By Henry Pratt. Picture credit: Architecture of Dublin

Kilkenny’s golden age

A fascinating exploration of Irish history could have been better and more comprehensively illustrated

Magnates and Merchants in Early Modern Kilkenny
edited by Jane Fenton & Sarah Maguire
(Dublin & Chicago: Four Courts Press Ltd., 2023)
ISBN: 978-1-80151-089-9 (hardback)
184 pp., 54 b&w and 7 col. illus.

€50.00, but there is a 10% discount on all online orders on the Four Courts website, bringing the price down to €45.00

This book presents new information and insights into the lives of those merchants who dominated the civic life of what was once the largest and most important inland town in Ireland. It is a decently printed (in Chippenham, Wiltshire, not China, Laus Deo!) and presented volume of essays by distinguished scholars, including Linda Doran (on William Marshal and the establishment of New Ross); Julian Munby (on the Liber Primus Kilkenniensis [one of the oldest books of records for an Irish town] and other matters); David Edwards (on Kilkenny townsmen in the service of the Earls of Ormond, 1515-1614, a contribution enticingly entitled “counsellors, managers, schemers, and spymasters”); Danielle O’Donovan (on the architecture and sculpture of the Ormonds and their network in late-mediæval Kilkenny and Tipperary); Jane Fenlon (on the houses and wealth of the Kilkenny élite in the 16th and early 17th centuries); Oliver Harris (on genealogical imagination and creativity, with especial reference to funerary monuments); and Bríd McGrath (on Kilkenny merchants and the 1613-15 Parliament). 

Front of wrapper, showing a detail of Kilkenny’s built fabric, from a Map of Ireland (1708) by Henry Pratt (fl.1695-1708) (Office of Public Works, Kilkenny Castle).

When Henry Pratt produced his splendid map of Ireland in 1708, he surrounded it with vignettes showing plans of various towns, but he depicted Kilkenny as a panorama with its impressive buildings visible: a detail of this townscape is printed on the wrapper. Such architectural grandeur was unusual in the Hibernian context, and was indicative of the prosperity of the place thanks to numerous merchants involved in the town governance, their legal and business relations with the powerful Earls of Ormond, and their patronage of the arts. The role of those merchants forms the dominant theme of this very interesting volume, a welcome addition to the literature dealing with the history of Irish urban centres.

Travelling merchants were active in Kilkenny and the surrounding area even before the early modern period. This was no exception to a Europe-wide trend: Italian merchants were familiar figures in numerous countries, and often acted as tax-collectors (at first for the Pope and later for English Kings) and bankers, thereby disseminating “a new form of capitalist economy”. What is more, they frequently heralded the later arrival of mercenaries, engineers, artisans, and artists, and therefore aspects of Renaissance and Humanist culture penetrated an area which benefited from its proximity to “an extensive river system that included the Nore and access to the important port of Waterford” on the Suir. Thus Kilkenny enjoyed exceptional advantages through links by water to an expanding international trading network, especially through Bristol and Antwerp: Edward I of England (r.1272-1307), Lord of Ireland, appointed the famous Riccardis of Lucca as agents to collect the Customs of New Ross and Waterford, and in the 14th century three “Lombards” were named as burgesses of Kilkenny.

It is clear, not least from the surviving architectural fabric, that there was a cultivated urban élite capable of erecting substantial dwellings, and such things do not happen unless there is social stability and a healthy economy, in the case of Kilkenny presided over by the Earls of Ormond, who entrusted members of the merchant classes to act as agents in financial and legal dealings. “Upward mobility” and family pride were also evident in the many elaborate tombs that have survived. 

Apart from the two great architectural monuments of the Castle and the Cathedral of St Canice (Cainnech, Kenneth, Canicus [c.524-c.600], Irish Abbot and friend of St Columba of Iona (c.521-97]), the place acquired some impressive merchant dwellings, including Rothe House, with internal courts and five semicircular arches forming an arcade on the front elevation. This arcade was not unique, for it appears that there were many fine houses in Kilkenny with fronts supported on either arcades or colonnades behind which were covered walkways, suggesting an influence from places such as Bologna, although such features occurred in English towns and cities such as Winchester and Chester. As my own research has revealed, the centre of Coleraine in County Londonderry, built under the ægis of the City of London as part of the early 17th-century Plantation developments, had “pentices” or lean-to covered walkways with monopitched or pent roofs around the market-place, the last remains of which were — alas! — demolished as late as the 1930s: they differed from the covered ways at Kilkenny, however, which were set behind the colonnades or arcades, so were actually underneath parts of the structures above, rather than tacked on to the fronts of buildings. It is unclear, however, if such features were continuous in Kilkenny’s case, or were merely found in some individual houses.

