Charles Dickens (1812 -1870).
Charles Dickens was an extremely enthusiastic self-publicist and travelled widely to promote his novels, short stories and non-fiction works. He was to venture to American twice; his first visit was in 1842 and became the basis for his book American Notes for General Circulation published in the same year.
Dickens also was to visit Ireland on three separate occasions. His first visit was in August 1858 and he gave a performance to 3000 people at The Rotunda now the Ambassador Theatre on O’Connell Street. The police were called to deal with the crowds and Dickens reported that tickets for a stall were freely selling for £5 at the time.
Charles Dickens was friendly with the Irish painter Daniel Maclise and was a great admirer of the poems and songs of Thomas Moore. Despite this, Ireland and the Irish play very little part his works of literature. London, which plays such a large aspect of Dickens’ novels, would have had a substantial Irish population. It was estimated that one in twenty at least were Irish and yet there is very little mention of this group in any of his books.
Early in his career Dickens was invited by Richard Bentley (1794 – 1871) to become the first editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, which was published between 1836 and 1866. Dickens serialised his second novel Oliver Twist in the Miscellany successfully but later had a falling out with Bentley and resigned his editorship.
In the year 1837 when the first volume of short stories was, published Dickens included a short seven-page story called “The Two Butlers of Kilkenny”. Despite the story being a work of fiction, it shows a ready familiarity with both the City of Kilkenny and the Ormond family. During the story, the main character “Tom” describes being escorted around Kilkenny Castle and it is remarkably accurate in some of its descriptions of both the castle and grounds. Dickens is comfortable describing the history of both Kilkenny and of the Butler family from the insights and quotes that he ascribes in his introduction. He was later to publish A Child’s History of England that was serialised in Household Words between the years 1851 to 1853. In his history, he gives mention to James Butler “The Great Duke” and his feud with Coronel Blood in the late 17th Century showing that he had some knowledge of the Ormond family. This history continued to be in use in English schools right up to the Second World War.
The source for Dickens’s story is almost certainly John Butler the 17th Earl of Ormond (1740 – 1795) better known as “Jack of the Castle” who was known to be a wit and a great raconteur. John was a frequenter of the famous “Hole in the Wall” in Kilkenny city and both John and his son Walter “Wat” Butler were widely known in Society Dublin and London mixing with the Prince Regent (later George IV) and his circle. As to how Charles Dickens discovered this story is unknown, it is possible that he could have heard it as anecdote passed from Thomas Moore’s circle of acquaintances. Moore was based in Kilkenny each season between 1808 and 1810 with the Kilkenny Players and would have performed in the Kilkenny Private Theatre just across the road from Kilkenny Castle. In addition, while staying in Kilkenny, Moore would have stayed with the Bryan family from Jenkinstown who would have been intimates of the Butler family and doubtlessly were familiar with family anedotes.
The story begins with Dickens introducing his protagonist Tom (no second name is given) leaving his masters house in Clonmel in which he is employed as the family butler. Tom intends to travel to foreign countries and he begins his journey with an excursion to the city of Kilkenny. Dickens then attempts to establish a date for the events in the story and estimates that the dates were approximately some 80 years before during the reign of George II or around 1760 to 1765 (which corresponds with John Butler’s lifetime).
Dickens then begins to give some background history to the Butler family in the 18th Century. He starts by mentioning the poet Dryden who dedicated one of his poems to the marriage of James Butler 2nd Duke of Ormond (1665 – 1745) to his second wife Lady Mary Somerset (1665 – 1733) in 1685. James Butler was later impeached by the Whig parliament in 1715 and he switched his alliance to the Jacobite cause, (The supporters of King James II in exile in France). After his departure, the Butler family lost almost all of their English estates and managed only to hold onto some of their Irish properties. During this time, Kilkenny Castle had become neglected and had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was only in late 18th Century that distant cousins of the Duke had inherited the Ormond titles that the family decided to move back finally to the ancestral seat at Kilkenny.
He then goes on to describe Tom as being straight of limb, bright of eye, and white of teeth and he was two and twenty in terms of age (altogether a handsome lad). Tom was in the employ of a Quaker family called Chaytor and was living in the town of Clonmel. Tom, we are told, began his journey to Kilkenny on foot at six in the morning and he arrived “in the City of St.Canice “at noon on the same day having travelled some 23 miles. Naturally, after being on the road he was foot sore and in need of bread and wine. “Tom refreshed himself at the Feathers, kept in those days by a man called Jerry Mulvany who was nearly connected with the family of Ormond”. This is possibly a reference to the famous “The Sheaf of Wheat” tavern (which is now Henderson’s Pub on the Parade in Kilkenny) which was famous for its clean linen and comfortable feather beds. The proprietor was a former employee of the Butler family and worked as a former servant in Kilkenny Castle.
Dickens then briefly gives some information on Kilkenny itself he says, “If there is a guide-book to the curiosities of Kilkenny, the work has escaped my researches. Of the City, it is recorded, however, that it can boast fire without smoke, air without fog, and the streets paved with marble. And the there’s the college and the bridge, and the ruins of St. John’s Abbey, and St.Canice’s and the Nore itself and last, but not least, the Castle of the Ormonds, with its woods and its walks, and its stables and its gallery, and all the rest of it, predominating over the river”. This is an incredibly accurate description of Kilkenny and the Castle, including details like the stables and the gallery. The famous quote of “air without fog…” was published earlier by the Dublin Penny Journal in 1832 and was mentioned in Pocokes’s Tour of Ireland in 1752.
