Prominently positioned over the medieval city of Kilkenny, St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower is at the centre of the story of the city. Indeed, Kilkenny takes its name from Cill Cainnigh, meaning the ‘Church of Cainnech’. Cainneach, known more popularly as Canice, is believed to have been born in either AD 521 or 527 according to the Annals of Ulster. There are a number of conflicting accounts about his early origins. A traditional tale describes how he was born into an impoverished family in County Derry, while other hagiographers indicate that he was raised in the midlands, in the old kingdom of Mide (somewhere in the area of modern County Westmeath). According to the Latin Life of Canice, he studied in Wales under St Cadoc, and in Clonard in County Meath with the renowned St Finian. After his studies, Canice travelled around Ireland preaching, and founded his main monastery in Aghaboe in County Laois, and a small church here in Kilkenny. His Life describes his encounters with other contemporary figures, like Comgall of Bangor and Colmcille. A strange tale recorded by Colmcille’s biographer Adomnán, describes how Colmcille telepathically messaged Canice when he was in danger at sea. Canice immediately dropped what he was doing and prayed for the safety of his friend. According to folklore, when St Canice died in around AD 603, there was an argument between Kilkenny and Aghaboe over where the saint would be buried. Each wanted to claim the honour of having the saint’s burial place, along with the resulting lucrative pilgrimage. Rather conveniently, a second coffin appeared and both monasteries buried the saint in their grounds, allowing each to enjoy the benefit of the many pilgrims who wished to be close to his remains.
In relatively recent years, small excavations have been conducted by Cóilín Ó Drisceoil of Kilkenny Archaeology within the precinct of St Canice’s Cathedral. They have provided insights into change and development at the site over time. Evidence of an early medieval palace, most likely belonging to the powerful local ruling MacGiolla Phadraig dynasty, has been uncovered. Further archaeological analysis revealed more about the life and diet of the early monks. Environmental evidence from a stone toilet-pit that was excavated in the Deanery Orchard showed the monks lived largely on porridge, nuts and berries, with only a small amount of meat. Though in later years, when the site benefitted from the patronage of the King of Ossory, the evidence shows that they enjoyed richer food like salmon and beef, and even fine wine.
The main visible evidence from this period is the round tower of St Canice’s. This was likely erected after the famous Synod of Ráth Breasail in AD 1111. This synod had a transformative effect, changing the early Irish church into a dioscean (bishopric) system. St Canice’s was chosen as the cathedral and chief religious centre for the diocese of Ossory, and grew in wealth and prestige as a result. Despite being built on precariously shallow foundations, the Round Tower stands approximately 30 metres (99 ft) tall, and it has stood for approximately 900 years. This is one of only two round towers that can still be climbed to this day. Those who do the long climb will be rewarded stunning views over the city from the top, including the splendid 18th century Bishop’s Palace next door to St Canice’s Cathedral. This was once, and the name suggests, the home of the Bishop, but which now is now the home of the Heritage Council of Ireland, who provide policy advice for the government on heritage issues. An archaeological investigation on the building found the remains of the 14th century Palace, whose construction was initiated by the notorious Bishop de Ledrede.
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