The Ancient Market Cross of Kilkenny and part of the High Street. The Langton House, set on its arcaded ground floor, can partly be seen immediately behind the market-cross, and on the left is another building, part of which is set on a colonnade (from a drawing in the collection of the architect William Robertson [1770-1850], published by Marcus Ward & Co., Belfast, 1853).

All of the papers presented in this fascinating volume are interesting. Doran tells us about the massive economic expansion of the area with particular reference to the founding of a new town by William Marshal c.1146-1219), Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Leinster: New Ross later served as an adjunct port for Kilkenny, thus independent of the Royal Port of Waterford and all the costly levies associated with it. Marshal also directed much of his energy to the economic exploitation of his Lordship, issuing new charters for his towns of Kilkenny, Kildare, and Carlow, thereby attracting burgesses and trade. Munby’s work delves into the 1383 “Great Charter”, and expounds, with his usual admirably clear prose, on the ramifications of later charters: his work has disinterred much intriguing material concerning the lively commerce between Kilkenny and Bristol (and therefore to many other places, notably in Continental Europe). Edwards’s work explains much concerning the complex relationships between the Earls and the merchants, and McGrath’s chapter develops connections between the charters concerning parliamentary representation and how the merchants exploited opportunities for economic advancement. Fenlon emphasises the architectural aspects of how merchants, under the patronage of the Earls of Ormond, expressed their status and wealth in fine dwelling-houses. Very enjoyable is O’Donovan on the “Ormond School” of tomb sculpture, notably the productions of the “O’Tunney Atelier”, of which Rory O’Tunney (Ruaidrí Ó Tonnaigh [fl. 1520-42]) was a significant figure, but what a pity it is that the photographic images are so murky, and that the captions are so uninformative, when the printed text is so clear and the choice of paper first-rate! Architecture and sculpture offer visual experiences, and so clear images and full explanatory captions are essential. There is plenty of space in the book for extended captions, so the somewhat thin information offered here could have been greatly expanded. Harris’s contribution deals with the importance of recording unbroken lineage and family continuity through funerary monuments, notably during the massive cultural shifts so apparent during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James VI and I: he does so through considerations of status in England, with particular reference to the honour of both the Recusant Lumleys and the Protestant Carews. Some of his photographs, however, could have been improved: those with distracting converging verticals should not have been included in this tome. 

Tomb of Sir Richard Shee in St Mary’s church, Kilkenny (with acknowledgements to Cóilín Ó Drisceoil).

More rigorously informed editorial interventions could have avoided the incorrect use of the term “pillar” when “column” is what is actually meant: the two are quite different, and “pillar”, “pillared walkway”, etc., are inexcusable. Very interesting is the survival on tomb-chests of ogee-headed arcades with weepers sheltered within them, all in relief: one such exemplar can be found on the tomb-chest of Sir Richard Shee (c.1550-1608) in St Mary’s church, Kilkenny, which supports a Classical arcade over which is a heavy superstructure. A Classical arcade is also present in the tomb of John Rothe FitzPiers (c.1541-1621). Further ogee-headed arcades in low relief with weepers (also in relief) within each arch can be enjoyed in St Canice’s cathedral, notably on the tomb-chest of Piers (“Piers Ruadh”) Butler (c.1467-1539), 8th Earl of Ormond and Margaret FitzGerald (1472-1442); on that of their son, James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond from 1539; and on that of Sir John Grace (or Gras), Baron of Courtstown (d.1552). All three tomb-chests (from the O’Tunney Atelier) are surmounted with memorable stylised effigies.

The double tomb of Piers Butler and Margaret FitzGerald (note the stylised form of her clothing), with, in the background, the tomb of their son, James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond, in St Canice’s cathedral, Kilkenny (Edwin Rae © TRIARC, Irish Art Research Centre).

Four Courts Press has made a great contribution to Irish cultural history over the years with finely produced books: long may it continue to do so, for so much of the island’s legacies of historic buildings, monuments, and artefacts has been destroyed, submerged, or undervalued, often for ignoble reasons. All scholarly efforts to record, explain, and reveal Ireland’s convoluted history are to be warmly applauded and welcomed, but I would have been more enthusiastic about this offering if it had been better and more comprehensively illustrated, with much enlarged explanatory captions (a sadly missed opportunity here). 

Tomb of John Gras (or Grace), in St Canice’s cathedral, Kilkenny (Edwin Rae © TRIARC, Irish Art Research Centre).

Nevertheless, with its comprehensive footnotes, it offers leads to a great deal of published scholarship that expands on the obvious limitations of a relatively slim volume dealing with what is, however, fascinating stuff.

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