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Medieval meets modern in charming Kilkenny, Ireland

By: Ellen Perlman The Washington Post
March 4, 2018 Updated: March 4, 2018 at 8:04 am
Caption +
The site of the medieval Kilkenny Castle, set in lush parklands along the River Nore, probably was chosen by Richard de Clare, the Second Earl of Pembroke, shortly after the portion of the Norman invasion he led in the 1170s. Photo for The Washington Post by Ellen Perlman

On a sunny Friday in April, the sleepy city of Kilkenny, Ireland, began to wake up. Chattering students filled the sidewalks, book bags slung across school uniforms, many of the boys carrying the short, hockeylike sticks used in hurling.

Locals hurried through Butter Slip, a narrow passage between two streets where butter vendors set up stalls in medieval times. And shoppers ducked into the small stores that share a main street with a 17th-century merchant's house and an 18th-century town hall that served as a customhouse.

This bustle was different from the quietude a few days before. I was at the midpoint of a two-week tour of the country with rotating companions, looking for somewhere to settle for a few days not too far from Dublin, where I'd need to return. I felt a pull toward Kilkenny after reading that it had a medieval castle and a contemporary design center.

Everything there, it seemed, had two sides.

The city was subdued when I walked the half-mile from the station to my hotel. Rows of quaint storefronts set a pretty scene, but many of the shops were closed. I passed a few people at most.

I settled in at a table in the Ground Floor Cafe on High Street and studied its traditional menu of toasted sandwiches and brown baps (sandwiches on rolls), along with my maps and literature.

A 1½-hour train ride south of Dublin, Kilkenny - pop. 27,000 - blends old and new with a thriving arts culture woven through it. The exit from Kilkenny Castle, built around 1195, leads to the Kilkenny Design Center, which is filled with modern crafts and traditional patterned pillows, hand-knit hats and Irish linens. A cavernous pub in a former bank building sits half a block from a tiny tavern in Ireland's oldest surviving townhouse. A 17th-century merchant's house is a stone's throw from a present-day knickknack shop.

That evening at an Italian restaurant, my Irish waitress, married to the Italian chef, lit up when she learned I was in town on my own. She, too, likes solitude sometimes, she said. "It gives me time to breathe."

At the vast, three-story Left Bank Pub, a former Bank of Ireland branch, every window glowed as if backlit by a roaring fire. I had the bartender to myself.

"Would you be horrified if I ordered a half pint of Guinness with blackcurrant?" I asked. In Dublin, I'd overheard an American couple ordering it and was curious.

"It's usually tourists," he said.

During my junior year in England, I'd learned to drink a shandy - beer sweetened with lemon-lime soda. I wanted to compare it to a mix of Guinness and sweet, blackcurrant syrup. A sip persuaded me to just drink a draft Guinness straight up.

Down the impossibly picturesque High Street - dubbed the "Medieval Mile" - many of the brightly colored pubs and shops sported black-and-amber flags, scarves and other paraphernalia of the Kilkenny Cats, County Kilkenny's highly successful hurling team.

High on a hill in the Irishtown neighborhood loomed the 13th-century St. Canice's Cathedral and its Round Tower, which closely resembles a smokestack. They can be reached via a steep stone staircase. Trying to find the way in, I walked along the cathedral's side and back. The only signs of life were an old gentleman strolling and a cat sunning.

Around the other way, I found the entrance. In the dark cathedral were high ceilings and impressive stained-glass windows. Back on High Street, at "Gifts 4 U," I picked up a couple of bags of fudge - Guinness and whiskey flavors. And I fell for some hopelessly corny coasters with cartoon black-faced sheep. "Top o' the Morning to Ewe."

That evening, I went to the Watergate Theatre to see the American musical "The Parade," performed by the Kilkenny Musical Society. A gray-haired man kissed many people hello while taking tickets. I can't say I've seen that at the Kennedy Center. This man knew half the crowd.

At intermission, he seemed to light up at hearing my accent. "American! Well, we're all half Irish. Or is it the other way around?" He proudly told me he was the father of the female lead.

I followed the crowd upstairs to find a most civilized intermission - people sipping tea from china cups and saucers. No Styrofoam here.

Then I stopped in at the Field, a sports-themed pub opened in 1620 as the Castle Tavern.

Again, few people were inside. Perhaps that was to be expected on a Thursday night near closing time. I ordered a Kilkenny Irish cream ale and pulled my stool up to a comfortably worn wooden table wet with rings from beer glasses. A duo called Rusty Springs was playing "Irish Washer Woman."

The next day, in Kilkenny Castle, sun filtered through the windows, brightening the period furnishings. The site is thought to have been chosen by Strongbow - the nickname of Richard de Clare, the Second Earl of Pembroke - shortly after the portion of the Norman invasion he led in the 1170s.

An informative docent enthusiastically answered questions about the paintings, fireplace equipment and furniture. Those things in front of the fireplaces? Adjustable screens to protect women's faces lest the heat melt their wax-based makeup. That 16th-century painting of a white-faced Queen Elizabeth I? Heavy white paste covered women's pockmarks left from smallpox. And that round, red-cushioned chair with seats for three, similar to one in the opening credits of "The Crown?" A love seat that accommodated courting couples - and their guardians.

A staircase led down to the pitch-roofed picture gallery, a portrait-filled wing built during the early 19th century.

I emerged into the sunshine to see a group of boys goofing around on the lush castle lawns, using their hurleys to bat a ball much the way Americans might toss a Frisbee together.

That night, hen parties were everywhere. Kilkenny is listed as one of the top-10 cities in Ireland to hold bachelorette parties.

Outside Matt the Miller's, a woman in a white T-shirt, white jeans and a veil had a red "L" for "learner" pinned to her back - the student-driver sign usually affixed to a car's bumper in Ireland and Britain.

At night's end, I went to the Hole in the Wall, a 16th-century tavern as small as its name suggests.

When I opened the door, everyone turned to see who had arrived. I almost backed out. But owner Michael Conway called out a welcome and waved me in. Conway is a hospital cardiologist by day, a cheery bar host by night.

"I'm going to sing a song," he announced later. "About a woman who abandons a man. Christy Moore sings it."

I had snagged one of the four stools at the short bar and got a good view of the lyrics on Conway's large flip chart. My pub mates and I sang along as best we could while he turned the pages.

The warm camaraderie of the tavern was the perfect coda to the evening, I thought, as I walked back through a city pulsing with energy.

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