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A history of St. Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny Ireland


Saint Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny Ireland
Canice's cathedral and round tower (remnant of an earlier monastery and proto-urban community.)

Saint Canice's is a structure from the early Anglo-Norman period, built upon the site of an ancient monastic settlement.

Monastic settlements were the closest approximation to urban centers in Ireland before the Vikings built cities in the 10th century, and the walled monastery where Canice's Cathedral now stands was an important settlement long before the arrival of the Normans. The round-tower on site is the only above-ground remnant, and it's about 1000 years old.

The political-economic importance of Kilkenny grew after the arrival of Anglo-Normans in southeast Ireland in A.D. 1169, and it soon attained the seat of ecclesiastical power within the diocese of Ossory*

The diocese of Ossory comprises most of modern County Kilkenny and includes a "peninsula" of several parishes northward into County Laois and a small "island" parish in County Offaly. It was in this island parish, Sier Kieran, that the church originally maintained its bishop's office and cathedral — the episcopal "see" [from Latin sedes, seat.]

Saint Canice himself, from whose Gaelic name derives the English-language "Kilkenny," established a monastery in Aghaboe, in the north of Ossory at about A.D. 580. (He probably also established the monastery here on the site of St. Canice's Cathedral.) The Synod of Rathbreasail, around A.D. 1100, moved the episcopal see from Sier Kieran to the monastical settlement there at Aghaboe.

At around 1190, three decades after the Anglo-Norman invasion of southeastern Ireland, and near to the time that they retook the land at the bend in the river here on the site of modern Kilkenny, Bishop Felix Dulaney (Delaney, O'Deleaney) moved Ossory's episcopal see from Aghaboe to Kilkenny.

Sources tell various tales. It seems that the Normans, expelled after their original incursion in 1169, had returned in about A.D. 1190 with enough force to take back the hill on which the castle came to stand. Sources also tell that the church moved its episcopal see to Kilkenny at about the same time, in recognition of the imminence of the town. If both of these are fact, then the growth of Kilkenny to importance had happened rapidly.

In 1202, Dulaney either 1.) died, 2.) established foundation of the new cathedral, or 3.) both. But, regardless of the specific year, it was at about this time that Kilkenny started to build its first cathedral, the physical manifestation of the office of the seating of the bishop in this parish.

Saint Canice's has been renovated on several occasions.

In the famous witchcraft case in 1324, Alice Kyteler's son was found to be an accomplice and as part of his penance was to re-roof the cathedral with sheets of lead. That's one version of the story, anyhow. Most versions of the story end pretty much the same: the roof collapsed. In 1332 the first major renovation began.

In 1650 the English military leader Oliver Cromwell took the cathedral and, it is said, used it for stabling his horses. He disinterred all of the corpses buried there and moved them elsewhere. The cathedral, naturally, required another major renovation after the expulsion of Cromwell's forces.

In 1871 the Church of Ireland was disestablished, meaning that this minority congregation (associated with the Anglican [British] church and "reformed," as such, in the 16th century) was no longer due its obligatory tithing from the Irish citizenry. Since then, Saint Canice's Cathedral has been under state care as a national monument.


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* A diocese, in Catholicism, is the administrative territory supervised by a bishop. Ossory was, and is, upon the territory of an ancient kingdom by the same name.

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