“You’re very welcome,” says Pat Tynan as he shakes my hand. We’ve only been in Ireland for two days, but already I’ve realised this is the standard greeting to a visitor in this country.
It’s hardly original to observe that the Irish are, almost without exception, fantastically friendly and eager to make visitors feel at ease. But being here, it’s a quality that is just as striking as the beauty of the landscape or the depth of historical interest or even the superlative quality of the local soda bread. We’ll receive a greeting like Pat’s many times a day while in the Emerald Isle and, invariably, it will be accompanied by a warm smile.
Today we’re in Kilkenny and Pat is to be our guide for the morning. He has been leading walking tours of his historic hometown since he was 19 and, as he quips: “I’ve been walking these streets for 30 years.” Like so many Irish people we meet, he has a way with a wry one-liner.
Pat is proud of his city, and justifiably so. “This is a very important city in Irish history,” he points out, with a rich heritage stretching back beyond the Middle Ages. St Canice is thought to have founded a monastery here in the 6th century, with the walled town growing around it. Later, due to Kilkenny’s strategic importance, its famous castle was built, first as a wooden structure in the 10th century and later as a fully-fledged stone building with four towers.
These days, the castle is somewhat changed from the days of yore, its melange of architectural styles bearing witness to its long and varied history. Walking in through its impressive classical arched gateway, there’s an immediate impression that something is off — one whole side of the castle structure is missing, having been removed at some point to leave the central courtyard open to a long, green sweep of lawn populated today by people walking their dogs and teenage boys practising the Gaelic sport of hurling, which is particularly popular in Kilkenny. The openness feels quite at odds with the robustness of the original fortress, which is particularly pronounced once we enter one of the three remaining towers, its walls thick and its interior gloomy, to watch an introductory video about the site.
Home to the powerful Butler family for the nearly 600 years until 1935, the castle was eventually sold to the State in 1967 for £50 — “The bargain of a lifetime,” Pat observes. Extensive restoration was required before it opened to the public in the 1970s and Pat says tourist numbers have grown from 10,000 annually in those early years to 200,000 to 250,000 a year these days. The castle is now one of Ireland’s most visited heritage sites and the backbone of Kilkenny’s tourism industry, which is worth €100 million ($143.5 million) annually.
More than a few of these visitors cross the road from the castle to the Kilkenny Design Centre and National Craft Gallery, housed in the castle’s former stables. The complex has been a hub for Irish craft and design since the 1960s and includes two busy shops and a restaurant in the design centre along with exhibitions of traditional and cutting-edge craft in the gallery. When we visit, there is an entertaining display of costume undergarments from The Abbey (Ireland’s national theatre) alongside an exhibition of futuristic work by fashion, jewellery and shoe designers including slightly scary-looking pieces by Una Burke, an avant- garde leather-maker popular with Lady Gaga.
Down the hill from the castle and the craft complex, the city’s pleasant, rambling streets maintain something of their medieval air. Pat says that many of the traditional storefronts have been restored at considerable expense, helping to maintain the atmosphere. And while the High Street, known as the Medieval Mile, is very charming — winding up and down a slope, dotted with flowers and independent shops — the pedestrian thoroughfare of St Kieran’s Street, which runs roughly parallel, is even lovelier. It has a series of evocative, narrow passageways leading back up to the High Street, my favourite of which is named Butter Slip and is populated today by a dishevelled gent playing the spoons.
Also to be found on St Kieran’s Street is Kyteler’s Inn, the former home of one of Kilkenny’s best known — and most colourful — historical residents, Dame Alice Kyteler. Four times married, each of Alice’s husbands died in suspicious circumstances and she was accused of witchcraft in the 1320s alongside her son, the flamboyantly named William Outlaw, and her maid Petronella. Wealthy and well-connected Alice escaped to England and William also managed to save his own neck, but the unfortunate Petronella was burnt at the stake.
Later that evening we return to Kyteler’s Inn for our first-ever pints of Guinness — I follow Pat’s advice from earlier in the day to “wait for the head to settle, pick it up and enjoy the taste, because when you have the first one, you’ll want a second”. He likes to describe Kilkenny as “a city of two cathedrals, nine churches and 70 pubs” and Kyteler’s is the oldest of the latter.
It has the cosy, slightly chaotic feel common to Irish pubs and even here, in a town setting with more than a few tourists around, it’s easy to see why pubs have traditionally been at the centre of Irish community life, along with the church.
