EVERYTHING comes down to sex and money – or so the cynics in our society would lead us to believe – so we start our story of the fantastic Bishop’s Palace in the oldest part of Kilkenny City with a little summer house built to its side.
The Robing Room attached to the palace was never, as far as we know, used for the purpose it was intended. Clergy going and coming from St Canice’s Cathedral to the Bishop’s Palace did not use it to change from their altar costumes to their everyday clothes. Anyway, the name ‘Robing Room’ only dates from the early 1960s.
There is growing speculation that a sophisticated under-floor heating system from the 1700s might have been used to keep female-only bums warm as they sat in seats in the neo-classical summer house as part of a bishop’s harem. The unfortunately named Bishop Pococke would have been able to sneak out a side door of the palace, down a wooden stairs and across the few yards into the Robing Room without being seen, and into what was a sauna, which he would have had come across during his travels of the Middle East.
Why has all this come to light only now? The threat of legal action concerning Pococke’s personal life prevents me from going further, but leading scholars agree that it is reasonable to assume their were sexual shenanigans going on there, and diaries recently decoded, which will be published elsewhere, will confirm all this.
Excavations carried out at the Robing Room in 2011 and 2012 as part of a Kilkenny Archaeology/Heritage Council research programme, examining Kilkenny’s origins as a town and the development of the Cathedral landscape between the 6th and 18th Centuries, show that the 18th century Robing Room was built over a part of St Canice’s Monastery – specifically a zone where comb-making and metal working was carried out.
More importantly, it tells us about the entire site, the palace and grounds where hundreds of pieces of chopped deer antler, the waste from a comb-maker’s workshop were found along with pieces of finely decorated ‘composite’ combs (presumably for removing nits from hair). Much more on that later.
However, this article is concerned with the Bishop’s Palace, the centre of power in Kilkenny and beyond for centuries. It was saved from dereliction thanks to the decision of the Heritage Council to locate its headquarters there and to the wisdom of the Church of Ireland authorities to sell the house to them to ensure its survival. The Heritage Council has brought huge expertise to the city and provided us with an independent body which is worth millions of euro to the local economy.
And when the money is available – it might provide us with the exact spot upon which the city was founded; where St Canice built his church. Ian Doyle, archaeological officer with the Heritage Council hopes that excavation of the green area directly behind the palace will unearth this.
And another interesting aspect to this place comes from “An Coibhi Drui” from the Old Irish, translated as “The Helpful Druid”, Michael McGrath, who asserts that the druids were forced off the hill where the palace, cathedral and tower are situated by the early Christians and banished. This is entirely logical and The Helpful Druid’s assertions may well be borne out by any subsequent digs at the Palace.
It was built by Bishop Ledred, who was known to be fond of witch burning, as Dame Alice Kyteler’s maid Petronella found to her cost. Yes, he was the man who had Dame Alice tried for witchcraft during a dark period in the history of the city.
The place is built at a high point of the city, overlooking the Nore and it is noteworthy that Ledred (1317-60) used the stones from three churches located just outside the City Wall to build the Palace. These were the churches of St Brigid, St Nicholas and St James.
This was unusual and it was wonderful to stand beside the green rose, (planted by former president Mary McAleese when she officially opened the Heritage Council offices), to hear Ian Doyle, archaeological officer and Colm Murray, architectural officer, with the council discuss the reasons why the stones from these three churches were used by a former French friar to build his palace. Colm suggested that after the Black Death there were very few worshippers around to fill these three churches while Ian nodded in agreement but said it was also Ledred’s (who seems to have been an upstart who started out life as a lowly French friar and not a priest, with a chip on his shoulder) wanted to assuming control of the entire place.
Both pointed out that it was unusual for a palace to be built so close to a diocesan see (St Canice’s Cathedral) and that normally bishops were kept as far away as possible from the actual seat of power. To be in the middle of such a passionate debate about Kilkenny, between two experts in their field, was humbling (but not in the Uriah Heep way) and reinforced my view of how lucky we are to have the Heritage Council in the city.
Afterwards Colm Murray told me that the Green Rose (‘Rosa Chinensis ‘Viridifolia’) was donated by Peter Wyse-Jackson, then director of the National Botanic Garden at Glasnevin, to the Heritage Council to mark the official opening. It was given to him by his grandmother Beryl Phair, daughter of Rt Rev J P Phair, Bishop of Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin, who lived in the Bishop’s Palace from the 1940s to the early 1960s.
His mother Lois remembers it growing in the grounds in the 1930s. It is believed to have been grown here since at least the early 1900s. Its origins as a cultivar go back at least to 1833.
And Colm Murray also has a direct connection with the most nostalgic record about the palace which comes from the Kilkenny People and Katharine Blake.
A wonderful chronicler of life, Katharine interviewed Ros Willoughby, daughter of the much-loved late bishop Noel Willoughby, who is buried close to the entrance to St Canice’s Cathedral.
Ros was the last child to grow up in the palace and walked from the palace to the cathedral on the day of her wedding in 1993, to one of finest Gaelic footballers ever produced by Mayo, Dermot Flanagan.
