THERE is no where in Ireland to match Kells Priory for awe and wonder. The largest enclosed ecclesiastical site on the island; with more towers than Noel Hickey has All Ireland medals and with more history than Kilkenny Castle, Kells seems, somehow, to languish in the shadow of the city. It became a monastic fortress like no other and its seven castles, built later as part of Burgess Court are, incredibly, still standing.
The former Augustinian domain does not and has not received the attention, recognition and most importantly marketing and money that it deserves. Cash is thrown at the centre of Kilkenny city like confetti.
However a visitor centre with detailed information on the priory and the village, along with full-time guides taking in the trio of treasures at nearby Kilree, would provide the local economy with a major boost and help existing businesses to survive and prosper.
Amazingly the OPW, have just finished an excellent, painstaking, reconstruction of the Prior’s Tower in the centre of the priory yet no one knows about it and if a small boy hadn’t wandered in past a fence, then neither would I.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan and his rival John McGuinness TD should come down and have a picnic on the site and take in it’s majesty. When we think of the huge untapped potential here we are reminded of people like the late John Sheridan who did so much, with a great band of people in the early ‘90s, to promote Kells, the mote, the adorable 5/8 arch bridge, the mills and much more.
I would like to quote something John Sheridan said when he was chairman of KRETE in 1993: “We feel a great responsibility to preserve and conserve the largest and finest complex of monastic ruins in the country for ourselves and our descendants. We are beginning to develop services and facilities which will enable us to fully share our wonderful inheritance with visitors.” Maybe its time the flame was passed to a new generation - many of them live in the new Burgess Court, overlooking the old one which was originally known as “Villa Prioris”.
This article is not intended to be critical but it is shocking to think that such a gem as Kells and its priory has not been championed by those in authority. If you feel strongly on the issue we would encourage you to write in to the Kilkenny People and express a view. Kells Regional, Economic and Regional Enterprise did fantastic work and maybe its time that the efforts of Matt White, the Mullallys and others were taken on by other people in the area.
Kells Priory was built in 1193 by a Norman and he put four Augustinian monks in charge who could also perform priestly duties. They were from Bodmin Priory in Cornwall. They were of a high calibre and the place flourished. And men from this part of England were priors at Kells for generations. The priory just seemed to grow and grow with a huge population surrounded by great land. We are lucky to have a record by Br Walter Pembroke from 1382. He was in charge of the provisions for the monks and in April of that year he purchased saffron, pepper, geese, pigs, wooden bowls, figs and oil for the lamps. This tells us that this was a sophisticated existence and on a broader note, it would seem the Cornwall based monks who came here in 1193 weren’t concerned with a defensive strategy. They built their monastery in a hollow on an island that flooded and has since been filled with silt. Maybe, they depended on the monks at Kilree round tower to ring their bells on top of the tower if trouble was coming.
Writing poetry in Kells could be a dangerous occupation. Just ask the Powers, known as the De Poers back in the late 14th century. One of the Powers very unwisely called the verses of a future Earl of Thomond, Maurice Fitz Thomas, the rantings of a rhymer rather than bardic verses. As a result, his lands were laid to waste and particularly Kells, including the Priory. It led to a massive feud with Fitz Thomas, supported by the Butlers and Berminghams on one side and on the other, Lord Arnold Poer, aided by the De Burgos.
We are told torrents of blood flowed on both sides and it became a near nationwide row with all major towns reinforced with soldiers. The following year (1329) the justiciary effected a reconciliation between the parties, and although it was the season of Lent, the event was celebrated by grand banquets in Dublin.
How apt, therefore, that the words of one of our greatest living poets, Kerry Hardie, the Skeoughvosteen Bard, are celebrated in limestone at the priory as part of a past collaboration with the Kilkenny Arts Festival which was a wonderful success. And good to note that Kerry had a poem on country life included in Saturday’s Irish Times.
The first local prior was elected, Elias of Shortallstown, early in the 14th century. Somehow it became as much a military installation as a place of prayer, duty and obedience and this was due to the coign and livery system where tenants of the landlord, in this case the de Poers and later the Butlers expected their tenants to billet their soldiers, horses and grooms. There was then a period of lawlessness and that is why Burgess Court was built between 1460 and 1475 to protect the local population and their livestock and other valuable possessions (from armed raiders.)
