05 Jul 2022

St Canice’s Cathedral is Kilkenny’s Sacré Coeur - except that it has ghosts

Although it measures just 212 feet in length, St Canice’s Cathedral is full of priceless historical, archaeological and social data.

Although it measures just 212 feet in length, St Canice’s Cathedral is full of priceless historical, archaeological and social data.

There are tombs to the Butlers, lords dukes and marquises of Ormonde and of course, it is the resting place of Piers and Margaret Butler who really put the Butler name on the map. Here too are the remains of a direct descendant of Barack Obama, which doesn’t really overly excite US visitors to the place who come to visit.

Dame Alice Kyteler haunts the place literally, and it was here that her son, William Outlaw, kept his promise to a cranky Bishop Ledrede in the 14th Century to repair the cathedral roof to make up for his mother’s “alleged” crimes and the fact that she escaped before they could burn her at the stake. He intentionally loaded the roof with lead and ensured that it fell, bringing with it the central tower causing devastation below.

And beware, this is still a place of worship and people come all over the world to pray for their loved ones buried within the precincts. I often think of TS Elliott’s drama, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, surrounding the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, when I walk through the arch and through the beautifully ornate wooden doors of the cathedral.

As well as being a holy place, it has been subject to its fair share of intrigue, rows, feuds and that still continues today about who should have it (the Catholics or the current incumbents – the Church of Ireland who do a fantastic job).

Surviving fragments of a Romanesque church that accompanied the round tower speak of a magnificently ornate church here in the 12 century; after the Anglo-Norman conquest this was torn down to be replaced by the great cathedral that stands to this day. Its status as the diocesan see under rich patronage from the city’s nobility led to the construction of one of Ireland’s largest and finest medieval cathedrals.

What makes St Canice’s unique in Ireland however is the fact that its original Close survives intact, complete with its boundaries, gatehouse, Bishop’s Palace and a suite of buildings that housed the cathedral dignitaries. By European standards, St Canice’s is very modest in both size and elaboration. It is however, its very modesty and simplicity that makes it such a gem. Since it was completed in 1285, there have been no important additions or surviving alterations.

St Canice’s is also a very special place for archaeology. Not least because it was here that James Graves, one of the first great Irish archaeologists, worked, researched and was buried here in the 19th Century but also because the site contains such a vast wealth of information on the unwritten past, the stuff of archaeology.

Excavations have unearthed skeletons of some of first monks on the site as well as evidence for what they ate (berries, beef and biscuits were a mainstay), where they went to the toilet (in a fancy stone-lined loo), where they stored their food (in elaborate stone-lined underground passages called souterrains), what they made here (combs and wood-turning were important industries) and how they organised their ecclesiastical settlement as a Kilkenny version of the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Geophysical survey has picked out what appears to have been the royal palace of the Gaelic kings of Ossory near the round tower and the diocesan palace, built by Bishop Ledrede at the time of the Black Death, has been revealed hidden behind Georgian and Victorian modifications. Cells into which medieval hermits were encased have been found on the site; in the Middle Ages no self-respecting cathedral was without such ‘anchorite cells’.

Inside the cathedral, archaeology has reconstructed how the place looked in its heyday and the many different types of building stones, some from as far away as western England, that were used in the construction of the cathedral in the 1200s. And add to all this the thousands of artefacts from all eras that have been recovered from the site: stained glass from the famous east window that Cromwell smashed, exotic ceramics from France, England and Spain, floor tiles decorated with lashing beasts, medieval dowled and morticed roof-timbers, pieces of finely-made early medieval combs, to name but a few. Saint Canice’s is Kilkenny’s Sacré Coeur.

Liz Keys

But in essence, St Canice’s Cathedral is the story of how for centuries, everybody associated with it, has worked tirelessly to maintain in and they have done a splendid job.

Liz Keys, the administrator, and her team do a fantastic job and it the people of Kilkenny who have reaped the benefits. The round tower is only one of only two in the island where you can walk to the top, (121 steps) while inside the cathedral the fundraising continues to make sure that the treasures contained there remain safe.

There are gems to be discovered in every corner like St Kieran’s Chair brought from Aghaboe and dating from the 4th Century.

The bells are magnificent, and in 1674 a new set of bells were cast and installed while the present treble and No 2 bells were added to the ring in 1892. The bells ring out every Sunday and for weddings and funerals. And on New Year’s Eve, the bells are muffled to ring out the old year and the muffles removed to ring in New Year to start the year with a clear peel. It’s hard to beat tradition.

It’s what is not in the books, guides, records or other historical journals that is so important at St Canice’s. Ghosts continue to reside in St Canice’s Cathedral and in the Close area which surrounds it.

There isn’t just one but a number who pop up with regularity in all sorts of places and it is all taken for granted as if it is to be expected by those who visit the early Gothic structure on a regular basis. There is Dame Alice Kyteler who was tried for witchcraft here in the 14th century who often appears on the stairs under the western window of the cathedral and she has been spotted in other places too.

We should not be surprised because there were around 100,000 people buried in the precincts of the cathedral since before Christianity came to the hill, and there are also ghosts in the organist’s cottage and goings on there that cannot be explained yet taken as a rather mundane occurrence by those who encounter these things of another world. For example, a person might wander into the cathedral for tea and say nonchalantly: “I saw her again the other evening on the stairs under the west window during choir practice.”

