The Hole in the Wall

The Hole in the Wall

Edward J. Law (2013)

At the end of the 18th century a small tavern in Kilkenny city was at the centre of the city’s night life. The premises no doubt seemed as small to its clientelle then as they do at the present day. The little tavern was the Hole in the Wall which, having no street frontage, probably took its name from the low entry off High Street, opposite the lane to St Mary’s church. Then, as now, the entry gave on to a narrow alley, 50 foot long and 6 foot wide. The hospitable medieval building at the end of the alley was thee place to be seen in the 1790s: it was frequented by fashionable society, often guests from Kilkenny Castle introduced by John Butler -the Marquis in waiting- then familiarly known as Jack of the Castle. The proprietor at the time was Tom Clayton who had been valet to John Butler, a personal connection on which the success of the tavern was built. Jack of the Castle seldom missed a night there and often took his company from the castle with him. Among those who patronised the tavern were Sir Jonah Barrington, Harry Flood, Henry Gratton, Sir Hercules Langrishe, and Arthur Wellesley, subsequently the first Duke of Wellington.
Quite apart from the castle connections the Hole in the Wall drew its company from the tradesmen and professional men of the city at a time when most of them lived above their business premises and sought their nightly entertainment in the city. The taxis of the 18th century in urban areas were sedan chairs, covered and enclosed chairs slung between two long poles, with room inside for one passenger. In 1775 Kilkenny had a stand of 9 sedan chairs each of which would have been operated by two sturdy men. That form of transport continued in Kilkenny down to the 1830s when there were still 3 or 4 operating. The last of them is said to have ceased in 1840 when Mrs Gore, widow of Arthur Gore, left the city. Arthur Gore had been landlord of the Kings Arms Inn in John Street before taking the Sheaf of Wheat, the City’s principal Inn, in Rose Inn Street in 1796.
In common with many of the city inns the Hole in the Wall was the scene of quarrels which could, in seconds, develop into challenges to duel, from the most trivial of causes. In 1798 the rumour of a hostile force approaching the city from Freshford drew members of the Kilkenny Legion to ride out and reconnoitre the countryside. They found nothing, but John Macartney, a chemist, and James Young, a hatter, members of the search party, differed as to whether a pitchfork in a load of furze might have been a pike. This led to heated words that evening and the two left the tavern for Archersgrove, off the Bennettsbridge Road just beyond the castle, where some imputed insult was settled by duelling pistols, resulting in the death of both men.
No doubt this tragic affair arose to no small extent from expenditure of a few pence in the tavern, whose atmosphere may be guaged from the oft repeated doggerel:

If ever you go to Kilkenny
Remember ‘The Hole in the Wall’
You may there get blind drunk for a penny
Or tipsy for nothing at all.

After the tavern was offered for sale unsuccessfully in 1841 it stood empty and was eventually used for storage. The building of the Hole in the Wall has risen from extreme dilapidation under the dedicated ownership of Dr Michael Conway, becoming again a venue for entertainment, though of a more sober kind in the 21st century.