Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Seminar report: "The Cathedral Close of St Canice's, Kilkenny"

Going into this lecture I had little Idea of what would actually be covered, not knowing what a cathedral close actually was. However instead of a presentation on the merits of a single cathedral as I had expected, what followed was an interesting array and impressive display of information about the medieval town of Kilkenny. With special focus on St. Canice, this lecture took us through an interesting time period in Kilkenny towns history in relation to its religious centre and the urban landscape that surrounded it.
Cóilín O’Drisceoil first took us through some of the known history of Kilkenny and the close. Kilkenny town, he explained, is considered to be a medieval capital of Ireland and is Ireland's only surviving medieval city in any meaningful sense of layout and standing medieval structures, with displays of well-preserved and highly visible medieval structures dotted in and around the town today. St Canice's close consists quite literally of associative structures within a closed area around the Cathedral. Before the construction of the cathedral and its close between 1210 and 1280 within a 2-mile circuit wall, the area played host to a number of abbeys and religious structures as is still evidenced by the round tower standing beside the cathedral today. The strong survival of medieval structures means that most precious investigations of the close have focused on its architecture. However the work being done by Cóilín O’Drisceoil has involved 22 excavations of the close itself in an attempt to learn more about the structures that both survive and others that are no longer visible. He believes that the survival of such quantities of medieval material may shed light on the life of the close itself and the everyday life of its occupants. The results are to be published next year in a book on St. Canice.  

Archaeological investigations have taken place on the grounds of the cathedral with extensive geophysical coverage being used to identify graves and tombs. The excavations have revealed much, such as the history of the round tower which has been constructed upon an earlier monastic cemetery shortly after AD 1111. The foundations sitting only a foot and a half deep are directly atop a number of burials consisting together of two adults but also of two children in the surviving remains of a wooden coffin which has given rise to questions such as whether the tower had even been deliberately placed upon these burials. The recount of the archaeological investigations continues to cover a large range of materials and interesting features of the close. These include the use and filling of a surrounding ditch of the cathedral and the questions this can raise about this occurrence, whether it was a deliberate fill to expand the area for construction or a deliberate slighting of monastic sites such as at Clonmacnoise.

Overall, this lecture covered a wide range of material on Medieval life for the residents of the close and their residences. The continuing work and publication will shed light on their day to day life and associations with the surrounding areas and their associations through trade. He goes on to point out the need for further excavation in this area to help expand our knowledge of Irish Medieval life.

By Liam Wilson

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