The Deanery building to your immediate left, just before you enter the cathedral grounds from the Coach Road also has an unexplained presence. A resident there many years ago told me that the old bells used by the Dean and his family to ring for the servants went off on a regular basis in the dead of night when no one else was around. There were other happenings still going on there which aren’t spooky but just a little unsettling.

We should also remember that St Canice’s Cathedral, when it was built, was a symbol of power and the Normans were foxy: They put a castle at one end and the large church at the other end it would seem, to terrorise a backward, uneducated people.

Contemporary records of the Cathedral’s construction are nonexistent, but it would appear that it was done in two stages. The earliest record (16th Century) gives the honour of “first founder” to Bishop Hugh de Mapilton (1251-1260), who probably built the choir, transepts and crossing tower, with the completion of the nave left to Bishop Geoffrey de St Leger (1260-86). The Lady Chapel would have been re-built around the time the nave was finished. The completion date is often cited as 1285.

During the English Civil War (1641-1651), Ireland was left in a political vacuum. In the chaos of the times, all the cathedral records were ‘liberated’ and St Canice’s once again had a Roman Catholic bishop.

The ‘Confederation of Kilkenny’ – a sort of unofficial parliament – offered some stability to Ireland and prosperity to Kilkenny from 1642-1648. When Oliver Cromwell took charge of the Parliamentary military campaign against Ireland, he captured Kilkenny and wrought extensive devastation on the Cathedral in 1650. It remained abandoned and roofless for twelve years.

The Close

The Close consists of the Cathedral round tower and the various buildings in and around the close area. It is of huge significance to the site’s overall historical value, and yet is sometimes overlooked due to the overwhelming presence of the Cathedral itself.

Few people are aware of the rich social history attached to these important peripheral buildings. Many archaeological sites in Ireland are no longer ‘fit for purpose’, and yet remain a fascinating insight into the past. The Close here differs from this model in that while it offers wonderful insights into the past, it remains ‘fit for purpose’.

The well-kept and picturesque graveyard greatly enhances the aesthetic quality of the site and its surrounding buildings. When Dean Vignoles arrived in 1843 he found a wilderness for a churchyard and the earth so built up by a thousand years of burials that it reached in places almost to the windows of the cathedral. It was tidied up, and the surplus earth banked against the wall at the back of the cathedral.

A number of the cut-stone grave markers predate 1700, and the craftsmanship is of high quality. Such gravestones are of significant importance to the region’s heritage – being clear examples of Kilkenny’s architectural, artistic, archaeological and social history. Most of Ireland’s churchyards have now been cleared of their untidy tomb-stones that here still add their comment of chaos to the austere formal lines of the church. Local people can enjoy the peace and serenity around the graveyard, while still being in the city.

More on page 19

The Organist’s Cottage – This charming period cottage can be found beside the library, having been built in the 17th Century. It is a three-bay single storey house with a half-dormer attic.

It was originally built for the Prebendary of Killamery. Bishop Williams converted it into an Alms house in the 1660s. The Organist of the Cathedral and his family reside in the house in the present day but as pointed out earlier on, he isn’t alone.

The Library – The library played a vital theological role in the 16th Century. It is a two storey library with six bays. It incorporates the fabric of the original grammar school and Blackrath Castle. It carries a long tradition of ecclesiastical activities from being a manse, a grammar school, an almshouse and a library.

The second floor still houses the library and diocese office. The ground floor of the library is the home of the bishop’s vicar. The library is preserved and protected. While many books from the library have been sent to the Representative Church Body house in Dublin, the library still houses many important theological books.

Both the sanctuary and parish chapel, located off the north Transept are remarkable and an unexpected treat. The marble floors representing the four provinces are made from different types of marble (often taken as polished limestone. Connaught is represented by the green marble of Connemara; Leinster by the black marble of Kilkenny; Munster by the grey marble of Cork and Ulster by the red marble of Tyrone.

The Sexton’s House – The Sexton’s House and the Colonnade are semi-detached buildings. The glebe end of the Sexton’s house has effigies dating from the 6th Century.


In September 2009, a local academic, Gabriel Murray made a startling discovery. Using a centuries-old map to identify a vault hidden under the floor of the cathedral, he solved a mystery that had surrounded the Irish ancestors of US president Barack Obama. He was successful in locating the resting place of Bishop John Kearney’s resting place. It is No 19 on the map of over 270 tombs located inside the building

“I have to admit it was very exciting and it was great to finally prove conclusively that Barack Obama’s sixth generation grand uncle was the Bishop of Ossory and a former provost of Trinity College who died in Kilkenny city at the Bishop’s Palace in 1813. It is now the headquarters of the Heritage Council,” Mr Murray said.

“The Palace is the site of the only building in existence that is directly linked to Bishop John Kearney and so to Obama,” Mr Murray added. He was led to St Canice’s after finding documentation in the ancient archive department at Trinity College, Dublin, where he learned that Bishop Kearney was buried in a tomb within St Canice’s Cathedral. Problem was, no one knew anything about it. “To be honest, I still can’t believe that I managed to find it,” Mr Murray admitted. Mr Murray and Cathedral assistant Frances Moore spent hours looking for the tomb before finally locating it just 20 yards from the main entrance.

Norman Lynas

If you are nostalgic then be sure and purchase the little brochure for sale inside the cathedral at a very reasonable E2.50. At the beginning, the former Dean of St Canice’s, the much loved Norman Lynas says: “Please linger in this place and drink of its serenity. It is our prayer that, as your eyes take in the visual message of this age-old church, your heart may feel the message of Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever.”

So reverence is essential when you set foot in St Canice’s Cathedral.

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