One of my favorite things to do is spend time with my daughter. She is genuinely fun to be around and we sneak off any chance we get. This was a particularly memorable day in Kilkenny City and I’m sitting here right now enjoying reliving it as my words flow onto the page.
My kids have gotten used to my announcing last-minute that I simply must get out of the house and stimulate my brain doing something or other. My antsyness can sometimes be fixed by a simple walk, but other times I crave a little more. I do not always have willing volunteers to accompany me but I was in luck when my daughter Ide decided to keep me company in the near-by medieval city of Kilkenny to have lunch, and to investigate an 8th century round tower I had never taken the time to see. “No time like the present!” I said, and off we drove!
My children are savvy travellers and know how to make the most of a day out. We were both well aware that starting out with a good lunch in a nice restaurant was key to setting a tone of fun, as well as satiating our appetites (body & Soul). There is nothing better than good food and a chat to spur one on to say possibly climb to the top of an old stone tower!
When you are sure that a restaurant is consistently good, it is silly to take a chance on somewhere different and end up spoiling your day. Since I was not about to spoil ours, we took a left turn off High St. onto William St. to our favorite place to have lunch in Kilkenny at Cafe Sol.
It has all the characteristics of what makes me happy when it comes to dining out. They are friendly from the onset, and you don’t have to be a regular to feel like one. We were shown to a lovely spot by the window and our lunch got under way. We were both in the mood for the salmon which we had on other occasions, but I was able to substitute my baby potatoes for more veggies without the slightest hint of annoyance from our server.
It is not a big place but there are three or four different specials everyday and the wine selection is ample, with a definite effort being made to pair food with interesting choices from all over the globe. I usually drink red wine but my server asked if I would try a great Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that he had with his salmon the other day and found it excellent. I love recommendations from enthusiastic foodies, as he seemed to be, so had a glass and had to agree (must look into wines from New Zealand).
It’s hard to explain without being corny how great it was sit and have lunch with this eleven-year-old girl of mine. She was just as excited as I was about the prospect of winding down the back street of this medieval city to find St. Canice’s cathedral with its perfectly in tact Round Tower. She had learned that every town or city is shaped by what had gone before it, the politics, religion, art, architecture, and, if you want to find out why a place looks and feels the way it does you have to delve into its history. That means exploring the churches, castles, museums, and whatever else is left of the past.
I suppose you could accuse me of creating a most perfect companion, this girl who loved to explore places and people with a deep curiosity. To become an expert (well, in an amateurish kind of way), you have to learn to love all sorts of things, like food, culture, literature, art and this is not a boring task by any means. Here we were eating a lovely lunch and planning our trip into the past, which would hopefully give us insight into what made this city tick.
Ireland is easy enough as this is where I grew up, but with every new bit of information I suppose I understand myself a little better. I have always found traipsing around museums and grandiose architecture far more satisfying than going to the Mall, and hopefully that fact will not be lost on my daughter who already has an unhealthy love of shoes (oops, that might actually be my fault!).
If you are ever in Kilkenny for a grand historical tour, or just passing through I highly recommend Cafe Sol for lunch (or dinner). I know that it got myself and my daughter ready for the next task at hand and so with a cheery “see you later!” from our server we set off.
We decided to get off the main drag and explore the lesser known streets, and in doing that got very side-tracked indeed. When we turned onto James’s St. the mid 19th century St. Mary’s cathedral was hard to miss. It sat at the top of the street and did the job it intended it’s impressive location to do: instill awe, and beckon us in. There was no way we could pass this church and happy to be waylaid we walked in for a visit.
The first thing that was apparent was the church’s Gothic Style but as of that moment I couldn’t begin to tell when it was built. Surly it was not truly Gothic, after all that could make it a 12th or 13th century building? I was guessing that wasn’t the case and if I were more knowledgable would have been able to see the tell-tale signs. I found out a little later in our visit, that it was Gothic Revival built between 1843 to 1857 under the eye of architect William Deane Butler. What I WAS absolutely sure of however is that major work was being done inside.
The altar and sanctuary were full of scaffolding and men milling around in hard hats and high-visability jackets. We were dying to know what was going on and also frustrated that there was no information about the church inside the door, and, that the path to the back of the altar was off-limits to lowly nosey-parkers like ourselves.