However, as Pat had told us that morning, the influence of both has been shifting over the last couple of decades, as Ireland changed in response to the massive economic growth of the Celtic Tiger years.
“The community used to be based around pubs but our culture changed during the Celtic Tiger, including the pubs,” he said. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the consequences were devastating for many Irish people and for the pubs, with many closing. Even the local Smithwick’s Brewery, Ireland’s oldest, is to shut later this year.
But Pat is Irish and the Irish are nothing if not resilient. “People have time again,” he told us. “That’s been a positive, if there’s a positive of a recession.”
Barely 10.30am the following day and we’re back in a pub. This time we’re in the Hollywood Inn, in Hollywood — although this is probably not Hollywood as you know it. In the place of beaches and boulevards, there are winding country lanes and green fields dotted with sheep and cows. Instead of movie stars and mansions, there are rugged stone buildings and men in flat caps.
For this is not Hollywood, California, but Hollywood, County Wicklow, about an hour’s drive from Kilkenny.
The Hollywood Inn is one of two pubs in this small community and we’re here to meet local man John Glennon. The customary Irish greeting is immediately forthcoming. “You’re very welcome,” he says with a smile.
A local historian who has lived in Hollywood his whole life, John is well qualified to show us around this close community of about 700.
“It takes about three generations to become a local — before that you’re a blow-in,” he explains.
According to John, this village is “the original Hollywood”, long predating its American namesake. Around here, the name goes back a thousand years to the time of St Kevin, who lived nearby at Glendalough.
In comparison, Hollywood in the US was named by a property developer in the 1880s — although in these parts there is a theory the name was exported to the US by local lad Matthew Guirke, who emigrated in the 1850s and eventually wound up in California.
Beyond their shared name, there are other connections between the two Hollywoods. There’s the replica of the Hollywood sign, erected by a local landowner on a hillside overlooking the pair of pubs. The village has also been a filming location for a number of major movies. Meryl Streep was here to shoot 1998’s Dancing at Lughnasa — the locals found her to be “very nice”, John says — while Liam Neeson filmed parts of Michael Collins here a few years prior.
But of more pressing interest to our host are local concerns — primarily the annual Hollywood Fair, when the villagers stage a reportedly rather moving recreation of the evictions during the Potato Famine (it’s on YouTube). There’s also John’s current labour of love, a comprehensive history of the area. Although in such a tight-knit community this comes with its own challenges.
“You have to be careful,” John muses. “You can’t insult anyone’s grandfather or grandmother.”
This is Hollywood, County Wicklow, not Hollywood, California, after all.
We arrive in Dublin that evening. It’s a Sunday evening but along the Liffey and in Temple Bar, people spill out of pubs, as rowdy and excited as a Friday or Saturday night. The hurling grand final has just finished, ending in a draw, so there will be a rematch. There’s a palpable buzz but not the aggression you might encounter in a post-match crowd in other parts of the world.
Dublin is not an especially small city — the greater metropolitan region has a population of about 1.8 million, roughly the same as Perth — but walking the streets, my impression is of a cosy place on a human scale. Green spaces, cobbled streets, historic buildings and flowers spilling from window boxes.
At dinner, we’re seated beside a table of four men fresh from the afternoon’s match. They’re in high spirits and take considerable delight in guessing — mostly incorrectly — where we’re all from.
We’ve just finished our starters when the waiter approaches with a metal tray heaving with small glasses filled with dark-brown liqueur and topped with a creamy head of foam — tokens of goodwill from the lads to the visitors.
“They’re like baby Guinesses, see,” one of them points out. He seems greatly pleased with his ingenuity.
And as we raise our glasses in a toast, another lets out a good- natured bellow: “You’re all very welcome!” As if there was any doubt.
Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Tourism Ireland.
Hour-long walking tours with Pat Tynan’s Kilkenny Walking Tours run three times a day Monday to Saturday and twice a day on Sunday from mid-March to October, and cost €7 ($10) for adults. Private and group tours are available. www.kilkennywalkingtours.ie
Admission to Kilkenny Castle is €6 for adults, visiting hours vary by season. www.kilkennycastle.ie.
Butler House offers boutique accommodation in the former Dower House of Kilkenny Castle. Rates are from €95.50 for a double room, including full Irish breakfast. butler.ie.
For more information on Kilkenny, visit kilkennytourism.ie.
For details on Hollywood, see visitwicklow.ie and thehollywoodfair.com.
For more about visiting Ireland, see ireland.com.