The first in a series of excavations and conservation works began last week in the gardens of the old Bishops Palace by the Heritage Council of Ireland in conjunction with Kilkenny Archaeology in an attempt to rejuvenate the spark and interest in local and community history, with an aim of raising local and national awareness of the rich and yet undiscovered history in Kilkenny City.
During the ongoing dig, free tours of the grounds and environs (Wednesday and Thursday June 8/9) were given with the hope of getting all from Kilkenny and abroad involved.. Over 50 people attended these tours.
A big feature of the dig and tour, led by members of Kilkenny Archaeology Coilin O’Drisceoil and Colm Murray, was the unearthing of the previously looked-over Robing Room.
Thought to be built circa 1750 as a quiet place for the Bishop to prepare himself comfortably for service; the Robing Room is built on the basement of an older structure, which may date as far back as the sixteenth century. It is not known what the foundation building underneath the Robing Room was used for, though it is thought to have been a garden house, or even a gate house to the larger Bishop’s Palace. However, references from such figures as Bishop Newcom in 1775 refer to the buildings uses for afternoon tea and wine drinking.
Lavishly built for its time, the Robing Room aeven featured heated benches – heated from an underfloor flue fire system – on which the Bishop could dress himself before walking onto Church Lane underneath a (no longer existing) colonnade to St. Canice’s Cathedral. Remnants of the heating system, along with the benches and what may have been a clothing press can still be seen in the building to date.
Further excavations behind the Robing Room, thanks to the team led by Coilin O’Drisceoil, may point to the building being connected to the old City Wall, as the building’s western walls are approximately two meters thick.
The Robing Room itself is thought to be somewhat of a national treasure. The mechanically straight cutting of the wall’s stone, along with certain indentations on the steps beside the building may indicate the involvement of ground-breaking engineer and entrepreneur, William Colles. Colles himself, former owner of the Blackquarry, designed the first stone-cutting machinery which appears to have been used in the development of the Robing Room. Were this the case, the Robing Room would stand to be one of the earliest examples of such high-quality machine-cut limestone.
The main Bishop’s Palace building is much older. Built in 1350 under Bishop Ledred (infamous as leader of the persecution against Dame Alice Kyteler), made up of three demolished churches that were no longer needed. The Palace has undergone many face-lifts since then, undergoing renovation in the sixteenth century, and again in the seventeenth under Bishop Este, giving it the now Georgian look it has today. Despite this much of the fourteenth century structure is still contained inside the building.
Another surprising find on the dig was a large amount of Deer antlers, which may point to a large comb-making enterprise run by a monastic settlement in the area during the ninth and tenth centuries, which would have been a key element in the development of early Kilkenny City.