The Irish sports calendar revolves around the summer finals of the Gaelic games of hurling and football—each its own unique sport with its own unique character. Different fans favor different sports, but no one in Ireland can deny one fact: in Kilkenny, they are hurling crazy.
We paid a visit to Kilkenny town on the weekend before the local team was to play for—and ultimately win—the 2015 All-Ireland Hurling Final, enjoying the festivities in this otherwise quiet little city.
The small town of Kilkenny is probably best known for its iconic hilltop castle overlooking the River Nore. This 12th-century (with many later additions and improvements) fortress once defended and managed trade and commerce through and around County Kilkenny and southeastern Ireland. After a few centuries of aristocratic decline, it sat almost in ruins before being sold (cheap) to the people of Kilkenny and the Irish State.
Today, it is operated by the Office of Public Works (OPW) as an informative and well-presented museum. I always trust Irish OPW sites to be informative, tastefully restored, and a great value when not free—and this is no exception (Open year-round, hours vary seasonally; €7.00).
The Old City
Heading north from the castle, the bustling High Street of Kilkenny is perfect for a poke-around. Most of the gift shop windows were crammed with Kilkenny hurling merchandise, and tourists and locals lined up to buy the black and amber jerseys, flags, and cat plush dolls.
Kilkenny is the home of Smithwick’s, the standard Irish red ale at most pubs in Ireland and many “Irish” pubs around the world. We skipped the museum experience in favor of a few drinks at a nearby brewpub with the full lineup of our favorite Irish craft brewery, O’Hara’s.
At the top of the hill, Kilkenny Cathedral looks out over the city—castle, brewery tanks, river, and all. Both the Gothic church and the tall round tower are open for a reasonable admission fee, but a stroll through the centuries-old graveyard surrounding the church to read some very interesting grave markers is free.
Walking has quickly become one of my favorite Irish pastimes. More than shuffling through crowded museums; more than sitting on a guided bus tour; more than paying for a costumed character to tell me what life was like in times past; I love a good walk.
Kilkenny is a great little town for walkers. After exploring the busy High Street and getting a view from the cathedral churchyard, we hoofed it back down to the riverside to enjoy the views of the medieval city and castle from around the bend—away from the bus tours and selfie sticks.
Without paying admission to the castle itself, we strolled the spacious castle grounds and gardens before hopping off onto Kilkenny’s Canal Walk. This long trail system follows the towpath of a small canal following the main body of the River Nore. These canalside roads were originally built to allow draft horses to pull cargo barges through these currentless canals. Thankfully, many canal towpaths have been paved and repurposed as beautiful waterside walks.
We finished our short weekend in Kilkenny with an obligatory toast of Smithwick’s and a late-night ramble through the High Street as it transitioned from daytime cutesy tourist hub to nightlife hotspot.