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The origin of the Kilkenny (Ireland) castle

The first reference to an Anglo-Norman structure on the site of the Kilkenny castle is a record of the Normans' expulsion from the area by a native clan in 1173.

The Anglo-Normans came in small numbers to southeast Ireland in 1169, a century after the Normans had invaded England in 1066. They quickly overtook Leinster, one of four ancient Irish provinces. While never taking rule of the entire island, they began what is often called "800 years of [English] oppression."

The first arrival date of the Anglo-Normans in Kilkenny is commonly cited as 1172. While speculative, this dating can't be far wrong. At around this time, the foreigners built a "motte-and-bailey" earthwork-and-wood proto-castle on the site that would be the seat of their local rule.

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Richard de Clare ("Strongbow,") a Welsh earl and warlord, had landed in 1169 with a few hundred troops in nearby Wexford. The Anglo-Normans would eventually, and rather quickly, command all of the east and north of Ireland, including all of Leinster (the southeast quarter of the island.)

Kilkenny, already the site of a monastic settlement, provided an ideal setting for a fortress. With an established ford on a river, it was at the crosspoint of two corridors of travel. And the monastery itself — the center of the powerful kingdom/diocese of Ossory — had long since established this property as politically important.

And, at the bend in the river (about a kilometer downstream from the monastery) was a bit of high ground. The Anglo-Normans took it.

De Clare's early possession of Kilkenny, though, fell to a king of Munster (southwest Ireland) in 1173. It would be two decades before de Clare's successor could retake the area, and re-initiate construction of a fortification on the hill.

It is unclear whether the work that William Marshall began in 1192 was upon a reconstruction of the original "motte-and-bailey" wooden tower and enclosure, or upon the initial work toward the modern stone castle. The projects, however, were allied and sequential — anywhere there is a Norman castle, there had likely been a motte-and-bailey. Indeed, digs at the castle show evidence that its lines trace those of the earthen bailey.

Also lacking in the historical record is any clear indication of the completion date of the stone construction. But some time between 1192 and the 1220's,* the Earl Marshall completed the trapezoidal configuration of stone towers and curtain walls that partially remains today.*

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* William Marshall himself did not visit Kilkenny until 1207, and the record is unclear what state the castle was in by then.

The construction style of the Kilkenny castle resembles that of the royal castles in Limerick and Dublin. There is more documentary evidence for these constructions, and these data suggest their completion in 1216 and the early 1220's, respectively.

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* Of the original Norman stonework, the Kilkenny Castle of 2008 retains three of four towers, and some remnants of the curtain walls, embedded within the wings developed in later remodelings.

The fourth tower of the trapezoidal-plan enclosure fell, and the longest wall opened up toward the 50-acre demesne (now a gorgeous urban park,) during Oliver Cromwell's cannon-bombardment in 1650, when his troops took over Kilkenny.

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