That Ireland has its fair share of castles to explore is a given, and for leisure wanderers who are thinking about including an Irish Spring in their travel plans this year, there is a case to made for a stop at Kilkenny Castle (www.kilkennycastle.ie), which, by car, is about an hour and a half south of Dublin in County Kilkenny. The castle itself is certainly a grand echo of Ireland’s past, but there is more besides aged stone walls – classy extras that put it on a short list of must-see Emerald Isle destinations.
The original Kilkenny Castle was completed in the early 13th century, and it served as a dominating Norman fortress beside the River Nore. By the 14th century, it became the center of the powerful Butler family in Ireland. Being a home, it was eventually modified more for comfort than conflict many times over the centuries. But time took its toll on both the Butlers’ wealth and the castle’s condition. When it was finally sold to the town of Kilkenny for a meager £50 in 1967, it was a hollow, dilapidated shell of what once gloriously was.
However, in the almost 50 years since its lowest ebb, Kilkenny Castle has been restored to a state of noble grace. Much of the living space in the castle, which is open for tours, now has recreated settings in mainly 19th century decor. Of particular note for eye-pleasing interiors are the Entrance Hall, Blue Bedroom, Drawing Room, Balcony Bedroom and Blue Corridor. Further accentuating this sophistication is the Robertson Picture Gallery, a 150-foot long hall redecorated with period paintings, and, giving modern imagination its due, the Butler Gallery, which parades revolving collections of contemporary art.
Support for current-day creativity even extends to the stables. Separate from the castle, the crescent-shaped, stone building now houses Ireland’s National Craft Gallery, which showcases modern Irish and international designers. Busy is normal for the Gallery, as it is a center of constant activity, including hosting annual cultural events, offering workshops and presenting cutting-edge exhibitions.
The exhibitions are temporary but usually last a few months. Currently, “Not Too Precious” is running through March 30. It is a gathering of works from 25 Irish and international craftsmen who use inexpensive materials to make extraordinary pieces of jewelry. This show will be followed by “Luminal,” a celebration of creations from modern, ultra-innovative Irish designers from April 8 to July 3.
And in the middle of this creativeness, shoppers won’t have to worry about an itch they can’t scratch – nearby in the Castle Yard are the studios of several professional craftsmen who produce and sell their original works daily. Also, in the same area, the extensive Kilkenny Design Center offers more finery from skilled artisans across the Emerald Isle.
In such a medieval setting where it is easy for history to hang heavily, Kilkenny Castle has, in many ways, been made new again. The castle’s past glories now are partnered with a commitment to current arts and crafts, making it a special place that shows off the best of both old and modern Ireland.
While you’re in the area, be sure to visit:
▪ Butler House (www.butler.ie). This Georgian mansion was built in 1770 as the dower home for nearby Kilkenny Castle, but now is a four-star, modernized hotel that retains many of its original features, including a restored, elegant, public-accessible walled garden, which is a sure magnet for picture-takers.
▪ Kilkenny (www.visitkilkenny.ie). Step off the grounds of Kilkenny Castle and right into Kilkenny, a town with a Middle Ages past and a present day knack for fun. In particular, its Medieval Mile is a pleasant, walkable loop through streets brimming with shops, pubs and restaurants. Also, on the northern end of the loop, take time to admire the 13th century architecture – and endurance – of the Black Abby and St. Canice’s Cathedral.