St. Mary's Church & Graveyard - A New Lease of Life
At the heart of the city for over 800 years
St. Mary's church has been at the heart of the city for over 800 years. It was built, probably in the late twelfth century, as a chapel for the then newly constructed Kilkenny castle, and by about 1205 a large church was in place. Its central location within the walled town was carefully chosen for its prominence and even today when one looks out over the town from the castle, it is the first building to catch ones eye. St. Mary's was amongst the largest and most prestigious parish churches in medieval Ireland and for nearly eight hundred years the church was a hub for the town reflecting the fortunes and spirituality of the townspeople.
Throughout the middle ages Kilkenny Town Council maintained the Church and graveyard and an annual four pence was collected from each hall and a half penny from each stall or shop to fund its upkeep. It was an important venue for civic events, and indeed one can imagine the city fathers walking through the ancient path and gateway between St. Mary's and the adjacent Tholsel (Town Hall) to attend ceremonial events.
Important carved tombs
Because the church was so prominent in the life of the city over the centuries it was the favoured graveyard to be buried in by the wealthy merchant families of the time (the Rothe's, the Shee's and the Archer's). As a result, we now have one of Ireland's finest collections of burial monuments, some of which are unusually and beautifully carved. A valuable and very detailed record of all of the tombs in the graveyard can be seen on www.historicgraves.ie
(Photo - Effigy of William and Margaret Goer, Mid-late 14th century)
From the 1700's to the present day
In the 1700's the church was substantially rebuilt, having fallen into ruin, but elements of the medieval building were incorporated into the new church. The Almshouses, located within the grounds of the graveyard, were built by the church curate in the 1840's to provide accommodation and support to the poor.
The final parish service was celebrated in the church in 1951 and it was deconsecrated a few years later. It lay in a derelict state for a number of years until, in the 1960's a committee from the Select Vestry of the Church, undertook to transform the church into a parish hall. Some of the important tombstones and monuments were moved for safekeeping into what has become known as the "Monuments Room" and the church became in effect a community hall. The Freemasons established their meeting rooms in upper floor. Many people of Kilkenny will have fond memories of playing badminton, attending meetings or, up until the last few years, visiting the arts and craft exhibition and stalls, as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. Unfortunately over the years the graveyard has suffered from vandalism and anti-social behaviour.
Finding new uses, respecting the old
Kilkenny Borough Council purchased the church and graveyard from the Church of Ireland in 2009, with financial support from Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Heritage Council. The site is now entering a new phase in its history, where it is hoped that it will once again become a vibrant part of city life. Indeed the Local Authority is planning, subject to funding, to develop the church into a new civic museum.
A programme of works has been started to open the site to the public. The pedestrian gates have recently been repaired and reopened, new signage is currently being installed to inform visitors about the history of the site and paths been laid. All of this work is being done with care, and with the appropriate heritage and conservation advice, as set out in the St. Mary's Church and Graveyard Conservation Plan. As the church and graveyard are of national heritage significance they are protected under heritage legislation. The photo above shows the new paths that have been laid to make the graveyard more accessible
A graveyard full of life
As well as its historical interest, the graveyard is also an oasis for wildlife in the centre of the city. Birds, bats, butterflies and bees have made their homes there, as well as a variety of plants.
The proximity of the graveyard to the River Nore and the Linear Park increase its importance as a green space in the city. The challenge in managing the site is to protect the architectural and archaeological features, whilst also allowing nature to flourish. The Borough Council is now working to implement a landscape plan for the site which will not only protect the tombs and building, but also make it more attractive for people to visit the graveyard, and encourage wildlife.
To mark this new phase in the life of St. Mary's the Borough Council organised a ceremony which was held at 11am on Friday 1st June, 2012 in St. Mary's. It included a talk on the history of the site, the unveiling of signage and a guided tour. The ceremony was officiated by the Mayor.
Come and explore this gem in the heart of the city.
From the 1st June, 2012 the graveyard will be open to the public daily. Guided tours of the graveyard will be available from June 1st. Contact Kilkenny Borough Council on 056-7794500 or see www.kilkennycity.ie/eng/ for further details.