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Kilkenny, Kilkenny

Historical Description

KILKENNY, a city and, including Irishtown, a county of itself, and the seat of the diocese of Ossory, locally in the county of KILKENNY, of which it is the chief town, and in the province of LEINSTER, 24 miles (N. E. by N.) from Clonmel, and 57½ (S. W.) from Dublin, on the river Nore and the mail coach road to Cork; containing 23,741 inhabitants. This place is supposed by some writers to have derived its name from Coil or Kyle-Ken-Ni, "the wooded head, or hill, near the river;" and by others, with more probability, from the dedication of its church to St. Canice, on the removal of the ancient see of Ossory from Aghavoe to this place, about the year 1052, which had been originally founded at Saiger, now Seir-Keran, about 402. Of the earlier history of the town little is recorded previously to 1173, when Donald O'Brien, King of Thomond, assembled his forces to dispossess the English invaders under Strongbow, who had established themselves and erected a fortress here soon after their landing in Ireland. On this occasion Strongbow retreated to Waterford, and abandoned the castle to the enemy, by whom, together with the town, it was demolished, and the surrounding country laid waste. In 1192, the English appear to have settled themselves firmly at this place; and in 1195, William Le Mareschal, who had succeeded to Strongbow's possessions, rebuilt the castle on a larger scale and restored the town, which became one of the principal residences of his successors and the head of the palatinate of Kilkenny. About this time arose that portion of the present town which is more especially called Kilkenny, and which was more immediately connected with the castle, in contradistinction to the original town on the opposite bank of a small river flowing into the Nore, called Irishtown. Each had its separate and independent municipal government, the former under the lords of the castle, and the latter under the bishops of Ossory, who ceded a portion of it to William Le Mareschal, by whom the burgesses of Kilkenny were incorporated and endowed with many privileges, among which was exemption from toll in all his territories of Leinster. Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Hereford, marrying a daughter of William Le Mareschal, obtained as her dower the county of Kilkenny, which subsequently passed by marriage again to Hugh, grandfather of Thomas Le Spencer, from whom it was purchased by James Butler, third Earl of Ormonde. A great council of the barons of the English pale was held here in 1294; and in 1309 a parliament assembled at this place, in which severe laws were enacted against such of the English settlers as should adopt the Irish customs; and anathemas against all who should infringe them were denounced in the cathedral by the Archbishop of Cashel and other prelates who assisted on that occasion. In 1317, Lord Roger Mortimer, justiciary of Ireland, and the English nobles, held a council here to deliberate on the most effectual means of opposing the ravages of Edward Bruce; and an army of 30,000 men was assembled, and great numbers of families sought refuge in the town under the general alarm. Parliaments were held here in 1327 and 1330, when an army assembled here to drive Brien O'Brien from Urkuffs, near Cashel; in 1331 a parliament was adjourned to this place from Dublin, and in 1341 a grand meeting of the principal nobility took place, assisted by the chief officers of the king's cities, to petition for the better government of Ireland. Parliaments were also held in 1347, 1356, and 1367, at which last, held before Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the celebrated statute of Kilkenny was enacted; and also in 1370 and 1374, in which latter Sir William de Windsor was sworn into the office of Lord-Lieutenant. Letters patent were granted in 1375 to the burgesses, and renewed in 1384, authorising them to appropriate certain customs for building and repairing the walls; and in 1399, Richard II., on his progress through the south of Ireland, arrived from Waterford at this place, where he was entertained for fourteen days by the Earl of Ormonde. Robert Talbot, a kinsman of the earl's, in 1400, encompassed the greater portion of the town with walls; and in 1419 the townsmen received a grant of tolls for murage. During the contest between the houses of York and Lancaster, the town was taken and plundered by the Earl of Desmond, who was an adherent of the latter; and in 1499 the burgesses, headed by their sovereign, marched out in aid of the Butlers against Tirlagh O'Brien, but were defeated. The last parliament held in the town was held in 1536, and was adjourned to Cashel; but this place still continued to be the occasional residence of the lords-lieutenant, and the chief seat of their government, for which purpose Hen. VIII. granted to the corporation the site and precincts of the Black friars' monastery, on condition of their furnishing certain accommodation free of expense to the chief governor of Ireland, when in Kilkenny; from which they were subsequently released on payment of a fine of £70. Sir Peter Carew, in his progress to resist the aggressions of the Butlers and Desmonds, in 1568, took possession of the town, which was soon after invested by Fitz-Maurice, brother of Desmond; but the spirited conduct of the garrison compelled him to retire.