Nobody knows a house like a child, Katherine Blake said.
On entering the palace hall with Katharine, Ros asked where were the floor tiles.
“There were black and white tiles here when we lived here; I remember cleaning them with one of those,” she added pointing to the electric polisher being run back and forth across the Kilkenny limestone tiles. Colm assured her that the tiles she remembered were vinyl (a fact later verified by Ros’s mother, Valerie).
She noted in the interview that off the butler’s pantry, in the place of the Willoughby’s kitchen, there is now a lift. Ros said: “My father would be thrilled to see the lift. He carried all the coal and logs upstairs to the family drawing room and the formal drawing room and we had fires lighting in each every day.” Ros lived there from 1980 to 1997.
And having read the 2003 article in the old Kilkenny review about the palace, I found it hard to see where the four acres adjoining the site are but once you walk its perimeter you realise it is a huge place in the centre of a bustling little city.
Where is it?
The palace is located inside the wall on the left hand side of Vicar Street as you walk towards Troy’s Gate (named after a bishop who lived in the Palace). Just before the now-closed public house are two entrances. The one to the left brings you to the rear and side of the Palace. The other, more-dignified entrance to the Palace is from the narrow road directly behind St Canice’s Cathedral and beside the Good Shepherd Centre.
Still unsure about where I am talking? The next time you drive over Greensbridge towards the city centre you will see the lights of the wonderful glass pavilion with the white coloured palace behind it. It remains a secret, hidden gem of our heritage because of the limestone wall of between two and four metres in height that borders and it is dwarfed by the cathedral.
The palace is a working office, so while you can go in and pick up literature, but no right to wander around. But staff there are extremely obliging. There are guided tours and other public events through out the year, like the open archaeological dig this summer.
The restoration of the Bishop’s Palace was painstaking and honest. The result is a breathtaking building fit for purpose with a fabulous central stairway built originally in the 17th Century and replaced in the middle of the 18th Century.
The most remarkable part of the building is the tower (minus its external staircase) and there remains an original window frame from the period it was built. It was constructed as an extension, and it was where the male servants were accommodated with no access to the female servants on other side of the wall.
The pavilion is used as a canteen and meeting area and is on the actual site of the original kitchen and is not completely parallel with the palace, to keep true to the original kitchen footprint.
Back to Cóilín Ó Drisceoil and the significance of the archaeological digs at the Robing room over the last two summers:
A large ditch (similar in scale to the Anglo-Norman town ditch at Talbot’s Tower) was also discovered in the dig; this was a boundary between the sacred core of the ecclesiastical settlement – the area around the round tower that still stands today – and the ‘industrial zone’ where the comb-making was carried out. The more prestigious early medieval monasteries were enclosed by a series of concentric boundaries (banks and ditches, walls) and this is almost certainly the ditch that was found in the excavation.
Thanks to Cóilín the excavations have, for the first time, provided information on the nature of the ecclesiastical settlement at Kilkenny and everyday life there during the period before the Anglo-Norman conquest. Until 20 years ago, it was generally held that it was the Anglo-Normans who introduced towns to Ireland, prefaced by a small number of towns that were founded by the Vikings.
“The early medieval historian Charles Doherty and Kilkenny archaeologist John Bradley were amongst the first to make sustained arguments that some church settlements had developed into ‘monastic towns’ by at least the 10th century and perhaps before the Viking towns,” Cóilín said.
“Monastic towns were defined as trading centres with markets, industries and large socially-differentiated populations with streets, defensive enclosures, large numbers of houses and public buildings.
Recently, however, the historical evidence for monastic towns has been revisited by historians and it has been emphatically proven that the documentary sources can no longer be used to support the argument that there were towns in Ireland before the Anglo-Norman invasion (apart from the Viking towns).”
“And so, we are left now with just the very limited evidence of archaeology from a handful of potential ‘monastic town’ sites, one of which is Kilkenny. This is why the Robing Room excavations are so important, because they provide important new evidence from one of these putative ‘monastic town’ sites.
“The question then is what exactly was Kilkenny during the period before the Anglo-Norman conquest? Was it a monastery? Or a ‘monastic town’? Or was it some other form of large ecclesiastical settlement? These are the key questions that are being asked of the evidence at present and the answers that are finally provided will have far reaching consequences for the debate around the origins of towns in Ireland. As things stand the evidence would seem to indicate that Kilkenny was not a town prior to the coming of the Normans but there is still quite an amount of work to be done on all of the excavated material from the Robing Room and a number of other key sites within the Cathedral Close before any firm conclusions can be reached,” he said.
This work will be published in a book by Cóilín next year.
As always, this article would not have been possible without the assistance of archaeologist, Cóilín Ó Drisceoil and we look forward to his new book next year.
Thanks also to Mary Flood, Rothe House, who has long been an unsung hero for her work on Irish genealogy. Thanks also to Sinead Gibbons also from Rothe House
Liam Scott, a good Dicksboro man, was extremely helpful and organised a meeting with Colm Murray and Ian Doyle.
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