SOME graves in modern cemeteries are regarded by many to be a little over the top although decorated with the best of intentions. But if you want to see real burial bling then go and see St Mary’s Church ground off High Street, Kilkenny. In many cases, the Machiavellian, medieval merchant princes of the city paid for their own memorials in their honour before they died. John Rothe’s magnificent tomb for himself and his wife Mary Archer was completed seven years before Rothe’s death) photographed elsewhere on thi page. To put it in perspective, you could buy a good sized farm in the 16th and 17th century with the cost of the decorated monuments put up by the Rothes and other families during that period.
These self perpetuating memorials have stood the test of time and have provided us with a hugely valuable insight into the lives of these wealthy families who ruled the city when it was regarded as the centre of power in Ireland.
It was really the golden period of Kilkenny city and these princes who owned the city centre and totally controlled every facet of life in it, left us with the imprint for the new modern Kilkenny city with its medieval fabric making it one of the best in these islands off the coast of Europe. And St Mary’s was at the centre of this world. We learn from the most eminent authority on the medieval history of Kilkenny John Bradley, there was a reward for anyone who caught and killed a pig in the graveyard during this era.
St Mary’s is not, on first inspection that impressive visually, especially since a major part of it was knocked a few centuries ago. However, it is one of the most important historical and heritage sites in Ireland - a hidden heritage gem with what is regarded as the best collection of medieval/Renaissance tomb slabs in the country. As a narrative it doesn’t come much better with vaults robbed for their treasure, late night revellers from The Hole In The Wall, High Street, throwing tomb slabs over John’s Bridg; a near secret society that won’t let anyone see their meeting place and a clock tower reached by a scary looking wooden stairs which is higher than the clock and bell tower of City Hall.
And then there is the monument room with some of the most fascinating decorated stone memorials to be found anywhere. Include two beautiful semi-detached stone, alm houses, dating from the 1840s.
We all have our own memories of St Mary’s: the once a month Church of ireland dances, games of badminton, meals on wheels lunches, paintings hanging their during Arts Week and allkinds of meetings. Thankfully the vandalism of the site has stopped although the damage will take a lot of time and money to correct. On another level St mary’s reflected the fortunes of various monarchs and there religious leanings over the centuries. For hundreds of years ownership has see-sawed between Protestants and Catholics over who should worship there. o
Now we stand on on a threshold. St Mary’;s stands on the verge of a new greatness thanks to the borough council and other partners who want to transform it into a museum type space.
What will happen the sealed crypt under the monuments room and what will happen the fox, thought to be a female, that is a regular visitor to St Mary’s and the back of Supermacs.
The vision is to renovate and restore St Mary’s and turn it into a museum of national significance and to incorporate an archive containing notable local artefacts in there. That would mean that important pieces of Kilkenny’s history in storage for many years in Dublin and elsewhere would be returned.
Having walked up the narrow stairs to the top of the bell tower, it really is wonderful and the views of the city centre are amazing. All been sections of the tower has been monitored by experts and will form a major part of the St Mary’s experience in much the same way as climbing the round tower is part of the St Canice’s cathedral tour. Interestingly St Canice’s was seen as the preserve of the wealthy landowners led by the Ormondes.
In the monuments room there is marble plaque to the Kingsmill family, all born in Kilkenny and one entry in particular caught my attention: “William born 1753, an officer of the 66th regiment who served through the Peninsular Wars and St Helena, guarding Napoleon and later Lt Col in the Canadian Militia, served for 21 years as sheriff of Niagara (Wow). What life. The families who paid for the monuments still own them and I wonder what would happen if they wanted to remove them.
St Mary’s is full of this kind of stuff. if you love historical minutia like me or just want to be entertained then go to St Mary’s. And once all the security issues are sorted out it will become a little retreat in the centre of the city, a little mini-park where you will be able to go for for a sandwich at lunch time or a little walk in the evening if you get tired of the shops.