In the parliamentary war of 1641 this place was distinguished as the theatre of contention; it was seized by Lord Mountgarret, and in the following year a general synod of the Catholic clergy was held here, and a meeting of deputies from the confederate Catholics from all parts of the kingdom took place in the house of Mr. R. Shee, in the present coal market. The lords, prelates, and commons all sat in the same chamber; and the clergy who were not qualified to sit as barons assembled in convocation in another house; and a press was erected in the city, at which were printed all the decrees of the synod. On the arrival of Rinuncini, the Pope's nuncio, the city and suburbs were placed under an interdict, for accepting the peace which had been concluded at this meeting; and in 1648 a plot was discovered for betraying the city and the supreme council into the hands of the nuncio and the party of O'Nial. Cromwell, relying on the. promises of an officer of the garrison, advanced before the city though unprepared to besiege it, in the hope of obtaining it by treachery; but the plot was discovered and the agent executed. Having, however, received large reinforcements under Ireton, he again appeared before it on the 23d of March, 1650, and commenced a regular siege; the garrison, originally consisting of 200 horse and 1000 foot, but reduced by the plague to 300, made a resolute defence under Sir Walter Butler, who had been appointed governor by Lord Castlehaven, but was at length compelled to surrender upon honourable terms.

The city, which occupies an area of nearly a square mile, is intersected from north to south by the river Nore, dividing it into two very unequal portions, of which the larger, containing the castle, is on its western bank; and near the northern extremity, on the same side of the river, is that portion of it called Irishtown, containing the cathedral, and separated from the former by the small river Breagh, which here falls into the Nore. The streets are very irregular, but the city has an air of venerable magnificence, from its castle, cathedral, and the numerous and imposing remains of its ancient religious edifices, and is seen to great advantage from the high eastern bank of the river, and from the rising ground on the road to Clonmel. The houses in the principal streets are generally built of stone, and many of them are spacious and handsome, especially in that part of it properly called Kilkenny, in which the chief modern improvements have taken place; the total number of houses, in 1831, was 2800, since which time the number has increased. There are two elegant stone bridges over the Nore, erected after designs by Mr. G. Smith, to replace two which were destroyed in 1763 by a great flood; St. John's bridge consists of three arches, and Green's bridge connects Irishtown with the opposite bank. The environs are in many parts extremely pleasing, and there is a fine promenade called the Mall, extending nearly a mile along the bank of a canal commenced many years since, but never completed, and also along the banks of the Nore and the base of the castle, beautifully planted with ornamental trees of fine growth. At a short distance from the city are infantry barracks for 15 officers and 558 non-commissioned officers and privates, a neat range of buildings of modern erection; there is also a temporary barrack for one squadron of horse. The library, established in 1811 by a proprietary, and supported by subscription, contains more than 4000 volumes, and has a newsroom attached to it; it is open to strangers introduced by a subscriber. The Mechanics' Friend Society, established in 1835, for diffusing information among the working classes, and supported by subscription, has a library of 700 volumes, and a room in which lectures on the arts and sciences are gratuitously delivered. The Horticultural Society holds two meetings in the year; and races are held in September on a course at a short distance from the town, and are generally well attended. The Kilkenny Hunt has been long established, and is considered as the most celebrated in Ireland. The savings' bank, established in 1816, under the patronage of the Earl of Ormonde, had, in 1835, deposits to the amount of £23,784, and 801 depositors.

In the 16th century, Piers, Earl of Ormonde, with a view to benefit the town by the introduction of manufactures, brought over several artificers from Flanders and the neighbouring provinces, whom he employed in working tapestry, diapers, and carpets, but the manufacture did not extend beyond the supply of the castle and was soon discontinued. The manufacture of coarse frieze was extensively carried on here in the reign of Chas. II., but was withdrawn to Carrick-on-Suir, and succeeded by the wool-combing and the worsted trade, which, about the middle of the last century, were superseded by the manufacture of blankets, which became the principal trade both of the city and the county. In 1821, from 3000 to 4000 persons were employed in this manufacture; but on the expiration of the protecting duties, the trade became greatly depressed, and at present not more than 600 persons are employed in it, and even these at greatly reduced prices; the blankets made here are still in great repute, and are purchased for the supply of the army. There is also a small manufacture of coarse woollen cloth, but the principal trade is in corn, and in the immediate neighbourhood are several very extensive flour-mills, three large distilleries, four breweries, two tanneries, some extensive yards for curing bacon, some salt-works, and several considerable starch-manufactories. Coarse linens are woven by the country people for domestic wear, and there is a large bleach-green. About half a mile from the city are quarries of the well-known Kilkenny marble, which has a black ground with white veins interspersed with shells and marine exuviae, and is susceptible of a very high polish. It is mostly worked into mantel-pieces of great beauty, and is cut and polished in a mill moved by water power, erected on the bank of the river, about two miles from the town, in the parish of Blackrath; great quantities of the marble are exported. Limestone is also quarried in various parts of the county of the city. The amount of excise duties paid in the district of Kilkenny, for the year 1835, was £70,665. 16. 11½. The markets are on Wednesday and Saturday, and are amply supplied with corn and provisions of every kind. Two great fairs are held on March 28th and Corpus Christi day; they are great cattle and wool fairs, which regulate the prices of all the others, and are attended by graziers from all parts of Ireland: there are also several other fairs, established by recent patents. An area in the lower part of the spacious old building called the Tholsel is appropriated as a market-house.

