The two lost centuries of Kilkenny’s Tholsel

There are few buildings more striking in Kilkenny than the Tholsel – the historic town hall located right in the heart of the city.

There are few buildings more striking in Kilkenny than the Tholsel – the historic town hall located right in the heart of the city.

In its time it has served as customs-house, market centre, courthouse, and today, as the home of local government. As you enter the familiar open arcade on High Street, a small black plaque written in both English and as Gaeilge, states the date of the building’s construction as 1759.

Now, however, a local archaeologist says this may not be correct.

New research undertaken by Kilkenny archaeologist Patrick Neary indicates that the Tholsel building may actually pre-date this by almost two centuries, with a likely construction date of 1582. The historical record may have been amiss for the last 150 years, with an incorrect date promulgated as fact in history books, tourist guides, and various official websites.

Mr Neary made his discovery whilst undertaking a survey of the Tholsel’s basement area at the request of the Kilkenny Borough Council. In conducting the study, his curiosity was aroused by a pen and ink wash depiction of Kilkenny city by Francis Place dating from 1699. A high magnification of the image reveals what appears to be the distinctive roofline of the Tholsel, just beyond St Mary’s Church.

However, the conventional history tells us that at the time of this artwork, the building depicted would not have existed for another 60 years.

John Bradley is a senior history lecturer in NUI Maynooth who was written extensively on Kilkenny. He has not seen Mr Neary’s basement survey, but says that it is hard to know the date for sure. A later building could have been designed to remain consistent with the other structure, but the jury is out for now.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a multi-period structure,” says Mr Bradley.

“It certainly is feasible that there are parts of the old Tholsel there.”

Mr Neary says the error can be traced to one of the standard historical texts on the building – a contribution to the RSAI Journal in 1879 by Kilkenny historian John Hogan entitled ‘The Three Tholsels of Kilkenny’.

The ‘first’ Tholsel - the original - was based near the Left Bank at the Parade. In 1578, it was decided to relocate to the present location, the most elevated level at the centre of High Street.

The story goes that the second Tholsel was then built on this site, but demolished in 1759, at which point the ‘third’ Tholsel was constructed.

Not so, says Mr Neary.

While work was done on the Tholsel in 1759, the Kilkenny archaeologist thinks that this was largely repairs, as opposed to the construction of an entirely new building. At a meeting in 1759, the Corporation discussed a number of renovations.

The work included an extension onto the back of the Tholsel into St Mary’s Lane, which necessitated the removal of a portion of the original St Mary’s Church cemetery. There were also two pillars, which originally stood in the centre of the building, moved out to the north side of the Tholsel to support a balcony.

“There is also a difference in the style of the windows in the extension, which have rounded or arched heads, and the rectangular windows of the original building as shown on Place’s drawing and the old photograph in the book of photos of Kilkenny,” says Mr Neary.

While the Corporation’s resolution refers to the works as a repair, the plaque which was to be erected to acknowledge the workers referred to ‘this Tholsel rebuilt 1761’. In the end, the plaque was never used. The confusion could have arisen from Hogan interpreting the ‘refurbishment’ as a total rebuilding, and inferring that the original building had thus been demolished.

“He saw this piece of paper [for the plaque], and there he got the word rebuilt,” says Mr Neary.

“From rebuilt, he presumes that it must have been demolished.”

Indeed, it was Hogan who first uses the word ‘demolished’, and his interpretation of events was then accepted and then reproduced as fact in later documents and accounts.

There is also the question of cost, which is quoted as being £1,300 for the works. This would seem a less than adequate sum to cover demolition, rebuilding, plus the new extension to the rear.

And so, according to this theory, the building we see today is actually largely the ‘second’ Tholsel - and there never was a third.

Mr Neary says that the view that the building was taken down and replaced with an altogether new structure is not supported by documentary evidence from the Corporation’s minute books at the time, nor by the interpretation of his own survey of the Tholsel basement.

“The wording of the resolutions suggests that what we have today is substantially the original structure above ground,” he says.