NEXT time you drive or walk past Maudlin Street Castle, consider this: It was the predecessor to the Betty Ford Clinic in the USA where the wealthy from Kilkenny city went to recuperate from various illnesses and conditions and to deal with old age.
Well-helled patients were provided with their own private living space, garden and orchard. It also acted as a retirement home for rich burgesses like the Rothes, Langtons (not Eamon) and Shees. The plush rooms in the Magdalene Castle were reserved for only the wealthiest burgesses and we also know from recent archaeological digs on the street that their diet was mainly beef, mutton and bacon and some wild fowl. No sign of fish which is a little unusual when you consider that the castle is next to the River Nore.
Magdalene Castle was named after Mary Magdalene, the woman of dubious virtue befriended by Christ and she has always been associated with looking after lepers and outcasts from society. And so it was that the street, Maudlin Street got its name because it was written down phonetically
The original structure was built by William Marshall, the Norman responsible for Kilkenny Castle.
We are not sure if it formed part of the city’s main defence but it certainly protected the outer precincts and also kept the lepers and others away from the main population.
Before we go into the rich past of this wonderful structure, we note, sadly, that there is even not so much as sign on the castle or a plaque along side it, telling us anything of its past or its importance in medieval Kilkenny.
The powers that be are fixated by the “Golden Mile” from Kilkenny Castle to St Canice’s Cathedral but here is a wonderful example of a Norman Castle that was used at various stages as a kind of work house, Drakelands nursing home, castle and “community centre” and used as the background in a number of excellent 19th century novels.
Close by is St Stephen’s graveyard and you pass by wonderful rows of immaculately kept terraced houses that link it and the castle while in the background you have the river, the weir and straight across the river, Ormonde Mills. Again, this castle, like others, should be lit up at night to show it off properly. And no one on the street can remember when it was last opened. I understand that it now holds a number of the grave slabs taken from the River Nore as part of the flood relief scheme. It would seem that it is crumbling inwards but no one can be certain because it is never open. Why couldn’t the gate be opened to allow people look around it without going up the stairs which I can only conjecture are still there.
Indeed this is probably the nicest part of the city and even the graveyard has huge secrets. It is the resting place of Kilkenny’s most famous writer, John Banim, but apart from a small plaque on the outside wall on the Dublin Road side telling you is grwve is in it, you cannot find his grave.
And the only sign on the castle is a little one on the Maudlin Street side to say it is under the care of Commissioners of Public Works and that tells you a lot.
To counteract that, there is a fierce pride of place in Maudlin Street and the environs and there is not one piece of graffiti on the monument and although no one ever seems to have got inside it, local people will always stop and chat to visitors who stumble across with is a hidden gem of the city.
Two hundred yards down the street is a turret which must have formed part of defence wall from John’s Priory or was part of the Castle Wall. Again, there is nothing there to tell you anything of its history.
Historical and archaeological evidence garnered from human bones suggests that Leprosy arrived in Ireland in the 10th or 11th century. In the Middle Ages, before the advances of modern medicine, any disfiguring skin disease was thought to have been caused by leprosy. But in fact it may not have been quite as prevalent as was thought: where large amounts of medieval skeletons have been investigated around 2-3% show evidence for the disease.
Lepers were usually banned to leper hospitals and were housed with those who were poor and sick and desperate enough to risk infection. The treatment involved long-term isolation, with no visitors allowed, leading often to divorce. Under the law of the church lepers were considered dead, and had no rights.
As stated earlier, many leper houses were dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene because of the association between the biblical Mary Magdalene and sexual excess and prostitution, activities that were connected in medieval lore with leprosy.
By the sixteenth century the incidence of leprosy had declined dramatically. The reason for this was not advances in the treatment of the disease but the fact that anyone who was weak or sick had already been wiped out by the 1348-9 Black Death.
Our Hospital of St. Mary Magdalene was certainly in existence by 1327 and it quickly became one of the principal leper houses in medieval Ireland. Like most other hospitals it was somewhat remote from the town, on the edge of the suburb of St.John’s, and surrounded by high walls. Entrance into its precinct was strictly controlled through a gatehouse that was connected with the Magdalene castle. Inside the defended precinct there was a chapel, a graveyard (now St. Stephen’s graveyard) and the suite of hospital buildings. The hospital also held 50 acres of farmland in what is now the townland of Maudlin land, a kilometre to the east.
Right from its foundation it must have been over-run with patients, as the first half of the fourteenth century saw Ireland overrun with famine, disease, war and finally in 1348-9, the Black Death. Half of Kilkenny’s population perished in the Black Death. Because the hospital was run by a monastic order it was dissolved by order of Henry VIII in 1541. The castle was described as follows at this time: ‘a small castle roofed with tiles, which was built for the defence of the lepers and dwellers in the suburbs, this is now empty and worth nothing’.
In recent years, Deputy John McGuinness has pushed the OPW to do something with the structure including re-roofing it so that it could be put to good use and not just left locked up and idle. Alas, he was unsuccessful.
Thank you - Special thanks to Coilin O’Drisceoil for all his help and for coming up with the Betty Ford analogy.
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