abandoned and uninhabited Irish ruin.

Kilkenny Castle Cafe A beautiful photo contrasting the curves of the cafe to the undulations of Kilkenny's profile. Credit: Kieran Lynam, CC-BY-2.0.

Understanding the importance of the castle to Irish heritage, in the 1960s, the Butlers finally got round to selling the place to the Irish Ministry of Public Works for a nominal sum of £50. The family subsequently re-presented the castle to the people of Kilkenny in 1967.

The castle's been well-taken care of since then, and houses a significant Art Gallery within its basement. It's surrounded by extensive, and delicately-clipped ornamental grounds, and is one of the most popular tourist spots in Ireland.

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