It is such a familiar feature of the city that we as Kilkenny people can often forget or become complacent about the significance of the round tower at St Canice’s Cathedral.
A brief conversation with an American visitor is a good remedy for this. They are generally appropriately impressed and appreciative of built heritage around a milennium old, and still in use today. Children, too, while perhaps unable to grasp some of the historical significance, are certainly captivated.
“As children, we learn about this history and these towers, but never really envisage climbing them,” says Elizabeth Keyes, administrator of St Canice’s Cathedral.
“It captures the imagination. For many Kilkenny children, it is a rite of passage at turning 12 years of age. It is the fear of the height, the wonderful view from the top, as well as the sense of achievement having climbed it.”
And thousands of people do so every year – it is one of only two round towers in the country still open to the public. Tourists sometimes ask odd questions:
‘What direction should I look when I get up there?’ (Answer: All of them!), ‘Is there no elevator?’ (rare in 11th Century buildings); and ‘Do I come down the same way?’ (There is a faster way down; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience).
The tower’s summit has been the scene of innumerable marriage proposals over the years. Most have thankfully elicited affirmative answers – a 121-step descent must seem an eternity when you are with the person who just rejected you.
The oldest person to climb it (in recent times) was very fit 87-year-old Dutch man, who decided that the hills of Holland had prepared him from anything.
Two of the foremost authorities on the site’s history, Coilin O’ Drisceoil and John Bradley, would contend that the tower was constructed just prior to the Synod of Rathbrassil in 1111, when the See of Ossory was moved from Aghaboe to Kilkenny.
Since then, the tower has been a feature of Coach Hill – where Kilkenny began – watching a millennia go by.
“It has withstood the test of time,” says Ms Keyes.
“It has stood over the city through centuries of changes, remaining the same and observing the changing buildings and cityscape.”
Oliver Cromwell, having sacked the adjacent cathedral in 1650, is said to have directed his armies from atop the tower during the siege of Kilkenny – it being the most commanding aerial position available in the area. It is also speculated that Cromwell was the culprit behind the disassembling of the original conical roof, and melting down the bell for ammunition.
While the tombstones of the surrounding graveyard are largely 18th Century and newer, the site was used likely used for burials since its earliest 6th Century settlement. Excavations carried out by Graves and Primms in 1850 revealed that the tower was constructed over fresh graves – that of a man, woman and child, buried in the traditional Christian manner.
While no Pisa, the tower leans around 0.7 metres to the Northeast, although its base has been since further secured. That the excavation also revealed the structure’s foundations to be less than a metre deep is further testament to the physics of the early architecture ; the tapered tower narrows in considerably toward the top with a wider, heavier base.
The wooden ladder stairs was put in during the 1960s, so there are still a few people out there who may remember climbing the old, stone, spiral staircase. Over the recent decades, people have left their own marks on various stages along the 121 steps to the top.
The view from the top, of course, is breathtaking.
On a clear day (which we had), you can apparently see six different counties: Wexford, Carlow, Wicklow, Laois, Tipperary and Kilkenny. I have been up the tower several times, but the view is different every time – a living city is constantly changing.
Even now, looking directly down below onto Dean Street, the landscape will soon be dramatically altered with the Central Access Scheme, and three new bridges will soon traverse the Nore.
Our iconic brewery too will soon vanish from the picture. There is an strange solace to be gained from simply observing the site from on high for a while, watching the activity of labour, the Wednesday-morning industry. I stared at it a long time. That scene alone may be worth the climb, to impress it on the memory before it is taken away, like Adam and his stars.
Every landmark in the city is plainly visible and the landscape is a varied tapestry – a smorgasbord of industry, farmland and residential sites. With the grid axes of geography and recent history, it is possible to spot where the property bubble began and where it suddenly ended.
It will remain a mainstay for tourists for centuries to come, but locals too should take the time to spend some time on Kilkenny’s summit. There is no better way to see the city’s past and present, and look forward into the future.