A MERE 17 footsteps and you have passed it, the beautifully limestone clad building on the city’s Parliament Street which holds the key to the most successful period in Kilkenny’s history - the golden era from which so much invaluable information and objects have been saved. John Rothe Fitzpiers’ house (Rothe House) was part of what was called, “Ye Faire City” around when the Confederation of Kilkenny was held and when the city was considered the capital of the country.
And shortly, the iconic gated entrance to the first and second courtyards of Rothe House will be open to all as the shop moves from the front of the complex to the third house which will unclutter the huge amount of material in the current retail outlet which has outlived and outgrown its usefulness in its current role.
And it is this open space, the second courtyard that really allows you to breath in the Tudor element of Rothe House - Where you half expect to hear Polonius giving advising Laertes (Hamlet) or some other Shakespearian character like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice delivering his famous soliloquy on the quality of mercy.
Antlers dating back 10,000 years from a Great Irish deer (long extinct) are set high on the wall above the limestone fireplace dating to 1594 in the Phelan room and were found close to Swifts Heath, just outside the city where Dean Jonathon Swift pent his childhood while overhead in the Lanigan room is an incredible King post truss roof made without any metal screws or nails. There is the gay Hamlet wannabee here; the happy ghosts and intrigue and still talked about shafting of a kind person mixed in with manipulation by the Catholic church that no one likes talking about.
And it is true to say that much more is known about castles and monasteries and their occupants in Ireland than important traders, their families (of Tudor Ireland) and the huge impact these men of wealth and position had on the city. These sentiments were expressed by the great matriarchal figure of Kilkenny Archaeological Society (KAS) and Rothe House, Mrs Margaret P Phelan before she died. As always she
And it is Margaret and her far seeing contemporaries that we have to thank for a treasure that any other urban centre in Ireland would pay a king’s ransom to have.
Within the walls of the three houses are three courtyards, the garden, irreplaceable pieces of Kilkenny history in various displays and on the walls which have been bequeathed or gifted to KAS, by families who know the KAS will mind them, cherish them, put them on public display or make them available to researchers.
People of Kilkenny city and county have to reconnect with Rothe House and should to go in and see the most important repository of Kilkenny treasures anywhere, including Kilkenny Castle, the National Museum, anywhere.
And if it is to your eternal shame, that you have not explored it then there is hope. For the next month, the KAS are allowing anyone with a voucher form this week’s Kilkenny people in to the entire complex for 2 euro.
And it is important to record the names of those pioneers who set up Rothe house. The first committee of the KAS in 1945 was: Chairman: Dr. Martin Crotty, LLD., Joint Hon. Secretaries: Hubert Butler and Peter Brennan, Hon. Treasurer: W. G. Mahony, Committee: Adrian Bligh, Sylvester Bourke, Dr. P.J. Cassin, Rev. T.J. Clohosey, E. Dobbs, Dr. W.J. Phelan, Mrs M. Phelan, Miss May Sparks, Mrs Nancy Stopford and Dr. F. Walsh (Callan).
Another milestone came in 1962 when the house was jointly purchased with John Brennan, who already had a butcher’s shop in the front house and was a very popular figure. In 1966 the KAS opened the doors on their museum and later Brennan’s shop was added as the second house. It was purchased from Timothy O’Hanrahan who had already spent a fortune in restoring the house.
What is most impressive about Rothe House named after the merchant prince John Rothe who imported silks and fine clothes from Bristol and northern France, is that it is owned by a voluntary group who keep this most remarkable piece of living history alive. Here too is a library without equal in terms of Kilkenny’s heritage. The great John Banim, the 19th century Kilkenny author went to school here and in one of his novels, gives a wonderful description of his time there. Peter DeLoughry who made the key which opened the lock to free Eamon de Valera from Lincoln Jail in England had his foundry at the rear of Rothe house and there garden boats a corbelled well used by monks in the 12th century. The Phelan and Lanigan rooms are more or less the same as they were back when the house was built in 1594 and the Phelan room in particular is a wonderful example of Tudor architecture and the walls are lined with portraits of Sir John Lavery and his wife, the ravishing Lady Hazel. Lavery spent the latter yeas of his life at Rossenarra House, Kilmoganny while his wife, an American heiress was more outgoing and it is true to say they were the Posh and Becks of the London society in their day after the turn of the 20th century and she did had a great love for the Big Fella, Michael Collins. Their portraits are captivating and because they are so available, they are alarmed.
The garden is true to its past and the first section includes a vegetable garden as it did when Rothe was in situ while there is also a herb garden and an orchard and it is an oasis of calm in the centre of the city. And again it demonstrates what life was back in the late 16th and early 17th century and the wall mounted notices give excellent information including the fact that Cardinal Rinuccini would have walked her during the Confederation of Kilkenny.
There is a continuity here too. The Gaelic league in Kilkenny was founded here by Timothy O’Neill and their monthly meetings are still held here in the same room were the governing body of the society meets once a month.
And a stone arch of a window from No 1 Parliament Street which rests in the second courtyard has a haunting story - Because the Penal Laws were still, technically, in force in 1798, rebels taken prisoner during the ill-fated rebellion would not have been given the last rites before they were hanged in the gaol (now Kilkenny Court house), but they would have known that a priest was blessing them from the window across the street and they would have turned to bless themselves before going to meet their maker.