The church is linked to Shee Alms House on Mary’s Lane and there was once we are told a a gate opposite the house into the church yard. The house was used to house six homeless men and six homeless and is now the city’s tourist office.Alms house and The Tholsel (City Hall). you realise much in the same way as City Manager Joe Crockett and his team did that what looks like a drab old church is indeed one of the most priceless gems in the city’s arsenal of heritage places. And let’s forget the garden on Bateman quay and concentrate on what is needed and achievable St mary’s Visitor Centre and museum
The restoration of St Mary’s is so important for the people of Kilkenny to appreciate the lives of the past and those who really founded modern Kilkenny like the Shees, Rothes, and others. St. Mary’s church was built in the late twelfth century, as a chapel for the then newly constructed Kilkenny castle. We lear from the Conservation Plan for St Mary’s prepared for the heritage Council that it was chosen for Its central location within the walled town (not yet a City) for its prominence and coilin O’Drisceoil explained that even today it is the first thing the castle, it is the you see when you look from the widnows of Kilkenny Castle which overlook The rose garden.
As with most periods everything depenced on how much money you had. The Town Council maintained the Church and graveyard and an annual four pence was collected from each hall and a half penny from each stall or shop to fund its upkeep. Kilkenny Borough Council purchased the church and graveyard from the Church of Ireland in 2009, with financial support from Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Heritage Council. The site is now entering a new phase in its history, where it is hoped that it will once again become a vibrant part of city life. Indeed the Local Authority is planning, subject to funding, to develop the church into a new civic museum.
A programme of works has been started to open the site to the public. The pedestrian gates have recently been repaired and reopened, new signage is currently being installed to inform visitors about the history of the site and paths been laid. All of this work is being done with care, and with the appropriate heritage and conservation advice, as set out in the St. Mary’s Church and Graveyard Conservation Plan. As the church and graveyard are of national heritage significance they are protected under heritage legislation. The photo above shows the new paths that have been laid to make the graveyard more accessible
It was during renovations to the church in the 1960s, that the monument room was incorporated into the north transept of the church. It houses the fine 13th-century Gothic fluted font and a number of memorials to the Garvey, Watson, Archer, Murphy,
Dunphy and Rothe families. It also contains a number of inscribed medieval tombstones and a stone which marked the entrance to a crypt that lies sealed beneath its floor.
We learn from Lanigan and Tyler’ publication in 1977 that the stone screen to the right of the entrance door are six heraldic shields of the old families (Pembrokes, Shees, Rothes, Kellys, Archers, Daniels) which must have been put there for safety years ago. They measure roughly 2ft x 3ft and are of Kilkenny limestone with a raised surrounding frame and were originally used by the old merchant families to adorn and mark out their homes. To the west of the church, the handsome tomb of William and Margareta) Goer from 1351 ‘provides aus with a visual of the kind of costume worn by the burgesses of Kilkenny in the second half of the 14th century, John Bradley tells us The patronage and upkeep of St Mary’s was a visible sign of the pride and wealth of the burgesses, its tombs and chapels reflected their status and it was an important venue for civic ritual. Both church and bell tower, which was evidently spacious, were frequently used for meetings of the corporation and of the town court. In the sixteenth century, if not before, it was one of the principal locations for the performance of the town plays.’
Bradley adds: “The wealthiest of burgesses were allowed rights of burial within the church while the remainder of the population was interred in the churchyard. The reverence with which the churchyard was viewed is evident in the ordinance of 1337, which rewarded anyone who killed pigs found within the churchyard.’ The graveyard has a unique collection of unusual and elaborate grave slabs, including ‘the effigial one to William Goer and his wife Margareta Prominent Kilkenny families like the Shees and the Rothes are well represented within the church and graveyard.
Thr Freemasons have been part of Kilkenny life for generations. For the last 47 years, the “Brethern” have been located on the first floor of St Mary’s and will soon relocate to the Maltings opposite the CBS secondary school.Lodge No 642 is a beautiful chamber, full of colourful banners and insignia, yet few have seen it. The Freemasons established in Kilkenny in 1785 and until 1963 were located in what is now one of the best restaurants in the country, Rinuccini’s on The parade.
The Kilkenny lodge is part of the St Provincial Grand Lodge of South Eastern Counties. It’s a men only institution with secret handshakes etc. Or is that a misconception. Are they a group of liked minded individuals who help each other out and do charitable acts. Has it been unfairly tarnished for its traditions.
One name that stands out in the modern story of St Mary’s George Sherwood. he was resposnsible for peservin the place for over 50 yesrs and still takes a daily interest in it. never one for the limelight he will be slightly embarassed at being mentioned but there are amny people in Kilkenny and beyond that owe george Sherwood their gratitudehe wouldn’t call it a debt.