Cathedral of St. Canice, Kilkenny

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume II, Chapter XIII-6 | Start of chapter

From the military we went to the ecclesiastical eminence of the town, the hill opposite the castle, crowned with the noble CATHEDRAL OF ST. CANICE. This is one of the most beautiful masses of architecture in Ireland. The hill on which it stands is crowned with noble trees, which hide and disclose the old towers very picturesquely, the tall shaft of the famous round tower soaring above all; the approach is by a long and ancient stone staircase, very like the ascent to some of the monasteries near Sorrento. The graceful proportions of the cathedral give it a lightness and elegance not common to buildings of that capacity, it being (among Irish churches) only inferior in size to Christ's Church and St. Patrick's, in Dublin.

St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny

St. Canice, Kilkenny

"It was commenced," says the chronicler, "about the year 1180, by Felix O'Dullany, who translated the old see of Sagir from Aghaboe to Kilkenny. The greatness of the first design was such as its authors could never have expected to see completed, which induced them to cover in and finish the choir, and proceed at once to consecration, leaving to posterity the sacred task of conducting the noble plan to its consummation. This vast pile is cruciformed, extending two hundred and twenty-six feet from east to west, and the length of the transepts measuring one hundred and twenty-three. The nave is distributed into a centre and two lateral aisles, communicating by pointed arches, springing from plain pillars of black marble. Four pointed windows illuminate each aisle, and the upper part of the nave is lighted by five quatrefoil windows. Many ancient monuments, differing in degrees of pomp and costliness, are erected in the side-aisles, and augment the solitary graves of the venerable place, and the luxurious melancholy which such memorials inspire. The tower, much too low in proportion to the lengths of the choir and transept, is supported upon groined arches, springing from massive columns of marble. The western window is triplicated, and a cross and two Gothic finials crown the centre and angles of the great gable.

"The choir extends seventy-seven feet in length, and is uninterrupted in its simple grandeur by any of the trifling, though not unusual, decorations of cathedral churches. St. Mary's Chapel is situated to the north of the choir, communicating with the north transept; and the chapter-house and bishop's court occupy corresponding positions on the south. The pillar-tower seems to claim admission amongst the venerable temples raised to the true religion, by its proximity to the church; but how far it is entitled to that respect is still a matter of uncertainty.

"The present condition of the cathedral reflects much credit upon the learned incumbents of the see of Ossory for some years past; amongst whom, one of the chief in benevolence and in learning, was Dr. Pococke, who raised and set up the inverted monuments, restored the shattered walls, and re-edified the whole structure. The tombs of St. Canice may be esteemed as so many historic records; and to a country whose history is still disfigured or obscured, such memorials are invaluable.

"The chair or throne of St. Kieran, a stone seat, with arms of upright stone, having a graceful curve, stands in the north transept. This patriarch is believed to have preceded St. Patrick by thirty years in his holy mission, and to have been the first to preach Christianity in Ireland. Under the second window from the vestibule is a monument to the memory of Bishop Walshe, the unhappy manner of whose death has been, by political influence, unnoticed in the inscription. In the year 1585, the bishop cited one James Dullard, a profligate wretch, to appear in his court, and reply to a charge of adultery, but the monster answered the citation by breaking into the palace of the bishop, and stabbing him to the heart with a skean. After the perpetration of this bloody deed, he fled into Troy's Wood, and uniting himself to the banditti that then infested the vicinity, stated the mode in which he had qualified himself for his new vocation; but the banditti, shocked at the crimes, and disgusted with the confidence of Dullard, brought him to a formal trial amongst themselves, and finding him guilty, immediately twisted a gad around his neck, and hung him from a tree in the forest.

"Many sepulchral honours are here raised to the memory of the ancient and illustrious house of Butler; perhaps that of Peter Butler, eighth Earl of Ormonde, who died in 1539, and his countess, Lady Margaret Fitzgerald, are better known to the historian than others erected to the same illustrious family. The effigy of the earl is distinctly relieved in black marble, at full length, and in complete armour, his sword laid across his body, and his feet resting on a dog. The same monument entombs the mortal remains of his haughty countess, whose memory is perpetuated by the Irish, under the uame of Moryhyhead Ghearhodh. This extraordinary lady, inheriting the martial spirit of her ancestors, was always attended by numerous vassals, well clothed and accoutred, and composing a formidable army. She had several strong castles within the limits of her territory, of which that at Ballyragget was her favourite citadel, on the top of which her chair is still shown. Campion calls her 'a rare woman, and able for wisdom to rule a realm, had not her stomach overruled herself.' Her lord being appointed to the government of Ireland, is supposed to have discharged the high duties with honour and approbation; the latter owing to the prudent counsels of his lady, 'a lady of such port, that the estates of the realm couched to her; so politic, that nothing was thought substantially debated without her advice; warlike and tall of stature, very rich and beautiful; a bitter enemy; the only means by which, in those days, her husband's country was reclaimed from the sluttish Irish customs to the English habits.'

"James Butler, eldest son of this remarkable lady, supposed to have been poisoned at a banquet, died at his house in Holborn, London. His biographer adds, that 'his death bred sorrow to his friends, little comfort to his adversaries, great loss to his country, and no small grief to all good men.'

"Dr. Pococke died in the see of Meath, to which he was translated from Ossory; but his public services, his eminent virtues, and great learning, are attested with an honourable gratitude by the erection here of a cenotaph, bearing a feelingly-written inscription to his memory. He not only caused those permanent repairs which a continuation of existence demanded, but exercised a vigilance in the detection of every fragment of antiquity in the cathedral that had escaped the ravages of time or barbarity. The eastern window was formerly adorned with stained glass of so much beauty that Rimmini, a nuncio of the pope, offered £700 for it to Bishop Roth and the chapter, which they, valuing their honour above gold, very properly refused. During Cromwell's usurpation, his fanatic followers broke in the window, allowing but few fragments to elude their sacrilegious hands: these Dr. Pococke gathered, and caused them to be inserted in the window above the western door."