The story then continues with Tom’s progress: “As the Castle is the most particular lion of the city, it of course speedily attracted the attention of Tom… who soon found himself at the gate.” Upon arriving at the Castle gate Tom encountered an older man who “By the twinkle in his eye and the purple rotundity of his cheek it was evident that the years of the valley, like the lads of the valley, had gone cheerily-o. The sun shined brightly on his silver locks, escaping from underneath a somewhat tarnished cock hat guarded with gold lace, the gilding which had much deteriorated since it had left the shop of the artificer.” Tom continues to describe to older man as “His plum coloured were unbuckled at the knee, and his ungartered stockings were on a downward progress towards his unbuckled shoes. He had his hands…. in his breeches pockets while he diverted himself with whistling “Charley over the Water” in a state of quasi-ruminant quiescence. Nothing could be plainer than he was a hanger-on of the Castle off duty, waiting his time until called for when of course he was to appear before his master in a more carefully arranged costume. The reference to Charley over the Water is a famous Jacobite tune in praise of Bonny Prince Charles who was defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Tom began a conversation with the older gentleman “I say, “said he “Old chap! Is this Castle to be seen?” “I’m told it’s a show: and if it is, let’s have a look at it”.
“It is to be seen,” replied the person addressed “if you are properly introduced”.
“That’s all hum!” said Tom “I know enough of the world thought I’ve lived all my life in Clonmel to know that a proper introduction signifies a tester. Come, my old snouty, I’ll stand all that’s right if you show me over it. Can you do it?”
“Why” said his new friend, “I think I can; because, in fact. I am….”
Tom explains to the older man that he was in the employ as a servant to a Quaker household in Clonmel. To which the older man replies, “Why, I am Butler as well as you!” Tom replies “Oh! Then we’re both butlers: and you could pass us both in. By course, the butler here a great fellow here: and I see you are rigged out in the cast clothes of my lord. Isn’t that true?”
“True enough; he never get a suit of clothes that does not fall to my lot to wear it: but if you wish to see the Castle, I think I can venture to show you all it contains, even for the sake of our being two butlers”.
Tom then begins his tour of the Castle in the company of the older gentleman as a guide.
“Rum looking old ruffians!” observed Tom casting his eyes along the gallery containing the portraitures of the Ormondes. ”Look at that fellow there all battered up in iron; I wish to God I had as good a church as he could rob!”
“He was one of the old Earls,” replied his guide “in the days if Henry the Eight; and I believe he did help in the robbing of churches”.
This may be a reference to Thomas Butler the 10th Earl of Ormond “Black Tom Butler” (c.1531 – 1614) who was painted wearing elaborate armour and greatly increased the family fortunes during the royal seizure of church lands during the Tudor period.
“There’s a chap there,” said Tom “in a wilderness of a wig. Gad! He looks as if he was liked to be hanged!”
“He was so” said his Cicerone “for a gentleman of the name of Blood was about to pay him that compliment at Tyburn”.
This must be a reference to James Butler 1st Duke of Ormond (1610 – 1688) and his famous feud with Coronel Thomas Blood (1618 – 1680) and his attempted kidnapping of the Duke in London in December 1670.
“Serve him right” observed Tom “and this fellow with the short stick in his hand; what the deuce is the meaning of that? Was he a constable?”
“No” said his friend “he was a Marshall; but he had much to do with keeping out of the way of constables for some years. Did you hear of Dean Swift?”
This is a definite reference to James Butler 2nd Duke of Ormonde (1665 – 1745) who became a supporter of the Jacobite cause and would have been avoiding the attentions of the English authorities in the 18th Century. He was also a close friend and patron to Dean Jonathan Swift, the famous author.
To conclude his tour Tom observed “But what’s the use of looking at those queer old fools! I wonder who bothered themselves painting them”.
“I do not think that you knew the people; they were Van Dyke, Lely. Kneller”.
“I never heard of them in Clonmel,” remarked Tom “do you have anything to drink?”
The Butler family would have sat for some of the most fashionable portrait artists of the day; this would have included Sir Anthony Van Dyke, Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller as mentioned above.
Tom and his guide then proceed to have some wine and a dinner of beef. His host treats Tom to champagne and they finish with brandy. After their meal, Tom invites his new friend back to “The Feathers”: the tavern in which he is staying, to finish their evening.
While walking to the tavern Tom observes that, some of the townspeople are bowing and tipping their hat to the older gentleman as they pass. On arriving at “The Feathers”, the innkeeper Mulvany looks shocked and offers Tom and his guest the very best room he has in his tavern. They then ask for a bowl of punch to finish their evening.
“Well Tom “said his friend “goodbye for a moment. I assure you I had much pleasure in your company”.
Tom then tells the innkeeper Mulvany “He just showed me over the Castle, and gave me full and plenty of the best of eating and drinking. He tells me he a butler.”
“And so he is, you idiot of a man!” cried Mulvany “He is the Chief Butler of Ireland”.
“What?” said Tom?
“Why, him that was with you just now is the Earl of Ormond!”
My story is over….
Tom returns to Clonmel and never returns to Kilkenny least he encounter again his fellow “Butler”.
Dickens story despite it being a work of fiction is full of fascinating details that seem like a first-hand account of someone well acquainted with Kilkenny and the Castle. The character of Toms “Guide” also fits with the character of “Jack of the Castle” who do doubt would have relished such a prank and was a great host to all of his guests that came to dine in his family residence.

Peter Kenny December 2021