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A bridge too far? A medieval city left with a "token" wall

In the third part of Noteworthy’s investigation, we delve into the issues surrounding the controversial demolition of two historic houses and the gable wall that remains “encased in a tomb of steel girders”.

SITTING AT THE junction of two roads in Kilkenny City, is an unusual stone structure. The gable wall of a house that no longer stands. A fireplace faces onto tarmac, no longer warming those who pass its hearth. A window sits above it, looking onto a mesh of steel supports.

This is what is left of two historic houses that sparked much debate and controversy as part of the Central Access Scheme, an inner relief road near the centre of the city that split the community and represents a compromise between the council and An Taisce. 

“For visitors to Kilkenny when they see this curious upstanding remains… they see it encased in a tomb of steel girders,” explained Malcolm Noonan, a local Green Party councillor. “Its destruction has been hugely divisive, hugely significant, and objected to by… the archaeological and heritage interests in Ireland at that time.”

  • This is the third in a three-part series following an in-depth Noteworthy investigation. You can read the entire series here.

Heritage bodies had a number of issues with the planned development which went through the two houses on one of Kilkenny’s oldest roadways, Vicar Street. The main argument between the council and those who wanted to preserve the buildings was their link with the medieval city.

According to the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, the Vicar Street houses were originally late medieval or renaissance structures. They are located in Irishtown which is the oldest part of the city and was in existence when the first Anglo-Normans arrived in 1169.

Mark Clinton, monuments and antiquities committee representative of An Taisce, said in the late medieval era they were “ancillary buildings” to St Canice’s Cathedral and “the canon’s residence when attending meetings in the church”. The building that stood on the site at that time was known as the manse house of the Prebendary of Tascoffin.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Disputed reports

To determine the age of the houses, Kilkenny County Council commissioned a number of reports by archaeologists and a historical building specialist. In a press release in 2014, the council stated “these reports together with previous reports show conclusively that the houses at Vicar Street are not medieval”.

Archaeological investigations cost the council an additional €343,000 according to an update to councillors in October 2015.

The report by historical building specialist Rob Goodbody mentioned that “the walls of the previous houses may have been incorporated in the reconstruction, though probably only at the front”. It added that the existing “houses are post-medieval, and that the houses that were previously on the site would also appear to have been post-medieval”.

An archaeological assessment of the site was summarised in a review of the Central Access Scheme in 2014. The review said the assessment “concluded that, while there had once been 13th century and 18th century buildings on site, the current iteration of the houses on Vicar Street most likely dated from the post-1860s period”.

kilkenny_investigation_3 Source: Vicar Street, Kilkenny via Google Street View

If this gif isn’t working for you, click here for a working version.

The houses may not have been much to look at but history lay beneath. Their old stones were covered in plaster, wood was replaced with aluminum windows, PVC gutters lined the eaves and flowers were growing out of the chimney stack. As archaeologists removed these modern facades, a patchwork of stones gave passersby a glimpse at the past. As this work progressed, An Taisce claimed their true age was revealed.

The heritage charity disagreed with the result of the reports released by the local authority, according to Clinton. In a press release An Taisce stated “archaeological experts studying the recently exposed structural remains at 22 Vicar Street have documented a cut-stone window and a chimney dating to the late 1500s / early 1600s”.

The press release said the gable wall was the remains of a late medieval or renaissance building and should be declared a national monument. Clinton explained that “it just happened when they were building those houses, they kept the original [wall]”.

He added that the chimney flue is similar to that of Rothe House, a famous late 16th-century merchant’s townhouse which is one of Kilkenny’s major tourist attractions.

“Obliterate” a medieval plan

A major objection to the scheme was the destruction of the street pattern. It is argued that the curving line of Vicar Street and adjoining Dean Street reflects the line of the ancient enclosure that once stood there.

“The curving line of Dean Street and Vicar Street preserves or reflects the line of an ancient ecclesiastical enclosure,” according to renowned Kilkenny archaeologist and historian, John Bradley.

In his statement of evidence at the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing on the inner relief road in 2008, Bradley, who died in 2014, said “the curving street plan should be retained without alteration as one of the handful of such surviving streets in Ireland”.

He added that Kilkenny “is Ireland’s most intact large medieval town and the present scheme proposes to obliterate the oldest part of it by cutting a roadway at right angles across a plan that has been in place for eight hundred years”.

Clinton reiterated this point, and said “by blasting that road into it, they ruined the integrity of the circle”. Before the Vikings, he explained “these were the closest things we had [to] little cities and little towns of our own”.

VicarStSquare2windowFireplace Artist's impression of an alternative development of the houses Source: Ross Stewart

At the same An Bord Pleanála hearing, a submission by Kilkenny County Council officials stated that “key points of built and cultural heritage interest lie in relatively close proximity to the proposed scheme as it crosses through the built up area of the city”.

