Built around 1204 Duiske Abbey (meaning Black water) was the largest Cistercian Abbey in Ireland. It has been well restored and has a striking carved Norman knight similar to those carved on the tombs of Jerpoint Abbey and an impressive carved Romanesque doorway. There are also two high crosses in the grounds.
The Dunmore Caves in Ballyfoyle, north of Kilkenny Town off the N78 have some beautiful limestone formations including the Market Cross, said to be the tallest free standing stalagmite in Europe. The cave also has a gruesome history. The skeletons of 44 people, mostly women and children and coins dating from 920AD were found inside and local folklore tells that invading Vikings slaughtered the occupants of two nearby ring forts in 928AD and then suffocated women and children who had hidden in the cave by lighting fires. The Vikings often carried their coin stuck into their armpits with wax. Guided tours of the cave run all year.
Kells Priory was founded by Saint Colmcille (Saint Columba) in the 6th century and became an important centre for religion and learning. Most of the buildings on the the well-fortified site date from the 12th and 15th centuries. As well as the abbey there are a ruined ruined tower and a small oratory church called Saint Columba’s House. (Entry to Kells Priory is free). The Kilree Round Tower and a 9th century high cross around 2 miles from the priory are said to mark the grave of the Irish High King Niall Caille.
The ruined 13th century church in Kilfane has an impressive carving of the Norman knight Thomas de Cantwell, similar to some of those on the carved tombs at Jerpoint Abbey.
Kilkenny Castle, which was one of the most important seats of power in Ireland for over 800 years, is still being restored to its former glory. But the tour of the sections of the castle, which have already been renovated, is so informative about Irish history and the foibles of high society throughout the ages, that it is definitely worth a visit.
The huge ruin of Jerpoint Abbey, a few miles from Thomastown, is one of the finest Cistercian sites in Ireland with beautifully carved cloisters and tombs. It was founded by Benedictines in 1160, but Cistercian monks from Baltinglass Abbey took it over in 1180.
The monks struggled against the overthrow of the Irish abbots by the Anglo Norman abbots within the Cistercian order, and were rebellious even after Jerpoint Abbey was forcibly affiliated with an English abbey in Yorkshire in the 13th century. The Cistercians were an austere order who believed in a life of hard work and prayer, but carvings, particularly of whimsical figures of the Apostles, saints, bishops, Norman knights, courtly ladies, dragons and almost pagan looking figures in the cloisters show that attitudes at the Abbey were more relaxed around the 15th century.
The Abbey’s tower, which you can still climb up, also dates from the 15th century. The oldest part of the Abbey, the Chancel and transepts in the church, contain intriguing stone coffins with detailed carvings of their occupants or religious figures, many of them from the Anglo-Norman House of Butler which patronised Jerpoint for many years and took over the site and its lands after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.
The carved tombs have survived so well because the coffins remained buried on the site for many years, before being unearthed by the office of public works. A full sized figure on one carved lid is said to be Felix O’Dullany, the first abbot of Jerpoint who became bishop of Ossory, another 16th coffin has intricate stylised carvings of ‘the weeping saints’ carved by famous local sculptors, the O’Tunney family. The Abbey also has Romanesque carved windows, some Norman cross slabs and an interesting slab carved with two Norman Knights, which has come to be called ‘the Brethren’. Jerpoint Abbey has a small visitors’ centre, which has displays about the carvings at Jerpoint and other religious ruins and high crosses in the county.
Rothe House in Kilkenny town is a well preserved 16th century merchant’s house with a small costume museum inside. It was the house of Peter Rothe, whose family was involved in setting up the Confederation of Kilkenny with the Earls of Ormonde, which sat as an independent parliament in Ireland from 1641 to 1649. The house was seized by the English but was reclaimed by Rothe’s sister. However, the family supported James II in his fight against William of Orange for the English throne and lost the house in 1690.
Saint Canice’s Cathedral
St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny town dates back to 1251, but the first church on the site founded by St Canice is thought to have been built in the 6th century. The impressive cathedral contains tombs and graveslabs made out of the black limestone or marble which has led to Kilkenny’s reputation as the Marble City. A tall round tower beside the Cathedral dates from between 700 and 1000AD, the Cathedral itself is built in the early Gothic style and it contains the 13th century Chair of Saint Kieran as well as carved tombs of the powerful
Earls of Ormonde
The Cathedral floor is paved with different coloured marbles from the four provinces of Ireland. (Entry IR1 donation requested).
The Smithwicks Brewery on the site of the 13th century Franciscan monastery, Saint Francis Monastery, shows a video about beer brewing and offers tastings of Smithwicks and its not so local other major product, Budweiser.
Woodstock Country Park
Woodstock Park near the village of Graiguemanagh are the grounds of a stately home that was burnt during the Irish Civil War in 1922, which has woodland walks and a picnic area.