TAKE a step back in time and imagine a magnificent enclosed 40 acre site in the centre of medieval Kilkenny with a huge priory, church, chambers and a hostel at its centre. Visualise hundreds of apprentice knights, jousting and sword fighting down to the edge of the River Nore. Horsemanship was a huge part of the PLC course they took. the young men, in the colours of their masters would mount their steeds and speed a mile or so away to do get in some archery practice and that it would seem is how the Butts area of the city really got its name.
If you ask most people in Kilkenny where exactly the Lantern of Ireland” was located they would not have a clue. Yet at one time it was on a par with a fledgling Kilkenny Castle and had links to the most powerful sects in the “civilised world” and provided soldiers for the Crusades.
We speak of St John’s Priory.The reference to the Lantern of Ireland comes from the sight of the candles in the slender, gothic windows of the structure. It has now sadly been overtaken by the St John’s Church, on John Street which was partly built from its ruins and which does not have any free access. Inside, the magnificent ruin of the Priory are vaults, crypts and tombs of from various ages including the celebrated Purcell twin tomb. It probably has to be kept under lock and key for safety reasons but it just doesn’t seem right. and the cynics can tell Eamon Langton and Pius Phelan that they were not the first with (k)night clubs on John Street.
Back to more serious stuff - Yet there are still glimpses of what made St John’s one of the most significant sites in all of Leinster outside Dublin. The heraldic arms, the stone used in the building of Evans’ home, the ruins of the priory tiles are still there yet everything lese has been knocked and the stone used in the surrounding buildings. Before they succumbed to al the vices that Kilkenny could offer, the monks lived by their three vows and gave hospitality to pilgrims and travellers and tended the sick
To appreciate what was going on at St John’s priory just look at Kells Priory, eight miles outside the city. St John’s was probably more sophisticated and we know that, partially from an archaeological dig carried out at Evan’s home which stands where part of the old monastery once was.
To quote ace archaeologist Paul Stevens: “chamfered sandstone almost certainly represents the partially demolished
remains of the late 13th century Blessed Lady Chapel transept or an attached cloistral building and the presence of decorated medieval floor tiles suggests the building
was richly decorated.”
So the next time you walk past St john’s Church, just look in and to the left, study the high arches of what was once a proud and prestigious establishment that had links with Europe and the Middle East and gave the Butts area of the city is name. Like many of our hidden gems it begs more questions than it answers and certainly hasn’t received the recognition it deserves..
It was an Augustinian abbey and was moved in the 12th century from where Matt The Millers pub is now to its present home.
for a few hundred years it was an integral part of the new city and had a massive influence on the streets that now surround it, leading to the formation and structure. Yet it as if the priory at St John’s never existed or if it did, was of little note - nothing could be further from the truth.
The monks certainly started the first real mills on the Nore and the most successful, Ormonde mills. we know this because the Augustinians were the first to introduce vertical mills to Ireland.
However it is thee association brotherhood with the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem for which St John’s Priory was best known.
The monks provided accommodation for trainee knights and the area around St John’s saw armed combat training, jousting, sword fighting and other manoeuvres.
At the time the monastery was suppressed under the reign of Henry VIII in 1540 it was responsible for leasing out 16 gardens to those living around John Street, Michael Street and Maudlin Street. and some of those gardens still exist to day. The priory was not so lucky and we know from Kilkenny’s own Book of Kells, The Liber Primus, that in 1220 Mass was said at the priory for the first time. The Liber Primus also tells us that in 1325 the building of the new house and curtailage began leading to its golden period. However, joy was short-lived because four years later, the bell tower fell during what the book describes as “The octave of the Holy Innocents.
There is also the remnants of what appears to be a bridge or arch of some sort at the front right of the site and again it is difficult to ascertain what it was without a full archaeological investigation of the site which won;t sadly happen any time soon. We know from Fr Clohessy writing in the Old Kilkenny review brought out by the Kilkenny Archaeological society that there was a stream here and another one should be flowing through Evans home and onto the River Nore at John’s Quay named after St John’s Priory..
bridge on the front side of the site and the arch can still be seem although the little tributary of the Nore has long since passed underground. In the grant made by William Marshall to the brothers back in 1211, mention is made of the of the small aqueduct and the way from the small bridge of Kilkenny from Marshall’s lands at Lochmaderan to said aqueduct.”
Marshall who was married to Strongbow’s daughter also gave the brothers the tithes (taxes) from the mills, fisheries, orchards and dovecots located in those 40 acres.
Interestingly, St John’s Priory is marked 39 out of 56 things to do in Kilkenny City by Lonely Planet travellers. It would be in my top 5. Later on in the series, you will have a chance to vote for your favourite hidden gem .
In 1540, The Priory along with the other monasteries was suppressed by Henry V111. The Priory itself and some of its property was transferred to the Corporation of Kilkenny. We learn from documents of that time, that it was offered for rent with all its possessions, at a fee-farm rent of £16. 6. 4. We know from Corporation records (located by the late Peter Farrelly) that the monastery stretched from Michael Street-Maudlin Street to the river and in 1588 was reduced to property including “a church, belfry and cemetery, a hall, dormitory, six
chamfers, a kitchen, store and granary.
During the Confederation period, in the 18th century, the site was granted to the Jesuits and part of it was also occupied by the Capuchins. After the end of the Williamite Wars, both orders were expelled from Kilkenny and the site fell into ruin. Around 1780, the nave of the main Chapel, its two towers and attendant buildings were demolished. The stone was used in the construction the first military barracks in Kilkenny and that is now known as Evans’ home. In 1645 the Priory passed to the Jesuit Order, but Cromwell then expelled them in 1650. The remains of the Blessed Lady Chapel of the Priory (c.1290) survive and were incorporated into the present protestant St John’s Church in 1817. The Priory extended from Michael Street
to the mill stream, to the rear of Evan’s Home and a small fragment of cloistral building with groin vaulting survives within the western boundary wall of Evan’s Home.
The earliest references defensive walling around the suburb occurs in the early 16th
century when there are references to a stone and lime wall, and a turret in 1570 (Thomas 1992). The medieval suburb of St John’s is mentioned in Cromwell’s account of the siege of Kilkenny in 1650. The town wall was evidently in existence from at least the mid 16th century and continued in use through to the end of the 17th century. The
line of the medieval defensive suburb town-wall has been discussed in detail by Bradley
(1975-6) and Thomas (1992). Little trace of the northern or western circuit remains. However, during more recent archaeological testing and monitoring the eastern and north-eastern line of the town wall and ditch has been located in various locations along Mauldin Street and John Street (Stevens 1998 & 1999. O’Donovan 1997 & 1998).