Adventures in Kilkenny

When planning a trip with kids, it can be hard to narrow down an itinerary. Sure, you want to see all the big sights and you don’t want to miss anything, but you also want to take your time and slow down a bit. Trying to pack too much in is guaranteed to ruin a trip with young kids. But when you’ve come all this way you also don’t want to leave anything out. So what’s the best balance?

For us, we’ve found that alternating short stops with longer ones is a good compromise for seeing a new place with kids. On our last adventure, for example, we started with eight nights in an apartment in London, followed by short visits to Dublin, Galway and Inishmore, and finished with another seven day rental in a beautiful rural setting about ten minutes away from the small city of Kilkenny. When I started looking for vacation rentals I didn’t actually have any specific location in mind; I just wanted to find a nice rental property in a central location and the fact that the property we chose was near Kilkenny was just coincidence. But as I started to do research the town and the surrounding area, I began to realize that I couldn’t have chosen a better home base for our family.

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Kilkenny is about an hour and a half southeast of Dublin, just off a major motorway and surrounded by beautiful green hills. It has played an important part of the history of Ireland and is filled with lovely, historic buildings, but the town centre itself is very compact. In the course of our week in the area we spent two full days exploring the town itself as well as several evenings enjoying it’s lively nightlife. While we could have easily sped through and still hit the major sights of the town in half a day, the way many bus tourists do, we found that Kilkenny was the kind of town that rewarded those who slowed down and explored a little more closely.

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The biggest tourist attraction in town is the Kilkenny Castle, which sits on lovely parklike ground just south of the river. It’s a bit of a funny, eclectic building, with the core dating to the middle ages but extensively renovated and modified over the years. There is a good introductory video which outlines the history of the castle over the years and gives a bit of context but we still found it to be a bit odd and disjointed. For us, the highlight of the castle was the grounds; there is a lovely formal garden with fountains in the front of the castle and to the rear the lawns stretch out to form a public park that is well used as a recreation area by the people of Kilkenny. Our kids had a blast playing with the local kids in the beautiful playground just behind the castle and paths ran through the grounds connecting the castle park to the rest of the town.

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Another major tourist attraction in Kilkenny is the brewery. Smithwick’s Ale is popular all over Ireland and the brewery in Kilkenny is actually several years older than the more famous Guinness brewery in Dublin. Today, while the actual Smithwick’s brewery moved out of town a few years ago, the site of the original has been transformed into the “Smithwick’s Experience.” It’s a fairly expensive, very corporate, multi-media tour designed to entertain tour groups and sell beer and in reality its……actually really good. We only did the tour because we had missed out on doing the Guinness Tour in Dublin and I wanted to do something my husband would enjoy, but we all ended up liking it way more than we thought we would. The props and multi-media experiences were a little hokey, but they kept the kids entertained while we actually learned quite a lot about the local history and the making of the beer. The best part of our tour was our guide, an older gentleman who had grown up in the area and had that natural storyteller’s ability that seems so common in Ireland. He really put a personal touch on the tour and we all agreed that it was an afternoon well spent.

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Between the brewery and the castle was the famous “Medieval Mile”, a lovely area of mixed shops, restaurants, churches and other historic buildings that seemed to invite wandering. On our second day exploring Kilkenny we came across a small cluster of people gathered at the gates of a site where they were excavating the grounds of an old church. An archeologist was there, brushing dirt off the tops of several skulls that had just been unearthed and we were able to watch his work from the sidewalk, only a few feet from the actual remains. The archeologist was very friendly and took the time to talk to the kids, answer questions and tell them a bit about what we were looking at. A few weeks later, when we got home, I saw an article about the excavations of the church and it was very exciting to be able to say that we were there when they were first found. The history that is often just under your feet in places like Ireland never ceases to amaze me.

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But while Kilkenny is a wonderful place to visit in the day, it’s even better at night. There is music of all kinds going on all over the town and with so many venues within easy walking distance it’s easy to find the perfect spot. One of my favourite memories of the trip is the evening we spent at Kytelers Inn, a pub with a fascinating history dating back to the 14th century, where a local drummer hosts bodhran (traditional Irish drum) lessons every Monday and Tuesday night. Both my kids were lucky enough to be in the first group of drummers and he led them through a fun 30 minute session with a group of about eight, playing several different songs with a lot of fun and joking in between.

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On another night we spent some time going from place to place looking for the perfect traditional music session. We enjoyed some lively bands, some more traditional than others but all a bit more professional than we were hoping for. Finally on our last stop we found a small bar with two men making music from one of the corner tables. They had a flute, a violin and a small accordian and they alternated playing their instruments in various combinations with singing. They were extremely talented and the atmosphere was quiet and respectful and it was the perfect way to wrap up a wonderful week in Kilkenny. Next time we’ll have to stay even longer; one week in Kilkenny just wasn’t enough.

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