Kilkenny and Waterford have become symbolic with the rich urban history of Ireland. They have become cities of accolade. Where adventure-seeking Vikings and zealous Norman invaders came and made their mark, imposed their ideas, and laid the characteristics of each city as they stand today.
Alongside the singular ancient relics whose crumbling walls echo the stories of 5,000 years from their rolling green and hilltop settings, Ireland’s Ancient East preserves in its cities the very foundations of the country’s civil growth.
Via two routes, I was able to immerse myself in a journey that quite literally paved the timeline of conquest and cultivation – in Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile and Waterford’s Viking Triangle. Each safeguards their city’s early beginnings, while a modern vibrancy grows around it.
Kilkenny – Meander The Medieval Mile
Once the great medieval capital of Ireland, Kilkenny’s 1,500 years of heritage runs through its laneways, stairwells, walled-city gates, towers and stone-clad landmarks. Though it started life in the 6th century as a monastic settlement, it was with the arrival of the Normans in the 12th that it grew. It became a walled town of seven gates, with a castle to the south and the cathedral to the north. Today it stands as a city of nine churches, two cathedrals, and up to 70 pubs for its 30,000 inhabitants and guests.
The ‘Medieval Mile’ means being able to backtrack in years by the thousands.
Back to the 9th century where the round tower stands beside the 13th St Candice’s Cathedral – one of two medieval towers in all of Ireland that can be climbed. To Kilkenny Castle, built upon what was a 12th Century Castle erected by the Norman invader, Strongbow, whose son-in-law (William Marshall) built the fortified structure that remains a centrepiece of the city. And to the Smithwicks brewing house takes you on an interactive experience to the 1300’s where the monks of St. Francis Abbey where Irish beer was born.
Laneways divert those in the modern high streets back into the old.
Mary’s Lane and Coffin Lane are two of many lanes in the medieval mile, or you can clamber down the steps of the arched alleyway from 1616 called Butter Slip, that connects the modern High Street to the picturesque medieval street of St Kierens.
Which is where I tried to meet the witch of Kilkenny.
On St Kierens Street is the famed Kytelers Inn – the oldest of all in Kilkenny and at the centre of Ireland’s (and it is said Europe’s) only witch trials took place here in 1324. The Kyteler family arrived with the Normans, where the money lending ways of banker, Joseph Kyteler didn’t go down too well with the teachings of the church. When he died, his daughter Alice took over, marrying four wealthy men who all died under mysterious circumstances. Accused of heresy and witchcraft, she fled to England, and it was her maid (on trial as an accomplice) who was burnt at the stake.
You can visit the 13th Century built Kyteler’s Inn and join the merriment of live music, and dare yourself to venture into the dark corners of the stone-walled rooms, where it is said Alice sometimes watches over to make sure her Inn is running to order.
Kilkenny underwent heavy restoration from the 1960’s to preserve its ancient legacy. Buildings were restored and re-opened, the city was granted ownership of the Castle and opened to the public for the first time in 1976, unsightly neon signs were removed, and small shops retained. Even more recent historical buildings such as 16th century merchants houses can be found in tact behind the 18th and 19th century buildings, like The Hole In The Wall music venue – the oldest surviving townhouse in Ireland from 1582 where you could once have ‘got drunk for a penny’.
Waterford – Get Lost Within The Viking Triangle
It’s Ireland’s oldest city, where a Viking called Regnall came and moored his ship on this coastal fringe in 914 before he sailed off to York two years later, becoming King in both. In 1170, the city was captured by Anglo Normans, who set in stone the first layers of what slowly grew to the modern city we see today.
At over 1,100 years old, Waterford is the city dubbed as ‘where Ireland began’.
On the site of the original 9th century Viking Settlement, I walked in the footsteps of adventurous Regnall in what is now a compact area of Waterford’s Old town.
Ireland’s Ancient East, always accessible by foot and in the nooks and crannies of old spaces, is easily navigated, although there is a costumed tour known as ‘Epic Tour of the Viking Triangle’. In just a few short hours, I was able to gain a better understanding of the history from the triangle’s hotspots – the colourful artefact-filled Medieval Museum, the 18th century Bishop’s Palace (recording Waterford’s history from 1700-1970), Christ Church Cathedral and Reginald’s Tower (housing a Viking exhibition) that stands next to a replica 40 foot Viking longboat.
Soon, you will notice the connections of Ireland’s Southeast. For example, Strongbow (the Norman who invaded Killkenny) married his wife, Aoife in Waterford. Her father gave her to Strongbow not long after the Norman invasion of Ireland that he, the King of Leinster, had requested. A statue was erected in 2014, to mark the 844th anniversary of the marriage – considered one of the most influential events in Irish History, which would give Strongbow succession rights to the Kingdom.
Today, aside from being a lively cathedral city filled with pubs, bistros the shopping, the city of Waterford is world renowned for its crystal, whose factory is a fascinating insight into the handcrafted designs that have provided it with a modern legacy, often passed through generations.
Viking strongholds and medieval capitals are not built over in the south of Ireland’s Ancient East, but are used as a means of living history – ceremonious historical gateways of the early urbanisation that made these cities what they are today.
Things to Note:
- In European history, the Middle Ages or medieval period lasted from the 5th to the 15th century.
- Walking tours of Kilkenny’s Medieval Mile are available as part of the offering from the Kilkenny Tourist Officee. Pat Tynan has been guiding visitors around Kilkenny for the past 30 years and touches upon a dozen great sites in the city.
- Tickets for the ‘Epic Tour of the Viking Triangle’ are available from the Medieval Museum or the Bishop’s Palace.
- Wander through 5,000 years of history in Ireland’s Ancient East. I explored the southeast region in conjunction with Ireland Tourism and iAmbassador as part of a campaign to bring the country’s centuries-old history to life. Further inspiration and planning for your old adventure back in time can be found on the dedicated Ireland’s Ancient East website.