Kells Priory is one of the many medieval marvels in Ireland, and if you’re in County Kilkenny, it’s a must!
Visitors can ramble among the ruins as they follow a nice looped walk that takes in the King’s River, the village of Kells, and of course, the iconic priory.
Though now mostly in ruins, it’s a rewarding walk through Kilkenny’s past. Find out everything you need-to-know below.
Some quick need-to-knows about Kells Priory
Before heading to this holy site, let’s go over some of the basics.
Kells Priory is located in the heart of County Kilkenny, just over 15 km south of Kilkenny City. It typically takes around 15 to 20-minutes to drive. Sitting on the banks of the River Kings, it enjoys spectacular surroundings. From Dublin, it’s about 130 km away, and will generally take about an hour and a half to reach.
It’s free to enter Kells Priory and anyone is able to stroll through the grounds. There’s even a self-guided audio tour that uses a series of QR codes that are dotted along the path to provide more information. However, access is limited, and if you want to go inside some of the buildings you’ll need to take a guided tour.
3. Opening hours
Kells Priory is open daily 24/7. Since there’s no visitor centre or other amenities, it’s essentially a walking route that can be enjoyed at any time. However, guided tours typically only run during the summer season, Wednesday to Sunday between 9.30 am and 5 pm (times may change).
4. One of the most impressive medieval monuments in Ireland
Kells Priory is among the largest medieval monuments in Ireland. With the ruins dating back to the 12th-century, it’s incredibly well-preserved, notable for the collection of tower houses that are connected by walls that enclose the entire site. Looking more like a fortress than an Augustine priory, it’s a mighty sight to behold.
About Kells Priory
Situated on the banks of the King’s River in County Kilkenny, Kells Priory is regarded as one of Ireland’s most impressive medieval monuments.
The Augustine priory dates way back to the late 12th-century, and despite a turbulent history, still remains in great shape to this day, making for a great day out.
Fire and ruin, the early history of Kells Priory
Founded in 1193 by the brother-in-law of the famous Norman conqueror Strongbow, Geoffrey FitzRobert, the priory was built in place of a pre-existing church dedicated to St. Mary.
Over the course of the next 150-years, it was attacked and burned three times – no wonder that such strong fortifications were added later!
The first attack
In 1252 Lord William de Bermingham led the first attack. A relation of Geoffrey Fitzrobert, family ties didn’t stop him burning the place to the ground.
In 1317, Edward Bruce and his Scots army arrived in the area, once again attacking and laying waste to the priory.
Then, just a year later, the second William de Bermingham burned the priory and the surrounding area in a baronial war with the Fitzgeralds.
The end of an era
With so much devastation during the early years, it’s believed that most of the current structures date back to the 14th and 15th-centuries.
During the 15th-century, war broke out between the houses of Ormond and Desmond, prompting the building of the famous fortifications and what is now known as the seven-castles of Kells.
However, with near-constant war all around, the priory fell into neglect.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries act
In 1540 the priory was dissolved as part of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries act. It was briefly turned into a farm, with part of the church remaining as a parish church.
However, just a year later, it was given to James Butler, the ninth earl of Ormond by Henry VIII.
All was not lost though, and in 1629 Pope Paul V appointed Augustinian Patrick Comerford as the prior of Kells. In turn, he kept Kells Priory functioning until being banished during the Cromwellian wars in 1650.
After this, the priory remained largely unused and fell further into ruin.
Kells Priory today
In 1893 the priory became a national monument under the management of the Office of Public Works. Over the following years, they carried out extensive conservation works.
In 1970, large-scale excavations were undertaken, in which many artifacts were unearthed.
Nowadays, the land is open for the public to explore, with a looped walk and an online self-guided tour to provide an in-depth history. Guided tours can also be enjoyed through private companies.
Things to see, do, and look out for at Kells Priory
One of the reasons that a visit to Kells Priory is one of the more popular things to do in Kilkenny is due to the volume of things there are to see and do.
Below, you’ll find info on what to look out for along with info on the looped walking trail.
1. The looped walk
By far the best way to see Kells Priory is to follow the official looped walk. Starting in the Kells Priory car park, the walk takes you through a field of sheep and lambs before reaching the ruins.
Meander the ruins at your leisure, before following the trail to the river bank. As you follow the river, you’ll come across a number of old mills. The trail then takes you into the village of Kells, before returning to the car park.
