Few buildings in Ireland can boast a longer history of continuous occupation than Kilkenny Castle. Founded soon after the Norman conquest of Ireland, the Castle has been rebuilt, extended and adapted to suit changing circumstances and uses over a period of 800 years.
Today, Kilkenny Castle is open to visitors all year round and is largely a Victorian remodelling of the thirteenth century defensive Castle. Each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see this grand country house and walk through its fifty acres of rolling parkland with mature trees and an abundance of wildlife. Other features include a formal terraced rose garden, woodlands and a man-made lake, which were added in the nineteenth century. There is also a tearoom, playground and several orienteering trails for visitors to enjoy.
Over the eight centuries of its existence, many additions and alterations have been made to the fabric of the building. The original Anglo-Norman stone Castle was built by William Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke during the first decade of the thirteenth century. Kilkenny Castle later became the principal Irish residence of the powerful Butler family for almost 600 years. Butler ownership began when James, 3rd Earl of Ormond purchased the Castle in about 1391, and lasted until 1967 when Arthur, 6th Marquess and 24th Earl of Ormonde, presented it to the people of Kilkenny.
Through the centuries, Kilkenny Castle has been a backdrop to great events and great lives. The Castle’s history is full of larger-than-life characters like Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare (better known as ‘Strongbow’) and William Marshal, the great castle builder and regent of England. During the fourteenth century, Dame Alice Kyteler was imprisoned here; she was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the Market Cross in the High Street. James, 1st Duke of Ormond, Oliver Cromwell, King James II and King William III, each of whom were major players in seventeenth-century European politics, all spent time at Kilkenny Castle. In 1904, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were entertained there during one of their visits to Ireland. In 2017, this ancient Castle hosted royalty once again when HRH Charles, Prince of Wales and HRH Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall came to call.
Two world wars in the twentieth century transformed the entire social order throughout Europe. Ireland changed dramatically, and elite families like the Butlers found their political and economic power eroded due to these upheavals. Remaining in Kilkenny Castle was no longer viable and in 1935, the family took the decision to leave. The Castle was abandoned until 1967, when Arthur Butler formally handed it over to the Castle Restoration and Development Committee, for the nominal sum of £50.
The Castle has been in the care of the OPW since 1969, by which time a lack of basic maintenance had resulted in structural decay and dilapidation. The first phase of restoration in the 1970s saw the Picture Gallery wing refurbished. In the 1990s, the second phase restored interiors of the central block to the style of a grand country house of the 1830s. The third phase of restoration, completed in 2000, developed the Parade Tower wing as a purpose-built function and conference area.
The Parade Tower is now the dedicated events area of Kilkenny Castle, where old meets new and state-of-the-art facilities have been cleverly integrated into the entire west wing and two medieval towers. The wide range of events catered for include banquets, conferences and cultural events, as well as Civil and Humanist wedding ceremonies.
Within the walls of the Castle, the exuberant spirit of the Victorian age is faithfully brought to life. The suite of three reception rooms, the Ante Room, Drawing Room, and Library, with their patterned carpets, yellow silk wall hangings and authentically reproduced gilded pelmets, all capture a sense of 1830s splendour. Throughout the Castle, the carefully considered colour schemes provide a fine backdrop for a diverse collection, which includes the internationally important seventeenth-century Decius Mus tapestries. Another highlight is the collection of Ormonde family portraits, several of which take pride of place in the great Picture Gallery, with its hammer-beam roof that features hand painted Pre-Raphaelite figures and naturalistic scenes. The Oriental fashion of the nineteenth century is represented by the Chinese Bedroom and by various exotic furnishings found throughout the building.
The OPW’s open-access policy at Kilkenny Castle facilitates a free programme of events throughout the year, including garden talks, music in the Picture Gallery and gardens, special presentations and workshops during Heritage Week and an engaging Christmas programme of events that complement the beautiful seasonal décor in both the period rooms and at the Parade Tower. A diverse and eclectic range of events are also facilitated at Kilkenny Castle’s adjoining park, including the National Day of Commemoration service, classic car displays, triathlons, orienteering, and a weekly park run.
The Castle’s interiors today capture the nineteenth-century lifestyle of the Butlers of Ormonde, while the architectural elements of the building and its historic landscaped parkland reflect a more varied history that spans a remarkable 800 years.