The council officials also said that “the design of the proposed scheme seeks to meet the objectives of maintaining and preserving heritage” and went on to say that “the current design meets these objectives.”

History of demolition

This wasn’t the first time Kilkenny County Council made changes to this part of the city. In the late 1970s, Dean Street was widened. In his evidence, Bradley said the council “removed an intact medieval street and it demolished houses, some of which were themselves medieval, without any archaeological investigation or detailed recording of the fabric”.

He added “such decisions reflect the time, the 1970s, when inner relief roads were regarded as the solution to traffic problems. From the point of view of heritage, it was a time of ignorance.”

In many of the documents the local authority produced about the Central Access Scheme, they state that it has been an objective of the Council since 1978.

The Heritage Council had similar sentiments to Bradley in their submission about the scheme. This stated it “would highlight that alternatives to inner relief roads, particularly in the core of historic towns and cities, have developed considerably since 1978 in many European towns”. It was more familiar with the scheme than most as its headquarters is just over 100m from the gable wall and new bridge.

Towards the end of his evidence, Bradley said “if we were in Florence or Venice, the construction of this bridge and its intrusion into the historic core would be unthinkable”.

Clinton said the scheme is “crazy stuff” and “intrusive” which doesn’t improve the ambience of the area, especially for a city which is so dependent on tourism. “Most of these areas are pedestrianised in European cities… it’s part of the charm.”

The Kilkenny City and Environs Development Plan 2002 was also cited by the Heritage Council as they found it “difficult to reconcile” with the Central Access Scheme proposal. Kilkenny’s latest Development Plan still states the same disputed sentence: “The centre cannot continually accommodate large‐scale development, particularly if the result is the erosion of historic building plots.”

DSC00260 (1) View of St Francis Bridge with St Canice's Cathedral and Green's Bridge in the background Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

 An agreement is reached

An Taisce met the council in early 2014 and told them their findings about the gable wall, according to Clinton. He added when the council asked “if we keep the gable wall are you happy?” since “that was the only thing that was of antiquity,” they said that they were.

An agreement was reached between the council and An Taisce in May 2014. It read: “With regard to No. 22 Vicar St, Kilkenny, the County Council will retain the Renaissance gable wall.”

A press release sent by the council at the same time said “it appears now to be common cause among all parties that the houses at 21 and 22 are in themselves of no archaeological value. In order to avoid further disagreement and further costs of investigation and in the possible interest of the building heritage of Kilkenny, the Council has decided to retain the gable wall of No. 22.”

Clinton said he wished the gable wall had been in the middle of the new road rather than at the edge, adding that “would have been perfect”.

No plans for the gable wall

The dismantling of the house began in early 2015. Since then, only the gable wall remains, standing alone, with cars lining up beside it as they wait for the traffic lights to turn. It is has no sign to explain why it is there. A fence surrounds part of it and a warning sign for pedestrians adorns each side. A small plaque is attached to the wall which says ‘St John’s Ward 1844’ with no explanation included.

Something artistic or creative should be done that includes a plaque to explain what it is, according to An Taisce’s Clinton, who felt “it should be turned into something as it’s ugly with that big girder”.

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He suggested that the medieval building associated with the gable wall should be rebuilt as “none of it interferes with their road”. This is because the original manse house would have continued towards the footpath and Abbey Quarter, rather than the new road. The Abbey Quarter is an adjacent site which the council are currently developing.

“That would be an enhancement”, Clinton added. “Kilkenny is a special place. The more it could be enhanced, improved, nurtured, the more for the economy of the town”. In terms of the gable wall, he felt the fact that the council “were willing to keep it was good”.

DSC00245 What remains of the houses at Vicar Street Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

The gable wall isn’t the only aspect of the new scheme that objectors don’t like the appearance of. The newly built St Francis Bridge was designed to be unobtrusive with a previous cable bridge design not being approved by An Bord Pleanála. In the 2011 decision, the planning authority said the original design was “not appropriate in terms of its visual impact at this sensitive location”.

The plain concrete structure does not fit in with the other historic bridges and surrounding architecture, according to those Noteworthy spoke to who were opposed to it.

“To create something like this with its design, it just doesn’t really fit in with the culture of the place”, explained Turlough Kelly while talking to Noteworthy at the bridge. He was part of the protest group who camped at the entrance to the scheme’s construction site for a number of weeks in 2014.

There is currently no plan or strategy for the controversial gable wall. In a statement to Noteworthy, Kilkenny County Council stated “plans in relation to the gable wall will be considered in the context of the future development of the Abbey Quarter”.

Noonan said “it’s serving no purpose at this stage”. He added that “unfortunately it was a token remnant of what should have been left, which was the two houses. This is not really a way to preserve our heritage. It’s not a way to conserve or tell the story of Kilkenny, of what was such an important town.”

***

This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs. 

You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

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About the author:

Maria Delaney and Ken Foxe

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