On the ground close to it is a cist grave dating from the Bronze Age, around 4,000 years ago and a food vessel that was buried under it forms part of the intriguing archaeological display in the third house. There are little nuggets of information at every turn - on the walls, along the stairs; each room has its own story.
For example, the fact that in 1857, an eccentric relation of Dean Jonathon Swift, Godwin Meade Swift, 2nd viscount Carlingford designed and constructed a “plane” is commemorated. The propeller and wooden wheel of the ill-fated contraption hangs on the wall. It fell off the top of Foulksrath Castle on its maiden and final journey and Swifts Heath house had to be altered to remove it from the main dining room because the Viscount hadn’t measured the entrance properly. People from the city, county and all over the world donate items because they know they will be cared for by the KAS like the Viking sword donated by a Mrs Kinivan; rare books and manuscripts in the library and like the Toler-Aylward collection, the largest costume collections in the country, and a small number of
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dresses are currently on display – the trousseau of Lady Eleanor Butler who married Hector Charles Toler-Aylward of Shankill Castle in 1894. Many of the costumes in the collection were donated by the Toler-Aylward family and it is intended to include a large selection in the new exhibition display which is currently being designed and will be presented as part of the Renaissance Project the final piece of the jigsaw in the rejuvenation of Rothe House which has seen a new management structure put in place to allow the KAS to concentrate on what it was set up to do: .
As you would expect with such an old site, there are claims of spirits, ghosts and unusual happenings, unexplainable normal terms
But these are of a good type, according to Roisin McQuillan . This especially so in the second house where, as far as we know the last person born there was artist, Carmel Delaney-Mooney and a photograph of her in her pram outside Rothe House is on the wall.
The Power family are well represented and a portrait of Sir John Power who gave us Kilfane Waterfall hangs in the Langton room while an extraordinary painting of his brother, Sir John, who founded the Kilkenny Theatre is in another wall as you go down the stairs from that room and he looks very comfortable in hosiery etc as Hamlet and many have wondered if he way gay?
The ten great merchant families of Kilkenny are here, well almost were: Archdeken, Archer, Cowley, Langton, Lee, Knaresborough, Lawless, Raggett, Rothe and Shee. Many of the stone plaques that would have been set in the front walls of there homes now vanished, are in the second courtyard while others are in St Mary’s Church grounds. However, the Rothe’s plaque with family crest is still embedded in the front wall.
I will let the late Margaret M. Phelan, to explain the importance of Rothe House: In Ireland we know much more about the priest in his medieval monastery, the lord in his feudal castle, than we do about the important trader, his family and workers. We have many more churches and castles than we have merchant homes. So it is impossible to over rate the great importance of Rothe House, its service to the present community, and its dignified, gracious reflection of times gone past.
To walk into the library at Rothe house is one of the great pleasures of life and under the stewardship of librarian, Edward Law it is in safe hands. Every book ever written about Kilkenny is here along with all the graveyard inscriptions from around the county. Kilkenny’s great literary figures are not forgotten and the works of the Banim brothers; Francis MacManus and Francis Hackett; Earl of Desart are here. It also holds maps, including the Grand Jury maps of Kilkenny from the early 1800s which were discovered in a local solicitor’s office. There is a superb holdings of all local newspapers from the 1780s including the Kilkenny People.
The most important book in the library is ‘The New Testament’, printed at Rhemes by John Fogny in 1582. There is also a first edition of the Roman Catholic version of the New Testament in English. It was given by an American descendant of a Kilkenny family. A book which could have been one of the few which John Rothe may have had when he built the house. One of Francis Hackett’s books, in a special binding, has this humorous presentation inscription to his sister: “One of 25 copies I had bound specially. I am too delicate to number the 25. So you can choose a nice low number for yourself.” The archive includes a variety of material from the 1700s onwards: deeds, manuscripts, family papers, club and charity minutes, commercial records and a fascinating collection of business letterheads from the 1870s through to the 1960s.
Kilkenny Family History
Rothe House has offered a family history research service to those of Kilkenny ancestry for many years. Recently this has been extended to a practical online facility available 24/7 to anyone wishing to trace Irish origins. RootsIreland.ie has over 20 million records of baptisms, marriages, death augmented by some early census records e.g. 1821, indexes to Griffith
Valuation and other sources proving invaluable to those either filling in an ancestor on a family tree to those starting to seek their Irish roots. Backed up by personal enquiry service this has proved popular to the many users who use the service. Locally one can always visit the member’s library in Rothe House to continue the search which provides them with a cornucopia of additional sources which can be examined for additional information to build up the family story. The newspaper archive includes those of yesteryear
As part of the Gathering Initiative, Kilkenny Archaeological Society and Rothe House Trust are organising a three day conference on the subject of ‘Emigration through the Centuries’ in April. The objective is to encourage those who are researching their Kilkenny family history to return in April, and find out more about their ancestors and why they might have emigrated. Full details of the conference are on www.rothehouse.com, or by telephoning 056 7722893.
As well as being responsible for all facets of the house, KAS, publishes an annual journal, the Old Kilkenny Review. Membership at E30 per individual and E40 per family includes free access to the library, house and gardens and members receive updates on events and workshops and a 10% discount on all purchases made in the shop.