I had the opportunity to visit Kilkenny during a weekend excursion organized by ISA. After exploring the city for a Saturday, here are four things I recommend to first-time visitors to the city:
1 . Hurling (of course) at O’Loughlin Gaels GAA Club
But first, what is Hurling? Also known as the “fastest game on grass,” Hurling is defined by the Gaelic Athletic Association as “the world’s oldest field game,” as it was brought to Ireland by the Celts and has been played for over 2,000 years. The game itself is played using a “hurley” or “hurl,” a long, curved stick made of ash, and a ball (about palm-sized) called a “sliotar.” Teams are made up of 15 players, and the goal is to outscore opponents by means of H-shaped goalposts—one point if the sliotar is hit over the goal— between the posts— and three if a player can manage to it get past the keeper.
Of course, there are many other rules that you can learn while receiving a Hurling lesson at O’Loughlin Gaels.
My coach for the day was Aidan, a warm, hilarious, and flattering man who constantly assured me I was doing a great job despite my overall lack of athletic talent. During our training session, we learned how to hit, pass, and run with the ball, the latter being extremely difficult as rules require players to balance it on the ends of their hurls.
As fun as that was, the highlight of the lesson was having a photo-op with the All-Ireland Championship Trophy, the Liam McCarthy Cup. Which, Kilkenny had recently won, claiming their thirty-sixth title. This isn’t surprising, considering that many Kilkenny children’s first gift is a tiny, baby-sized hurl.
2 . Climb St. Canice Cathedral’s Round Tower
This next recommendation isn’t for the faint of heart…or those who are claustrophobic. The round-tower itself dates from the 9th century and is 100 feet high. It is comprised of seven different levels, each one narrowing as you climb, and is connected by a series of wooden ladders.
However, if you do dare to take the climb, the view of Kilkenny from the top is just beautiful.
And, if you’re visiting the tower with a group of friends, feel free to sing a song or two while you climb. Sound travels easily between the floors. (I personally recommend the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song.)
3 . Visit Hole in the Wall (A three in one pub, café, and music venue)
Kilkenny is filled with charming shops of all kinds: confectionery, crepe, vintage, kitsch, and designer. Hours could be spent wandering and window-shopping, but a good hour to hour and a half should be dedicated to enjoying a pint or cup of coffee at Hole in the Wall.
Hole in the Wall, built in 1582, is the oldest surviving townhouse in Ireland and has the craziest history of any establishment I’ve ever visited. Originally a wealthy family’s townhouse, this home has also been a secret brothel and served as accommodation for some big names—possibly even James Joyce himself—before becoming the pub, café, and popular music venue it is today.
While sitting at the cozy little pub and café’s bar, which is made of an original beam from the house, the staff (who are masters of storytelling) will regale you with tales of the building’s history and famous inhabitants.
4 . Tour Kilkenny Castle and Gardens
After taking it easy in Hole in the Wall for an hour or so, head over to Kilkenny Castle and Gardens, a 12th century castle that has all the highlights of 19th Century Living—golden silk on the walls, coveted tea caddies, and the first instance of internal plumbing in the county. Although no photography is allowed within the building, the ornate restoration of this castle to bring it back into its splendor is something to marvel at.
When the tour comes to an end, explore the 21 hectares of gardens, lush lawns, and forests that surround the castle. Many families come for picnics, to play with pets, or to practice their hurling skills. A stroll through these grounds, especially on a fall day, as the leaves are turning yellow and orange, is stunning—and made perfect with a hot cup of tea.
The world awaits…discover it.