THIS is a tale of two towers – one about to be celebrated like no other in Ireland, the other completely forgotten and in need of our attention, even though it is regarded by experts as being of national importance.
Talbot’s Tower is almost restored and its importance to the heritage and tourism of the city could not be overstated. It will provide a real focal point for the old City Walls of Kilkenny and provide visitors with a place to start their tour of what was once a magnificent defence system. Thanks to the borough council and a number of partners including the VEC and Heritage Council, it will set a new standard in visitor attractions when it is open to the public next Spring.
And it is only when you mount the steps to the top that you appreciate its scale and the huge town ditch below going right up to the sloping stone wall at the base of the tower that stopped the enemy from tunnelling underneath it.
From its summit, there are wonderful views and despite the imposition of some horrendous looking buildings built over the last 15 years you can still see Kilkenny Castle, St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower as well as St Mary’s Church. It does have the ‘wow factor’.
For those seeking titillation, we know from excavations that the top of the tower had a very spicy history. Finds there included fragments of Victorian wine bottles, clay tobacco pipes, hair pins, metal lace chapes holding female undergarments in place) and many ladies’ buttons.
Ben Murtagh archaeologist has carried out major research work here and he has found a dazzling array of artefacts including .303 bullets and cases which may have been used by Free State forces against the Republican occupation of Kilkenny Castle during the Civil War. Lead musket shot fired at the tower probably date from one of the 16th century sieges of the city.
However it is not the last surviving tower of the Old City Walls. Evan’s Turret (tower) is never mentioned in terms of the rich mosaic of the heritage of the city yet it may have been even more important than Talbot’s Tower and was known as the Castle In The Garden .
Paradoxically, the fact that it is has remained in private ownership, within St Francis Abbey Brewery compound, without public access, may have saved it from vandalism or accidental damage.
The brewery closes down next year and an archaeological dig at the tower must be a priority. There is much to investigate, including the collapsed vault; its use as a summer home and its links with the priory also within the confines of what was Smithwick’s brewery.
The sale of the brewery to the city means that after the brewery is decommissioned there will be an opportunity to return the polygonal tower, built around 1400, to its original beauty.
We are told in the excellent Heritage Conservation Plan for the City Walls, that in In 1650, the Civil Survey describes it as ‘a little castle in the garden’ of the priory. The tower became known as Evan’s Turret when the land on which it stands was leased by the Corporation to an Alderman Evans in 1724 (there was a lot of corruption back then). We know that in 1851 it was still roofed and there was a plan to extend along the route of the City Wall down to the Grey Friars Gate which would have been similar to the Black Freren Gate on Abbey Street.
Located at the extreme north-east corner of the St Francis’s Abbey Brewery complex,where the Breagagh meets the Nore, access is by a rising stairs over a vault which collapsed many centuries ago. It has a basement level (with an internal arched entrance, a first floor, and an upper level with apertures. Judging from its appearance when still roofed, it is likely that the tower was modified and heightened to form a garden feature overlooking the river in the 18th century.
The external masonry is in reasonable condition, though there are some external cracks in the tower walls; the internal collapsed stair vault suggests that some movement has occurred.
It is easy to have the harsh word, and so we praise Kilkenny Borough Council, former caretaker of Ormonde College Canice Ryan, and others for tenaciously fighting to preserve and enhance Talbot’s Tower.
Over 25 years ago, city woman Betty Manning had a dream that the last known surviving, yet crumbling, tower of the Old City Wall of Kilkenny, would be returned to its former glory. At times it seemed a lost cause, especially in 1989 when the stairwell of the structure collapsed. It has become a testament to what can be done when people come together to work for the benefit of the city. Cllr Paul Cuddihy is the new chair of the City Walls Committee and knowing him, I’m confident that Evan’s Turret will receive the same treatment as Talbot’s Tower.
Wherever you go and what ever you read on the City Walls one name keeps cropping up, that of John Bradley the Maynooth-based academic from Kilkenny who dearly loves the city.
If ever there was a man who deserved the freedom of the city it is John Bradley. In 2001 he gave a talk about the excesses of development in the city. It makes riveting reading ,and every now and then I read it.