Did you know that Kilkenny, a culturally rich city and a major draw for visitors to the country, used to be Ireland’s capital?
A little background…
During the period of peace talks between the Irish and British governments that would ultimately lead to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the then Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said that he met then British PM Tony Blair in London. Walking into Blair’s office, Ahern saw a portrait of English Republican Oliver Cromwell hanging from the wall. Ahern is said to have been incensed at the unintended slight, insisting that the portrait be removed.
For almost a decade – before the invasion of Oliver Cromwell in 1649 – two thirds of Ireland was ruled by the Irish Catholic Confederation – from Kilkenny City.
Cromwell – a parliamentarian who became “Lord Protector” of the British Isles after the removal and ultimate execution of King Charles I as head of state – is regarded today as a genocidal butcher by many Irish people. During Civil War in England, the Irish Confederation had sided – at least under the presumption that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – with Charles I and the Royalists against Cromwell and his Parliamentarians. This Confederation sought rights for Catholics and established its government – comprising noblemen and Catholic clergy, among others – at Kilkenny City in 1642.
Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649 to re-take control could be described as brutal, with towns such as Drogheda destroyed. Many Irish noble families were removed from power and forced to flee their estates to less fertile plains in the West, their lands seized by those Irishmen who had remained loyal to Cromwell and the English Parliament, or by the English themselves. The shift was traumatic enough for Bertie Ahern to be affronted by Cromwell’s portrait in Blair’s London office almost 350 years later.
But Kilkenny’s cobblestoned streets and narrow pedestrian alleyways (called “slips”) off the main thoroughfares still retain echoes of this period of Irish history. Kilkenny has a Parliament Street as a result of its nationally significant history, and tourist draws such as the Tholsel indicate its importance in earlier times. The Tholsel (a transliteration from Old English meaning “Hall of Taxes”) is on Kilkenny’s High Street and has been a presence there since the late 1570s, serving today as a headquarters for the County Council and in earlier times as a Custom House, and a famous landmark at which to meet. It was once near the site of Kilkenny’s market place.