Counties of Ireland - Kilkenny

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Kilkenny’s postcard-worthy villages and picturesque countryside are reason enough to visit, but when you consider the county’s rich creative arts, enduringly-popular nightlife and wide-spread medieval roots – apparent in its churches, castles and monastic ruins – it soon becomes clear that there’s more to this verdant region than first meets the eye.

Historic sites in Kilkenny

The compact city of Kilkenny is crammed with historic sites, many of which can be found along its attraction-packed Medieval Mile. You’ll find Kilkenny Castle at one end and St Canice’s Cathedral at the other. 

Kilkenny Castle

The castle was built in 1195 after the Norman conquest of Ireland and subsequently rebuilt in the early 13th century after the original burned down. For over 600 years it was home to the Butlers of Ormonde, including Lady Margaret Butler, who went on to marry Sir William Boleyn and become the grandmother of Anny Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife. Join a self-guided tour of the grand interior or wander the 50-acre grounds.

Kilkenny was one of the last regions of Ireland to convert to Christianity in the Middle Ages, thanks to Saint Canice, who established a monastic settlement here in the 6th century (the name Kilkenny is an anglicisation of the Irish Cill Chainnigh, meaning ‘Church of St Canice’). St Canice’s Cathedral is the second largest medieval cathedral in the country and the adjacent round tower is one of only three in Ireland which can be climbed – it’s a popular spot for proposals, perhaps thanks to its sweeping views from the top.

Head to Callan, just south of Kilkenny, to see the memorial to James Hoban, a local architect who went on to design the White House for George Washington after emigrating to the US. He’s also said to have designed nearby Rossenarra House, which has hosted guests such as American author Richard Condon, Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones. In Callan you’ll also find a memorial to Edmund Rice, a Roman Catholic missionary who was born in Kilkenny and devoted his life to educating under-privileged children.

Other key sites in the county include Shankill Castle, a painstakingly restored historic house just a 15-minute drive east of the city centre; the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, an Irish Cistercian monastery and national monument famed for its stone carvings and sculpted tombs; and the nearby Gáirdín an Ghorta, a national garden of remembrance dedicated to the millions of people who died or emigrated during the Great Famine.

Coat of arms County Kilkenny

Coat of arms County Kilkenny

The town of Graiguenamanagh is worth a visit for Duiske Abbey alone – it’s the largest medieval Cisternian abbey in Ireland. But there’s more to be discovered along the Graiguenamanagh Heritage Trail, including a Great Famine fever hospital, the ruins of St Peter’s Protestant Church and various historic lanes, including Bachelor’s Walk, once home to Mrs O’Leary, who later emigrated to America and gained notoriety when one of her cows allegedly kicked over the lantern that started the great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

Things to do in Kilkenny

Kilkenny is renowned for its creative arts scene. Browse local craftsmanship and pick up a few souvenirs at Kilkenny Design Centre, or peruse the displays at the National Design & Craft Gallery – both venues can be found within the historic Castle Yard. Alternatively, catch a show at the art deco Watergate Theatre.

Want a family-friendly adventure? Head north to follow in the footsteps of vikings at Dunmore Cave, then check out Castlecomer Discovery Park, which is packed with kid-friendly activities and nature trails. St Patrick didn’t banish all the snakes from Ireland – you can find cobras and pythons as well as lizards, tortoises and more at The National Reptile Zoo. In Graiguenamanagh, canoe along the meandering River Barrow (one of Ireland’s ‘Three Sisters’) with Go With the Flow River Adventures.  

If you’re looking for the quintessential Irish village, look no further than Inistioge. It’s so beautiful it has featured in films such as Widow’s Peak and Circle of Friends. On the outskirts you’ll find Woodstock Gardens & Arboretum, the ideal spot for an afternoon walk.

Best food and drink in Kilkenny

Time your visit with Kilkenny’s weekly farmer’s market (9:30-14:30 every Thursday) to sample some of the best local produce. Speaking of the best, book a table at Michelin-starred Campagne for French-inspired fine dining. Alternatively, sample authentic Italian cuisine at Ristorante Rinuccini or enjoy a meal at Anocht – meaning ‘tonight’ in Gaelic.

Ale aficionados can’t miss the Smithwick’s Experience which includes a tour of Ireland’s oldest brewery and optional tastings. But for a truly authentic Irish pub experience, order a pint or two at Doyle’s or O’Shea’s in Graiguenamanagh; they double as hardware stores – a tradition originating from the 19th century, when the anti-alcohol temperance movement led landlords to diversify in order to keep their businesses afloat.

Kilkenny Council and Kilkenny Civic Trust have formed a partnership in order to support a number of cultural and heritage projects within the local community. From the restoration of historic sites to the expansion of educational facilities, these initiatives will greatly benefit the Kilkenny community, as well as those who come to visit.

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