Of course all good things come to an end and it did at Kells Priory with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. In March 1540, the complex was surrendered to James Butler, the 9th earl of Ormond with the prior in situ, Nicholas Tobin receiving a pension of £5.
Even in 1540, the priory was huge and supported a large population. We include a layout of the complex from that time.
It is to their eternal credit that generations of local people have viewed Kells Priory as a special place not just a monastery but something more - It’s part of what they are and if you stand looking at the priory for long enough, someone from around the place will stop and ask you what you think of it or tell you that it is out of this world.
But the true romance of Kells priory is the complete lack of love displayed towards it by those in authority. There are two ways of looking at this. In blogs on the internet, people say how wonderful it is to come across Kells Priory, which they describe as off the beaten path. However, it should be incumbent on all the State and local bodies involved with Kells Priory to show it off in the best possible way and to exploit its worth by enhancing the visitor experience. At the entrance next to the car park there is a little table map with very little information. Even the church to the side, has nothing on it to tell you if it was or wasn’t the first parish church or as Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler thought it was, the original foundation church built by Geoffrey Fitz Robert in honour of St Kieran with the churchyard and its burial tombs a much later addition.
Like many of the hidden heritage gems of Kilkenny, Kells Priory begs more questions than answers. Entrance to the medieval site is through a muddied, backward swinging gate. There is another vehicular entrance and maybe that’s the one that should be used in future. Remember, that was the original entrance to Kells and it is certain that the prior had it tolled.
It would seem that very little time, attention or thought has gone into marketing a unique, medieval marvel set in the undulating countryside of south Kilkenny.
Every able bodied person in the city and county should go to Kells at the first opportunity and to do the “circle.” Start at the little carpark overlooking the priory just off the road leading to Stoneyford. Walk down the field towards the priory. Take your time and take in each tower of the outer Burgess Court which are really small castles (keeps) and then veer right and in the main entrance.
What stands out for me in the enclosure is the Prior’s Tower which the OPW have brought back to life even putting a wooden roof on it. It is a fantastic achievement and the OPW are to be thanked for that work.
The tower was a late addition to the place, from the late 15th century and was part of the south wall. It is four stories high and has a wooden roof which can be accessed complete with walkway and parapet, chimney and turret. Beware the stairs are steep.
You can make out different buildings as you go along the complex and once you have a plan in your hand, it’s easy. Otherwise, it is totally confusing.
When you have had enough of medieviality and effigies, tomb stones and what not, slip out the back and over the bridge crossing the Kings River and take in the two beautiful water mills which should be in working order and used to provide visitors with another reason to visit enchanting Kells.
And there below you is the 5/8 bridge which has five arches or eight arches depending on where you are standing when you look at it. It was built in 1725 and added to in 1775. It is a wonderful piece of engineering-architecture and is worth moment of your time.
And before that a beautiful old cottage living symbiotically with a thatch cottage, is totally in keeping with the atmosphere of the place. If you get thirsty, the first of three pubs greets you on your way up past the bridge, Delaney’s. On the far side of the road is where the original castle built by Geoffrey Fitz Robert stood and the mote (outer ditch) or at least part of it survives with some commentators suggesting that the stone from the castle was used to construct some of the priory buildings.
Up to the main part of the village with a garage on one side; Shirley’s pub on the other and the Priory pub on the far side. Shirley’s has a beautiful representation of the priory painted on the wall.
Here too, at the garage side, some 50 years ago they found a streetscape when they put in oil tanks before the new planning regulations came in 1963. The tanks fitted into two recesses that were there for hundreds of years under the ground, suggesting a town lay-out.
The old people of Kells have many secrets. They know of the secret passage from this spot to the priory and one man, now in his 80s, remembers going through the start of the tunnel with his brother and turning back, candle in hand, because of the cobwebs and the dark ahead.
Archaeological excavations by T. Fanning and finished by M. Clyne, after his death, found 20,000 pieces including complete glass windows dating back 900 years, but there were no major discoveries. Many think that local people are in possession of some very valuable artefacts and don’t really think the State should have them. They will never sell them but it would be nice to have them on permanent display somewhere in the village, maybe in the existing museum at the mill closest to the 5/8 bridge.
Invaluable work at Kells has been carried out by Con Manning who discovered the medieval “Hugh The Clerk” and Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler’s guide is essential reading and we look forward to a new edition of it in the near future.
This is the last in the series of Hidden Heritage Gems of Kilkenny city and county.