The coincidences are impressive.
Dr Michael Conway, a native of Limerick who studied medicine at Oxford University, found his way to Kilkenny in the late ’90s to take up a post at St Luke’s Hospital.
While here, he purchased a historic city-centre house without knowing at the time that it would combine some of the passions in his life.
Not only did the building – now called the Hole in the Wall – remind him of Oxford, it also echoed a style of paintings he created years before ever seeing the place. And it turns out the same building was home to the Royal College of Physicians three centuries ago.
Raised in a Catholic family in Limerick, Dr Conway spent two years at University College Oxford after having “committed sin” by attending Trinity College Dublin.
As it happens, his time in Oxford from 1979-81 was at the peak of the IRA campaign in England.
“I went there thinking they wouldn’t want me, but I ended up being accepted like a son,” he recalls.
He ran a dining society, where students met for black-tie dinners in the college, and ended up setting up a St James’s Gate Society as well, with the aim of fostering Anglo-Irish relations.
“A lot of those Oxbridge types went on to be influential in the Blair government, and here I was showing aspects of Irish society, promoting Irish cheese, Irish produce, St Patrick’s Day breakfasts,” he says. “It’s like as if it was the start of the peace process.”
Snake venom as treatment
Dr Conway moved back to Limerick afterwards but was then invited to return to Oxford, where he spent the next 11 years training in John Radcliffe Hospital.
There, he worked on pioneering research in the area of treatments for heart-attack patients, including an “ace inhibitor” that comes from the venom of a Brazilian snake and which is now a standard treatment.
“We did the biggest ever trial with 58,000-plus patients worldwide,” which was no simple task. “It was stressful at the time, just trying to determine what the safe dose would be to give to 58,000 people.”
After spending the next few years back in Ireland as a lecturer in clinical pharmacology and therapeutics at Trinity College Dublin, and then working as a consultant in London Chest Hospital, he decided to return here long-term.
“I was very keen to come back – it’s like a salmon wanting to come back to its spawning grounds, the Irish wanting to come home,” he says.
And so he found himself working at St Luke’s Hospital. “I came back then and got stuck into getting the cardiac services for Carlow/ Kilkenny sorted; we built the coronary care unit that is one of the best in the world,” he says.
But all along the way, Dr Conway has kept up that link with Oxford, including the hosting of a medical conference and introducing to Kilkenny the Dawn Choral, an Oxford tradition that he began here at 5:55 on 5-5-5 (May 5, 2005).
Seeing the house that is now the Hole in the Wall off Kilkenny’s High Street, he was likewise “subconsciously linking a building with the kind in Oxford” with its Tudor features, and “set off to build a little bit of Oxford in Kilkenny”.
“I was saying to myself, ‘This is Oxford of the 1600s. This is a city that should have a whole group of colleges and should be an academic powerhouse’,” he recalls.
When he started to research the history of the building, he started in Rothe House, looking through documents and searching bookstores for references to it.
Early on, he came across the Personal Recollections of Sir Jonah Barrington, which included a section on Kilkenny and a section on the Hole in the Wall. “It was a very weird thing, because I have never seen that book on the shelf since,” he notes.
What is now the Hole in the Wall was originally the inner house of a mansion built in 1582 by Martin Archer, part of “a very powerful merchant family” with at least 8,000 acres.
“The story then is that unfortunately they linked up with the Confederacy of Kilkenny and they were very prominent in it and as a result (when Cromwell invaded) they ended up being sent ‘to hell or Connacht’ or ‘to hell or Barbados’,” Dr Conway says.
When Catholic King Charles II took the English throne, however, he gave it to the Duke of Ormonde, who had supported him in the previous troubled years, and a college was set up with a dozen professors from France teaching Greek, French, Hebrew, philosophy, rhetoric, grammar and the like.
Subsequently, Dr Conway, says: “James II came over and wanted to set up the Royal College of St Canice, but six months later he lost the Battle of the Boyne and the Battle of Aughrim”.
And so the victors “came to Kilkenny and wiped out anything that James’s supporters had established, including the university. So for 300 years there has been no indigenous university – and now it has to happen.”
Once again, he is doing his part, having just hosted University Month in the venue in September.
The building also fits in with another one of Dr Conway’s interests: music.
In the past year and a half, the Hole and the Wall has hosted gigs by the likes of Juliet Turner, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Donal Dineen, Don Mescall and Liam Ó Maonlaí – and funnily enough, it isn’t his first venture into concert promotion. He was also the promoter behind ‘Rock Fest’, which brought Diamond Head and other heavy-metal acts to Kilmanagh’s Ballykeeffe Amphitheatre – an experience that he says was “like running away with the circus”.
In recent months, the venue has also created an opportunity for discovering and giving a platform to emerging talent.
“One of those is Steve Reilly, and the most extraordinary has been Ciara McCollan, who basically brought Edith Piaf to life here in the Hole in the Wall and has now gone to Florence to learn to be a painter,” Dr Conway says.
His aim is also to try to draw in different types of audiences, with lectures on Lady Desart, James Joyce and the history of Ireland in one hour.
“If anything drives me, it is the passion to see Kilkenny become what is should be, which is an academic medieval campus, addressing aspects of the arts, the creativity that would get people employed in Hollywood, that would attract academics to come and live here,” Dr Conway says.
“This city has something special to offer. It is Oxford waiting to be created in the South East of Ireland.”