Of a witch, a saint & a butler

In the medieval Ireland capital of Kilkenny, Preeti Verma Lal stumbles upon spooky castles, tales of vindictive witches and magical streetscapes...

Kilkenny Castle

On the Medieval Mile in Ireland’s Kilkenny, a dapper knight in shining armour should have galloped out of the castle and on to the crossroads where I stood alone. But in the 1,395-year-old town, it was a witch that accosted me. Not an unkempt, matted hair witch with stained teeth and a broomstick for a car. It was the rich, sophisticated Dame Alice Kyteler with three dead husbands and the fourth a bit ropy.

Age-old tales

In the 14th century Ireland, witches, as the story is oft-repeated, fed cut-up humans to demons and the one in Kilkenny had a shape-shifting black dog as her incubus. Dame Alice Kyteler, they say, used sorcery to kill her rich husbands. But the ruse did not last long and she became the first woman in Ireland to be condemned for witchcraft. However, a night before the scheduled burning at stake, the Dame vanished. Pulled a few mighty strings with pots of money and vanished into nowhere. Her poor maid Petronilla de Midia was burnt as a heretic.

Canice, the founder of Ireland
Canice, the founder of Ireland

In Kyteler’s Inn, which was founded in 1263 by Dame Alice, they say her soul still shuffles around nearly 700 years after her great escape from the Atonement Square (a fancy name for the square where criminals were flogged and executed). But as I walked the Medieval Mile, the stories of the witch made way for a Butler, a lady called Eleanor Butler, wife of the 17th Earl of Ormonde, who brought in largesse in her trousseau chest with which the butlers renovated the 12th century Kilkenny Castle, landscaped the park, built the distinctive coach houses, stables and courtyards that comprise the Castle Yard, Kilkenny’s iconic landmark. And it was in her room that I stayed in the Butler Hotel. Lady Anne’s Room with a small mirror, stout round lamp, sunk-in jacuzzi, and rust-coloured curtains.

Founded in 624 by Saint Canice as a religious settlement, Kikenny can be a semantic challenge. What if someone tells you, Kilkenny is not Kilkenny, it is Cill Chainnigh. What you never find a ‘k’ in anything, a ‘c’ nudges out all the ‘k’. A Cill (Kil) means a church. So, Cill Chainnigh literally translates into the church of Canice. Complicated? But that is what the old-fashioned Gaelic language is, a language with only 18 letters in the alphabet (now usually 24 letters with very little work for q, w, x, z).

Colours so bright

In Kilkenny, once Ireland’s medieval capital, things could have gotten lost in translation, but not the colours. I huffed uphill to the Black Abbey that was founded in 1225 and borrows its name from the black cloak worn by the Dominicans (Black Friars) over their white habits. The tall tower predates the church which stood at the centre of Kilkenny’s civic life for centuries. Not too far is the Black Freren Gate (Black Friar’s Gate), the sole existing remnant of the entrance gates from the Abbey to the medieval city’s Hightown.

The monotonous black of the abbey is broken by the reds and blues and yellows of Kilkenny’s pubs and doors. Wanton ivy borders a canary yellow door while pubs make bold statements with post office red, ink blues and silver beer kegs at the door. By the sidewalks, black iron pots hold in their hearts red and yellow camellias while pink and purple petunias droop from hanging baskets. The once monastic city certainly wears its colours in a classic fashion.

That day in Kilkenny, I had met a witch, a saint and a butler, but I was yet to do a ‘Slip and a Hole’. The Butter Slip is a narrow, dark walkway connecting the High Street where the mighty lived to the Low Lane where the bourgeoise snoozed. The entry is arched and the walkway smooth with stone steps. This slip can be very slippery. Literally, because butter vendors gathered in this slip because of its cool temperature.

With a slip saved with careful steps, I headed to the Hole in the Wall, a 16th-century tavern which is Ireland’s oldest surviving townhouse. To gain access from the High Street to the rear of the inner house, a hole was punched in the wall, thus giving it its name.

Before stepping out of Ireland’s medieval capital, I still had to meet one man. A Swift man who created Lilliputs. I knew where to find him. In the County Hall (Kilkenny College) where Jonathan Swift was a student. That moment, in Kilkenny, I forgot all about the witch, the saint and the butler. All that mattered was Swift. Jonathan Swift.

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