We saw as much of the church as we could and made up stories as to what could be going on. After about a half hour as we stood against the back pews ready to leave when a priest entered through the front door followed by another man (no collar, just an ordinary person like myself!). I must have had a quizzical expression because as he passed he turned and asked if he “could be of any help?” I being the bold person that I can be at times, answered somewhat sarcastically, “not unless you can tell me a little more about this church, like…. is it Gothic?”
He was happy enough to entertain me with a surprisingly specific and intelligent answer, telling me it was indeed Gothic, but only in the “English Gothic Revival” sense, and then went on about how it was built, and what materials were used (local cut-limestone to be precise) etc etc. As he talked he walked up an aisle to the right of the altar of the church where we proceeded to follow him, trying to catch every word for fear he would ask us a question! As we passed the altar I asked if the altar was being renovated, to which he answered “yes, if you could call it that”. He was referring to my calling the table (clearly the altar table) an Altar in the first place. He said off the cuff that it was more of a “plank than an altar”. Interesting.
We passed the barrier and entered the space behind the altar and found ourselves amid lots of scaffolding and giant slabs of concrete that were being removed from the floor and ferried out a side door via wooden flatbed platforms on wheels. He told me that masses of concrete was poured to raise the altar and the whole altar was moved to the center of the sanctuary in the 1960’s in an effort to “modernise” the space. The concrete consisted of steps leading to the altar from all sides and it was also poured on the floor leading to the original sanctuary, right up to the wall where 6 beautiful stained glass windows loomed.
I could see he was a man on a mission and that this restoration project was passionate to him. He wanted to transform the church back to its original state and in doing so make it glorious again. He showed us what was discovered when the concrete was removed; beautiful mosaic tiled floors, and the only reason they survived was because a thick sheet of plastic was laid over them before the cement mixers did the excellent job of making them disappear. It seemed such a ridiculous thing to do and I asked how someone could get permission to do something like that? He told me that in the 60’s there were really no strict laws in place as far as conservation was concerned and that a permit could be acquired very easily to botch up all kinds of lovely buildings in Ireland.
As we chatted more I became comfortable and asked him about where he had come from and was this his parish etc. I found out that he had been a priest in Rome for 30 years and only came back to Ireland in 2007. I was more than a little excited when he mentioned the word Rome! I had lived with my family in Tuscany (click on Italy in the side bar for my stories about Italy), for 3 months this Spring and was in love with all things Italian (it still hasn’t worn off!).
I proceeded to bombard him with questions as to where he worked in Rome, and more importantly, did he miss the coffee, the food, I mean, how could he have left in the first place! I told him that we were just there and he immediately smiled, turned to my daughter and asked “What is your name?” in Italian to which she replied in her perfect little accent. We were laughing and joking and really enjoying this lovely man’s stories and then I made an embarrassing discovery. I noticed he was wearing a beautiful gold ring and he asked my daughter if she knew what kind of ring it was? At this point we had left the church to tour the nearly completed restoration of the 19th century Chapter House adjacent to the church.
My daughter said she did not know and he told her it was a Bishops ring! Right at that moment while I was saying to myself “oh my god, it’s a bishop!” we were passing a couple of construction workers who greeted him by saying “good afternoon Bishop”. He came back to Ireland as bishop of the Diocese of Ossory (which consists of 42 parishes), in 2007. I didn’t really know what to say (for once) and fumbled and made a joke about the whole thing. He really didn’t seem to care, so we proceeded with our tour but I decided to be a little more mindful of what came out of my mouth from then on.
Because we bonded over our mutual love of Italy he was very proud to show me something that would make him feel less homesick. In the basement of the Chapter House was a nearly completed Cafe, kited out with a beautiful shiny espresso machine. I would have made us some coffee if it was hooked up, but perhaps next time.
As we were accompanied out of the church by this most hospitable Bishop he told us of plans for a library and of how discovered artifacts would be returned to the church to be displayed, and then gave us directions to St Canice’s cathedral, making sure that we detoured to see the Black Abbey on our way.
Did we continue on our historical trek making sure to follow the bishop’s helpful suggestions? We most certainly did! We packed it all in and later that evening made our way home in time for a late dinner. Stay tuned for next installment!