St. Canice's Cathedral & Round Tower

The Cathedral Church of St Canice,
The Close, Coach Rd,
Kilkenny City, Ireland.

Phone : +353 (0)56 7764971

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History of the Cathedral


St Canice c. 520 – 599

St Canice was a great friend of St Columba (Colmcille), the Apostle of the Scots and founder of the monastery at Iona. The story is told that St Columba was once caught in a storm at sea. His fellow monks cried out for him to pray for them, but St Columba calmly replied that he would leave the praying to Canice in distant Aghaboe. His friend meanwhile leapt up so suddenly from his meal that his shoe came off as he rushed to the church to pray for his imperilled friend. The storm immediately passed, and St Columba told his green-faced companions 'the Lord has listened to Canice's prayer and his race to the church with one shoe has saved us'. St Canice established a monastery at Aghaboe (30 km north of Kilkenny), which became the seat of the bishop of Ossory.

History of the Area

In 1170, Diarmard MacMurrough, the Irish Lord of Leinster, invited the assistance of "Strongbow" (Richard Fitzgilbert, the Anglo-Norman Earl of Pembroke) to give him the edge over his enemies. Like many another visitor, Strongbow and his followers took an immediate fancy to Ireland. The Normans, later lead by William Earl Marshal – Strongbow's son-in-law – placed enormous importance on towns, with a penchant for constructing grand buildings as a symbol of their strong and permanent presence. Their standard practice was to build a great stone castle and a cathedral at opposite ends of the town. At Kilkenny, Marshal built a castle and established the 'High-town'. A new Cathedral was also constructed on the site.

There appears to have been at least three earlier churches on the site of St Canice's Cathedral. The surviving round tower suggests a not-insignificant religious site, though it may not have been a monastery. While Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh = Canice's Church) is named after him, there is no evidence that he himself established a church here, and it is impossible to know whether early references are to Kilkenny, or to St Canice's monastery and cathedral at Aghaboe. The bishop's seat was transferred from Aghaboe to Kilkenny, c.1120.

Building of the Cathedral

Contemporary records of the Cathedral's construction are non-existent, but it would appear that it was done in two stages. The earliest record (16th Century) gives the honour of "first founder" to Bishop Hugh de Mapilton (1251-1260), who probably built the choir, transepts and crossing tower, with the completion of the nave left to Bishop Geoffrey de St Leger (1260-86). The Lady Chapel would have been (re-)built around the time the nave was finished. The completion date is often cited as 1285.

In 1332 the central tower collapsed in circumstances associated with the trial of Dame Alice Kyteler for witchcraft (see below), the most notorious event of Kilkenny's medieval history. The tower, much taller then, fell into the choir and side-chapels, substantially demolishing them. After a period of foreign travel, Bishop Ledrede (1318-61) returned to repair the cathedral. Apart from enlarging the tower piers, reducing the tower's size, and building up several of the adjoining arches, he installed a famously magnificent great East window. Stone vaulting was added under the tower in the 1470's.

During the English Civil War (1641-1651), Ireland was left in a political vacuum. In the chaos of the times, all the cathedral records were 'liberated' and St Canice's once again had a Roman Catholic bishop. The 'Confederation of Kilkenny' – a sort of unofficial parliament – offered some stability to Ireland and prosperity to Kilkenny from 1642-1648. When Oliver Cromwell took charge of the Parliamentary military campaign against Ireland, he captured Kilkenny and wrought extensive devastation on the Cathedral in 1650. It remained abandoned and roofless for twelve years.

To find out more information on the History of the Cathedral, contact St. Canice's Cathedral & Round Tower