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The Development Of Kilkenny Castle Under The Butler Family

Kilkenny Castle is unique among Irish castles.

At the heart of the building is a medieval castle, a strong fortification. The medieval castle however, rather than being abandoned like most castles in Ireland,  remained an active living space for nearly six hundred years.  During this time, it underwent many changes following the different fashions. On this page I am going to talk about the stage by stage development of the castle as a changing living space.

Kilkenny Castle, Ireland, seen from the gardens

Over the centuries, the Butler family developed the castle from a medieval defensive Irish fortress into a Renaissance manor house, and later into a ‘big house, into one of the the large country mansions that became fashionable in the 18th century.

This development was closely tied up with the family fortunes of the owners. Each time Butler family fortunes were on the rise, a new burst of development would modernise the castle and update its layout and decor to the fashions of the current era. And each time the family was struck by misfortune, which at times was closely tied up with Irish history by and large, the castle fell to neglect to be picked up by the next generation of Butlers to come along.

The Butlers Purchase Kilkenny Castle

James Butler (c. 1360-1405), 3rd Earl of Ormond, purchased Kilkenny Castle in 1391. The preceeding owner had been in conflict with the king. Upon his death, the castle was seized by the Crown rather than passed on to his heir. It was sold onto the Butlers who had a close relationship with the Crown. At that time, the castle is described in documents as being surrounded by a generous park, an orchard, and meadows.

Butler family crest above the gates of Kilkenny Castle

From then on, the castle became the seat of the very powerful and extremely wealthy Butler family. They were the Earls and Marquesses and Dukes of Ormond, and the castle continued to be their family residence for some six hundred years. See the Butler family crest above.

The Renaissance

The transformation from medieval castle to renaissance fortress began during the lifetime of Thomas, (1531-1614) 10th Earl of Ormond. This is the same man who transformed the Ormond Castle at Carrick on Suir into a modern manor house to impress Elisabeth II. During his time, the castle was reported to be furnished very well and decorated with expensive fabrics such as Flemish tapestries.


Many other notable Butlers followed. The family was very adaptable and resilient, maneuvering in whichever way necessary in order to stay in power.

There was conflict however with Oliver Cromwell and his forces when Kilkenny castle was under siege in 1650. Four years later when the castle was surveyed, it was listed as having only three towers, and a large part of the curtain wall had been destroyed also.

The castle then had 25 rooms and various outbuildings, including a barracks for soldiers built for Cromwellian forces, a hall and a kitchen as well as stables.

The Butlers' Fortunes On The Rise

Just one example of the family’s resilience: the Butlers attained ducal status in the early 1660ies.

Starting 1662 they invested heavily in the castle to reflect their status. An extensive programme of refurbishment began and continued until 1675. The ducal couple, Thomas Butlers granddaughter Elizabeth Preston (1615-1684) and her husband, resided in London for a large part of these years. On their return, the castle contained some 100 rooms in the castle building as well as in outhouses. The scale of the building and refurbishment works had been huge providing work for builders, stone masons, gilders, carpenters, upholsterers and other crafts people.

Along with the castle, the gardens were transformed and planted formally following the fashions of the time with fountains and long avenues of trees and decorative sculptures. A decorative ‘water house’ was installed in the garden which had the function of pumping running water up to the castle by means of a horse that was housed in the basement below floor level. Kilkenny Castle had it all- everything that was the height of fashion and comfort.

Construction of the main gate as we know it today started sometime around 1680. When converting the medieval wall into a Classical gateway the designers encountered a range of problems, among them the huge thickness of the base batter wall which had been part of the medieval defence system. The gate took more than 30 years to complete and more than one architect to work on solving the puzzle.


The only exception to the Butlers maneuvering cleverly in order to hold on to their power, occurred in and after 1688 when James Butler (1665 to 1745) sided with William of Orange and allowed the castle to be taken over by Jacobite forces in 1689.

He received the victorious king William as a guest at the castle, and took part in a 1715 Jacobite plot. As a result, James Butler was forced to leave the castle and treated as a traitor. The castle and other estates were seized by the Crown. His brother however, was able to buy back some of these estates including the castle for the family in 1721.

After this period of neglect the castle was in a bad state of repair. Visitors to the castle were describing it as being in a ‘ruinous state’. There was water ingress, furnishings had been destroyed or stolen.

Drawing Room at Kilkenny Castle, Ireland.

Another Upswing Of Fortunes

Repairs and restoration work were carried out by Walter Butler (1703-1783) 16th Earl of Ormond, but not until many years later. By the end of the 18th century, Edward Ledwich, a visitor to the castle described the castle as being ‘lately much improved’.

The family fortunes improved once again during the time of Walter Butler (1770 -1820). He was very close to the Crown by mixing in the social circle around the Prince Regent.  Walter Butler made renovations at Kilkenny castle during the early 1800’s. He bought in expensive handmade wallpapers from both Dublin and London, commissioned family portraits and got fashionable furniture made all prior to his marriage to an English heiress, Anna Maria Price-Clarke.

Building works continued throughout his lifetime. He had some of the medieval buildings demolished also, such as a square tower, the medieval gate house and parts of the curtain wall, and he had new stables built.

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The Luxurious Big House

Grace Louisa Staples (d. 1860), Countess of Ormond, oversaw large building works at the castle commencing only five years after his death. The architect Robertson was employed to renovate the castle in the Castellated Baronial style. This meant a changing of the external decor to create the look of a Gothic revival castle. Robertson built the picture gallery as we know it today. New windows were inserted, and the battlements were rebuilt in the Gothic style. The Classical gateway was remodelled. Robertson also introduced a servants’ tunnel similar to that at Strokestown Park House, here at Kilkenny Castle called the ‘Rose Garden Tunnel’ because it is illuminated by three small windows that offer views onto the rose garden.

The fashionable country mansions' dining room of the 1800's at Kilkenny Castle, Ireland.

While the works were going on the family moved across the road to the newly renovated Butler house, for a mere twenty years.

It took another set of architects to rectify the mistakes made by Robertson, such as the introduction of flat roofs that were now leaking. Woodward and Deane were contracted to make the last set of improvements to the castle while it was a Butler residence. The problematic picture gallery was now fitted with a new pitched roof with a central glazed area. A massive marble fireplace was commissioned from Dublin to include designs relating to the Butler family history. A practical addition was the inclusion of gas fired heating for the castle, again an innovative feature. Alongside the necessary corrective works changes in decor were introduced in a French Chateau style which had to co-exist with all other previous architectural styles employed.

The impressive Classical gate at Kilkenny Castle, Ireland.

A Castle Of The Irish People

In 1935 the Butler family moved out and sold the contents of Kilkenny castle. The castle then became derelict. In 1967, James Arthur Butler (1893- 1971), 6th Marquess of Ormond and the last in a long line of Butlers, sold Kilkenny Castle for a nominal sum of 50 Pounds to a newly formed restoration committee. The OPW took over in 1969 and assumed responsibility for the restoration process.

More About Kilkenny Castle

Find tourist information about the castle including our special tips and opinion.

Read about the medieval phase of the castle.

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