A Travel Guide:
Just south of the medieval town of Kilkenny lie the ruins of the a very unique 12th century Augustinian monastery known as the Kells Priory. If you didn't know it was a monastery before you went, you would probably conclude it was a military fortress. It's seven towers give off a castle-like feel and it's walls come equipped with gun-ports for protection. As you will read the history I provide later on, early attacks on the monastery and it's creator probably had a lot to do with the need for protection.
The Kells Priory is free to walk around. The day I was there, construction was taking place, so some areas were off-limits. They also provide guided tours, so if you're interested, find the contact information on this website. The car park is also free or you may choose to park in the town of Kells and walk up.
Getting to Kells Priory
I found the trick to getting to the Kells Priory was to trust your instincts, not your GPS. If you come in via the town of Kells you'll see a free Car Park area on the left with the above statue near the entrance. But my GPS wanted to take me to a dirt road that was gated, further down. This IS a road, but not one for public use. In fact, if you followed it, you would drive right into the center of the fortress (a no-no).
Kells Priory Experience
If it were available when I visited, I might have taken the guided tour. It appears those tours only run from June to September. The grounds are interesting to walk around, and there are plenty of photo opportunities, but I felt like I was missing too much of the historical significance of what I was seeing. One of the first things you pass when walking down from the Car Park is this ruin of a building. What was it? I could only speculate.
It's hard not to find your way down to the Priory from the Car Park. You'll instantly see the fortress walls. Inside, you'll find six towers. To keep from catching scaffolding, I just photographed a portion of the fortress interior.
Mostly ruins, I didn't have access to enter any of the towers. You may find that when it is in-season, there might be an opportunity to get a closer look.
I decided to walk the road from the Priory's east facing entrance and found a few friends who were very interested in what I was doing there.
The History of Kells Priory
The Priory was established in 1192 A.D. by Geoffrey FitzRobert. Geoffrey was a medieval knight who knew his way to power. He married the sister of Richard "Strongbow" de Clare, the leader of the Norman conquest of Ireland - you may recognize him also from my Dunamase Castle write-up). He had built a castle nearby on the King's River and then the Priory and established the borough of Kells that still exists today. Being related by marriage to the Norman leaders who invaded Ireland on behalf of England, it is no surprise that this religious monastery would require such defensive fortification.
And if it wasn't fortified in it's early days, it surely was rethought after it was attacked and burned three times in it's first 135 years! Obviously persistence pays, as it lasted another 300+ years before it was dissolved. It is thought that what remains standing today is a form it took after the third attack in 1327.
Ireland's First Witch Burning
A not too happy event occurred here in 1324. It seems that Dame Alice Kyteler had some unfortunate ends to her marriages. There was an accusation that she and her second husband had conspired to kill her first husband. When her fourth husband John le Poer fell ill, he accused her of poisoning him. When he died his children accused her of murder and sorcery.
The local bishop was keen to make light of witchcraft and sought her prosecution, but she had powerful friends and instead of her being arrested, he was. But soon after his release, he reached out to the Chancellor of Ireland and evoked a secular law recently created that would give the power of the church strength over secular law. But Alice was still not brought to trial. Instead a delay in her arrest allowed her to flee.
It was her servant Petronella de Meath, who was tortured and brought to confess to the crimes Alice was accused of. She was the first person in Ireland to be put to death for heresy and was also the first on record to be burned at the stake. Alice escaped to England and then disappeared from public record.
Want more history and information? Check out HistoricKells.com, it gives a rich and detailed history of this fortress, archaeological findings, the lost town of Kells, and places to relax and take a break in the current town.
Planning a Visit
The town of Kilkenny would seem the perfect spot to stay before heading to the Kells Priory. I actually traveled there after visiting the Rock of Dunamase. There are other great towns to explore nearby as well, including Waterford and Cashel.
And before I let you go, on your way out of Kells, Ireland, heading north toward Kilkenny, pause at the top of the hill after crossing the stone bridge. It is a lovely scene.