The River Nore at Bennetsbridge

The River Nore at Bennetsbridge

Sat 4 Apr - Kilkenny, a drive in the country

There's an Irish author called Hubert Butler (1900 - 1991), usually described as an "essayist", a term which I thought went out of use after the likes of Pepys and Addison, although I've just looked at the Wikipedia entry entitled "List of Essayists", and there are lots of modern writers mentioned - but not Hubert Butler! But there is a Hubert Butler Essay Prize.

Born at the family home Maiden Hall (built 1740) outside the village of Bennettsbridge in County Kilkenny, Butler graduated in 1922 from St John's College, Oxford, where he studied classics. He wrote on a wide range of topics, from local history and archaeology to the political and religious affairs of eastern Europe before and during World War II. He had travelled extensively in Eastern Europe before working with the Quakers in Nazi Austria helping to expedite the escape of Jews.

Hubert Butler inherited Maiden Hall when his father George died in 1941, and he returned to live with his family in the house on the banks of the River Nore until his death in 1991. His wife, Susan Margaret (usually referred to as Peggy) was sister of the theatre director Tyrone Guthrie and the moving force behind foundation of the Kilkenny Art Gallery Society. There is an art gallery in Kilkenny Castle named after them. It was showing horrible stuff when I was there yesterday!

I'm not so interested in his Eastern European material, but he writes in a thoughtful and stylish way about social values, particularly in Ireland, and it was largely his love for his Butler heritage and Kilkenny roots, and the countryside in the Nore and Barrow valleys, which inspired today's excursion, particularly his description of Inistioge as "the prettiest village in Ireland". I find it hard to disagree with him, but there are lots of villages I haven't seen yet.

The first thing I saw on approaching Bennetsbridge (it's hard to miss, in a big old mill by the river), was the premises of Nicholas Mosse, potter. By coincidence, cousin Claire had suggested I might seek him out. I didn't have to, there he was, or at least his factory and shop, right in front of me.

I then drove on into the centre of the village, parked, and embarked on a reconnaissance. Being accosted by three elderly, friendly, female natives, I enquired as to the whereabouts of Maiden Hall, to be greeted with an enthusiastic "Sure didn't I work there for ten years!"  (Of course I didn't think to ask her who lives there now).

Needless to say, the gentry live a little way out of town, but her directions ("look for the field with the black sheep") proved spot-on, and after some clambering over banks and ditches and doing battle with a particularly prickly hedgerow, trying to find a sight line between the trees, your intrepid paparazzo proudly brings you:

Maiden Hall, Bennettsbridge

Maiden Hall, Bennettsbridge

Next stop was - you've guessed it! - another monastic ruin, this time Jerpoint Abbey, a short distance out of Thomastown. Jerpoint was founded around 1158 - 1160 by the King of Ossory for Benedictine monks, but it was taken over by Cistercians in 1180.

It was more ornate than, say, Kells, and is renowned for its well-preserved stone carvings.

Thomastown itself had several interesting features, not all of them attractive.

  • Many small towns are disfigured by garish bookies' shops, often prominently situated on a street corner.

  • The Irish idea of a supermarket is not quite the same as ours, but this one looks permanently closed.

  • Former church, now private residence, complete with graveyard

Inistioge (which I understand is pronounced Inish-teeg) did indeed live up to Hubert Butler's praise.

It has pretty much everything - an Anglican (shut) and a Roman Catholic (open) Church side by side, next door to the remains of a 13th century Augustinian priory; a spacious open centre with a lovely village green containing a couple of old monuments; the River Nore with an obligatory bridge; not to mention the requisite sprinkling of pubs and cafes; backed by quite steep hills to provide views over the vista. Here are a few examples:

  • Inistioge

  • Inistioge

  • View over Inistioge and the Nore Valley from the entrance to Woodstock House.

My route then went over the hill into the Barrow Valley, to the town of Graiguenamanagh (this time I'm not going to offer any suggestion of pronunciation). It's a typical old village with narrow streets, which probably still allow parking on both sides and two-way traffic, so that oncoming vehicles are reliant on one to find a space to pull into, to let the other through. You need a combination of patience and courtesy to drive in Ireland.

And around the fringes of the town, as in virtually every town I visited, there are enclaves of cheap-looking modern housing of identical design and often colour, which do nothing to enhance the visual attractiveness of the place.

But when I got to the river, it was like Venice of the West, with barges and houseboats lining the banks, fishing, swimming, feeding swans ...

And scattered here and there around the town, a series of life-sized statues of various monastic-type figures like the one shown here.

  • Graiguenamanagh

  • Graiguenamanagh

  • Graiguenamanagh

As usual, I got so absorbed in what I was discovering during the earlier part of the day that I put myself under time pressure during the afternoon, so the northward leg of my excursion saw more driving and fewer stops, as I just enjoyed the scenery.

My turning point came at another unprounceable town, Leighlinbridge - more barges, more grotty housing, and a disproportionately enormous hostelry, the Lord Bagenal, on the riverside.

But unfortunately I have to give the grottiest housing award to Paulstown. I had held high hopes for my namesake town, but it is a dump. And they just plant these buildings behind a wall, and do nothing to ameliorate things with a bit of remedial landscaping.

My day ended on a better note than that, thankfully. Again, it's quicker to cut and paste from Wikipedia: "Gowran was a place of importance prior to the Norman invasion and a royal residence of the Kings of Ossory, who were sometimes recorded as the Kings of Gowran, with his army of Scots and Ulstermen took the town in 1316. James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde built Gowran Castle in 1385 close to the site of the present castle and were erected circa 1415. King James I made Gowran a parliamentary borough in 1608."The town, under the command of Colonel Robert Hammond, surrendered to Oliver Cromwell on 21 March 1650 following a siege. Colonel Hammond was a cousin of Cromwell's. The soldiers of the garrison accepted Cromwell's offer of quarter for their lives and handed their officers over to the Parliamentarians. Cromwell ordered the execution by firing squad of all but one of the officers; a priest captured in the castle was hanged.

"In 1688 James II granted A Charter of Incorporation to the town and, of 18 burgesses listed, six were Kealys. A Magdelan hospital was built outside the walls circa 1578 "For the relief of poor leprous people". Gowran was a constituency represented in the Irish House of Commons until 1800."

Here are a couple of shots of the 13th century Church of St Mary, Gowran, and the rather pretty little park beside it. And so endeth another fascinating and enjoyable day.

  • St Mary's Church, Gowran

  • St Mary's Church, Gowran

  • Gowran


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