The charter granted to the burgesses by William Le Mareschal was confirmed, with all its privileges, by Edw. III., in the 1st year of his reign; and in the 51st of the same reign the sovereign, portreeve, and commonalty of Kilkenny were by a roll enjoined not to interfere with the freedom of the market of Irishtown, the inhabitants of which obtained from Edw. IV. a confirmation of the grant of their market, and the privilege of choosing a portreeve annually, independently of Kilkenny. Edw. VI. confirmed all the ancient privileges of the burgesses of Kilkenny, as enjoyed by them during the reign of Hen. VIII., and granted them the dissolved priory of St. John, with all its possessions, at a fee-farm rent of £16. 6. 4. Elizabeth, in 1574, confirmed the several rights of both boroughs, but, to obviate the disputes that arose from having two corporations in the same town, constituted them one body corporate under the designation of "The Sovereign, Burgesses, and Commonalty of the Town of Kilkenny." Jas. I., in 1608, made the towns of Kilkenny and Irishtown, with the parishes of St. Mary, St. John, St. Canice, and St. Patrick, a free borough, and in the following year granted additional privileges, erected the borough into a free city, under the designation of the mayor and citizens of the city of Kilkenny, and constituted the city and its liberties a distinct county, to be called the county of the city of Kilkenny. Chas. I., in 1639, granted to the mayor and citizens the monasteries of the Black and Grey friars, with several rectories and other possessions; and Jas. II. gave the citizens a new charter, which never came into operation, the city being governed by the charter of Jas. I. Under this charter the corporation consists of a mayor, two sheriffs, 18 aldermen, 36 common-councilmen, and an indefinite number of freemen, assisted by a recorder, treasurer, two coroners, a town-clerk, four serjeants-at-mace, and other officers. The mayor, who is also custos rotulorum, escheator, clerk of the market, and master of the assay, is chosen annually from the aldermen by the aldermen and councilmen, on the next Monday after the 24th of June, and has power to appoint a deputy, during illness or necessary absence, chosen from such of the aldermen as have served the office of mayor. The sheriffs are elected annually from the common-councilmen by the aldermen and councilmen, on the same day as the mayor. The aldermen are chosen for life from the common-councilmen by the mayor and aldermen; and the common-councilmen are chosen from the freemen by the aldermen and councilmen, who also appoint the recorder, and the treasurer and town-clerk are appointed by the corporation. There is also a corporation of the staple. The freedom of the city is obtained by birth, marriage, servitude, and favour of the corporation. The burgesses of Irishtown still continue to elect their portreeve annually under the direction of the Bishop of Ossory; he is clerk of the market, and presides in his court held weekly for the recovery of debts under 40s., but has no magisterial jurisdiction. Each borough returned two members to the Irish parliament; Kilkenny first in 1374, and Irishtown at a much earlier period; both continued to do so till the Union, when Irishtown was disfranchised, and the £15,000 awarded in compensation was paid to the Board of First Fruits, to be applied to the uses of that fund. Since that period the city has sent only one member to the Imperial parliament. The right of election, previously in the freemen of the city and 40s. freeholders of the county of the city, was, by the act of the 2nd of Wm. IV., cap. 88, vested in the resident freemen and £10 householders, and in £20 and £10 leaseholders for the respective terms of 14 and 20 years; the 40s. freeholders retain the privilege only for life. The number of registered voters at the close of 1836 was 808. No alteration has taken place in the electoral boundary of the borough, which is co-extensive with the county of the city: the sheriffs are the returning officers. The mayor, recorder, and all the aldermen who have served the office of mayor, are justices of the peace, and under their charter hold quarterly courts of session, with criminal jurisdiction within the county of the city; and a court of record, called the Tholsel, for the determination of actions to any amount exceeding £20, every Tuesday and Friday. Assizes for the county of the city, and for the county at large, are held here twice in the year; and quarter sessions for the county of Kilkenny are held in rotation with the towns of Castlecomer, Thomastown, and Urlingford. A peace preservation force is stationed in the city, the expense of maintaining which, for 1835, amounted to £712. 15. 10. The court-house, called Grace's Old Castle, contains courts both for the city and for the county at large, and is a spacious and handsome modern building, occupying part of the site of the ancient castle of the family of Grace, of whom William Grace, or Le Gras, its first founder, was seneschal of Leinster and governor of Kilkenny. The city gaol is a badly constructed edifice, containing seven cells, but not adapted to the classification of prisoners. The county gaol is a spacious modern building of stone, a little to the west of the city: it contains 48 cells, is well arranged for classification, and has a tread-mill and a well-conducted school.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1840 by Samuel Lewis

Directories & Gazetteers

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Land and Property

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