Kilkenny was the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Ossory, and St Canice's Cathedral stands on a site which has seen Christian worship since the 6th century. The name of Kilkenny itself retains the anglicised version of the Irish Cill Chainnigh, which translates as "Church of Cainneach", or Canice.
The earliest church on the site is presumed to have been made of wood, later to be replaced by a stone church. A few yards from the present south transept stands an imposing 9th century round tower, thirty-six yards high. It may once have been both a watchtower and a refuge, and the summit gives a good view of Kilkenny and the countryside around. The hill on which the cathedral stands is believed to be the centre of the first major settlement at Kilkenny, and the round tower suggests an early ecclesiastical foundation. Much less is known about the early secular structures, but the area around the cathedral, called Irishtown, is the oldest part of the present city.
Signatures of the Four MastersThere is no mention of Kilkenny in the lives of Cainnech of Aghaboe, Ciarán of Saighir or any of the early annels of Ireland suggesting that in those times it was not of great importance.
The Annals of the Four Masters recorded entries for Cill Chainnigh in 1085 ("Ceall-Cainnigh was for the most part burned") and again in 1114 ("...Cill-Cainnigh ... were all burned this year").
The present building was begun in the 13th century, when it was at the western end of Kilkenny, and shows some similarities to St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, both dating from the same period and completed by the end of the 13th century.
In the Red Book of Ossory, fifteen pages dating from about 1324 contain sixty Latin verses, or Cantilenae, written by Richard Ledred, Bishop of Ossory, better known for his connection with heresy and witchcraft trials. As stated elsewhere in the Red Book, Ledred wrote these verses "for the Vicars Choral of Kilkenny Cathedral, his priests and clerics, to be sung on great festivals and other occasions, that their throats and mouths, sanctified to God, might not be polluted with theatrical, indecent, and secular songs."
The cathedral was 'restored' between 1844 and 1867, without the removal of any important medieval features.
Head of St Canice, from Kilkenny CathedralCruciform, the cathedral was built in the Early English, or English Gothic, style of architecture, of limestone, with a low central tower supported on black marble columns. The exterior walls, apart from the gables, are embattled, and there are two small spires at the west end. The cathedral is seventy-five yards long, and its width along the transepts is forty-one yards.
Inside, high pointed arches form entrances from the nave into the choir and the two transepts. Between the nave and each aisle is a row of five black marble clustered columns, with high moulded arches. The nave is lighted by a large west window and five clerestory windows, while the aisles each have four windows. The choir has a groined ceiling with fine tracery and a central group of cherubs. The baptismal font is medieval.
The cathedral contains some of the finest ancient monuments in Ireland, including one to Bishop David, and the tombs of many bishops of Ossory and several owners of Kilkenny Castle. The subjects of the memorials stretch widely across the social spectrum, from the great figures of the house of Ormonde to the humble shoemaker and carpenter. In the north transept is the ancient Chair of St Kieran, made of carved stone, still used as the chair of enthronement for the bishops of Cashel and Ossory.
There are continental carvings on the choir stalls and the hammerbeam roof. The cathedral has many stained glass windows, including the fine East window, which is a replica of the 13th century original.
On the eastern side of the south transept is the consistory court, built by Bishop Pococke, with the chapter house to the north of it. From the north transept a dark passage leads into St Mary's chapel, where the services of St Canice's parish once took place, and a later parish church next to it holds the tomb of Bishop Gafney (died 1576).
Despite some 19th century restoration, the cathedral has been carefully preserved in its original style and form.
Near the cathedral's east end is the Bishop's Palace.