You can also park in the village or along the river if you want to stop for lunch after your walk. Along the way, there are a number of QR codes that you can scan for more information about the various sections of the walk.
Bear in mind, there are stiles and gates along the way, and conditions can be muddy. As such, the walk is not suitable for wheelchairs or buggies.
2. The nave
As the part of the priory in which people gathered to hear sermons and pray, the nave of Kells Priory was fairly sizable.
Some of the old walls still stand to this day, offering a rare glimpse at the workmanship that went into constructing these mighty buildings.
3. The crossing tower
The crossing tower was a later addition to the original structure, and these days it offers a glimpse at how different periods made use of the space.
The tower boasts four pointed archways, some of which remain open, while others were closed off in the late-medieval period. While still standing fairly tall, the battlements that once stood at the top have since crumbled into the dusts of time.
4. The transept
The transept boasts some of the most impressive sights, with much of the original structure still standing. Three huge archways remain on the sidewall, most likely stained-glass windows in their heyday.
Meanwhile, the gable-end retains its shape, revealing yet more impressive arches and intricate stonework, especially impressive when viewed from the crossing tower.
5. The chancel
An area of the priory reserved for members of the religious community, the chancel once boasted decorative walls and an immense stained-glass window on the eastern gable, capturing the sun-rise. Part of the old, square window frame can still be seen, giving you an idea of just how impressive it would have been. Within the chancel, you’ll also find four tomb niches carved into the walls.
6. Priors tower
Standing in fantastic condition, the priors tower was formerly a living space that offered more comfort than most of the dormitories.
Fireplaces, brightly painted walls, and mortared floors suggested domestic uses. Constructed in the 15th-century, it differs from the defensive towers built in the same period.
The chapter house
An important room in the priory, the chapter house can still be made out despite having lost some stonework over the years.
The entrance door is a wide arch with two smaller windows at either side and another slightly higher up. Stone benches line the side walls, where members likely sat during morning readings and meetings.
7. The different ranges
Not a lot remains of the various ranges, which housed the infirmary, refractory, living quarters, and numerous storerooms.
However, they offer glimpses at some of the oldest surviving sections of the priory, with walls dating back to the 13th-century.
The refectory has survived fairly well, still standing tall and showcasing two large stained-glass windows that would have lit the room up nicely.
8. The cloister garth
This central, open area was once surrounded by a gorgeous arcade, boasting numerous archways, carvings, and stone pillars.
The original has sadly crumbled, though previous digs have revealed enough evidence to make an accurate reconstruction possible.
Things to do near Kells Priory
Once you’ve explored Kells Priory to your heart’s content, there are plenty more things to see and do in the area.
Below, you’ll find more historical sites, the lively Kilkenny City and plenty more.
1. Jerpoint Abbey (11-minute drive)
Jerpoint Abbey is another incredibly well-preserved abbey, and while it’s not quite as big as Kells Priory, it boasts amazing sights. Famous for housing a huge number of medieval carvings, statues, and tombs, it’s amazing to think that some of them are more than 800-years old. The structure itself remains in great shape, making for a fascinating day out.
2. Kilkenny City (17-minute drive)
With Kilkenny just a stone’s throw away, it’d be a shame to miss it. The medieval capital of Ireland still retains its historic charm, with a series of narrow, cobblestoned streets, ancient inns, and the iconic Kilkenny Castle to check out. There are also numerous museums and plenty of other attractions to enjoy. Plus, with amazing pubs, live music, cafes, and restaurants, there really is something for everyone.
3. Kilfane Waterfall (21-minute drive)
Another hidden gem, Kilfane Glen and waterfall is akin to a secret garden. Barely touched since the late 1700s, the garden takes in woodland trails as well as more formal style rose gardens and even a historic country cottage. Running through the site is a gurgling stream, which crashes over the rocks to create a stunning waterfall. Tranquil and magical, it’s a top spot for relaxing and exploring alike.
4. Gorgeous little villages
You’ll find some lovely villages in this neck of the woods. Kells itself is a pretty little village, with an incredible restaurant and historic buildings. Driving out a bit, you’ll come to Inistioge, a postcard-perfect village sitting on the banks of the River Nore. With its gorgeous village green, lively pubs, and stunning surroundings, it’s well worth visiting. Alternatively, check out Graiguenamanagh on the banks of the River Barrow. A hub of water sports, walks, good pubs, and more lovely scenery, it’s a great place to check out.