Kilkenny Castle,
County Kilkenny

The imposing ancestral castle of the Ormonde Butlers stands in the south-east corner of the medieval city of Kilkenny in a magnificent location over the River Nore. This great Norman castle has undergone many alterations over the centuries. Strongbow built a castle here as early as 1172 but this structure was destroyed by Donald O'Brien, King of Thomond. It was rebuilt between 1204 and 1213 by Strongbow's son-in-law and successor, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke. The shape of his superb "keepless" castle - built to a trapezoidal plan with massive drum towers - has been largely preserved despite the many subsequent reconstructions. Excavations in the 1990s indicate that Strongbow's fort determined the basic outline of Marshall's fortress.

After the death of Earl Marshall, the castle was assigned to his eldest daughter and passed through her to the Despencers, who did not reside in Ireland. Parliament often met in the castle during the 14th century, which in 1307 comprised "a hall, four towers, a chapel, a motte, and divers other houses necessary to the castle". In 1391 it was sold to the Butlers, Earls of Ormonde, who after the Restoration of 1660 carried out a major rebuilding of the old castle after it had been damaged in Cromwell's siege of 1650.

Except for the classical-style gateway, the whole castle was again rebuilt during the 1820s in an uncompromisingly feudal-revival style for the first Marquess of Ormonde. Largely the creation of William Robertson, the building owes more to the spirit of romance than to historical accuracy. Nonetheless, it retains portions of earlier buildings, including the basic plan and shape of the great medieval fortress - a castle that has served as a princely residence for over eight centuries and played a major role in the country's history. As befitting a potentate of enormous wealth and power, the new castle was erected on an impressive scale. According to tradition, its remodelling came about in 1826 when the Kilkenny architect William Robertson, who had been walking in the castle courtyard with Lady Ormonde, suddenly paused and pointed out that the main wall was out of alignment and consequently unsafe. This observation gave him the commission to rebuild the castle on a massive scale; as the Marquess of Ormonde was one of Ireland's richest landlords, no expense was spared. The building of sham castles was all the rage at the time, so it was hardly surprising that Robertson should have chosen to recreate the romantic appearance of the medieval castle. He duly swept away all of the first Duke's charming buildings, fortunately leaving the second Duke's classical gateway. The castle that emerged was externally a rather grim essay in neofeudalism and internally distinguished only by its dullness.

Subsequent alterations to the castle from 1859 to 1862 by Benjamin Woodward and Thomas Deane improved the castle, though it was always the magnificent collection of tapestries, portraits, furniture and above all the famous Ormonde gold plate which redeemed the dark rooms of the interior. It was therefore a tragedy when the contents were sold in 1935 when the Ormondes ceased to live in the castle, bringing to an end the centuries-old occupation. In 1967 the sixth Marquess gave the castle to a local preservation society who two years later transferred it to the State to be restored and managed on behalf of the nation. Extensive restoration began in 1973, but as yet only portions of the castle are open to the public. This includes the hall, which retains its fine 18th-century flagged floor and walls that were once covered with gilded Spanish leather, while its elaborate ceiling is a modern replica of the original. The great mahogany staircase brings the visitor to the dining-room, located in the circular north-east tower with its 12-foot-thick walls; a further set of stairs winds upwards to a corridor leading to the principal restored room of the castle - the picture gallery. Occupying the entire length of the castle's east wing, it measures 150 feet long, 27 feet wide and 30 feet high to the apex of the hammer-beamed roof. Between 1859 and 1862 Benjamin Woodward introduced a partly glazed roof so that this immense space could be lit, while John Hungerford Pollen painted the roof trusses in the pre-Raphaelite style. Pollen was also responsible for the white Carrara marble double chimney-piece which he carved himself, complete with a series of bas-reliefs illustrating important events in the Butler family history. The walls of this room are again lined with pictures, and although these are but a few compared to the 184 paintings it once contained, some of the magic and grandeur of this room has now been restored.

Kilkenny city. NGR: S 509557.