The Kilkenny Museum

Paddy Neary

Now that Kilkenny has the newly opened Museum specialising in Kilkenny’s medieval history located in St Mary’s church and the Rothe House museum, is it not time for Kilkenny to reclaim it’s Archaeological treasures from the National museum of Ireland and exhibit them in our Museums?

The Kilkenny Archaeological Society established its own museum in 1849, but having collected many items of local origin, gave them all into the safe keeping of the National museum in 1910.

The Kilkenny Archaeological Society (now the Royal Society of Antiquaries) was founded in February 1849, and among its early aims was to establish a museum in the city. By the following September, the founding members, in particular the Rev. James Graves, approached the Corporation for permission to use a room in the Tholsel and proposed to fit it up as a museum.

The Society took the view that collections of archaeological objects should not be held in the “cabinets of private individuals” but made publicly accessible in County museums.

The first donations to the Museum were made in September 1849, among the first were medieval floor tiles from Saint Canice’s Cathedral, St Patrick’s and Jerpoint Abbey as well as fragments of medieval stained glass from St. Canice’s. Over the years many objects of all periods were presented to the museum, initially these were from Kilkenny City and County but soon they were being presented from all over Leinster and beyond. Five years after its foundation, the Society changed its name to the Kilkenny & South East Archaeological Society, and as the Society continued to expand the name was again changed to The Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland. In 1890, the name was finally changed to The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

By 1853 the Society had moved to apartments on Patrick Street and the museum was moved from the Tholsel. Some years later the museum was moved to premises on William Street until finally settling at Butler House on Patrick Street. 1859 James G Robertson was appointed Curator and it was announced the Museum was open “to members and their friends on Wednesday of every week”.

By the time the Society had moved its headquarters to Dublin in 1890, the membership had increased enormously representing every county in Ireland, however, the membership in Kilkenny had declined. This became an issue for the Museum as the Society did not have the level of membership to assist in the running or the financing of the Museum.
Several members from outside of Kilkenny began to question the viability of the Society’s resources being channelled into the keeping of a Museum that catered for Kilkenny members.
In 1871, Graves argued strongly that it would be desirable to ensure the independence of the Museum, should the Society cease to exist. A year later an appeal was made throughout Kilkenny city and county to seek financial aid for the Museum. In April 1873, Graves reported that the appeal had failed, ”there was one response from the County and four from the City” Graves commented “perhaps the time would come when too late the local public would regret their apathy in the matter”.

George Basset in his 1884 guide to Kilkenny City and County noted the Museum “was not open to the public but visitors find no difficulty in gaining admission.” The curator and librarian, James George Robertson, “lives at the opposite side of the street and takes a fatherly pleasure in displaying its attractions to the appreciative stranger.” Basset describes a 17th Century chair from the Old Parliament House, a Confederate Banner found in the wainscoting of Rothe House and skulls from the base of the round tower at St. Canice’s.
In January 1886 the A.G.M. was held in Butler House, this was the last meeting attended by James Graves who had been a founder member of the Society and had served as honorary Secretary since 1849, he died later that month. There is little doubt following his death the local influence of the Society in Kilkenny decreased, so too did the Society’s interest in its museum in Kilkenny. A little over two years later, the first discussions took place of moving the collections from Kilkenny to Dublin. The National Museum opened its doors to the public in 1890, a motion was made that the contents of the Kilkenny museum be offered for sale to Dublin, this was opposed by the Rev. James French who argued it would be like “sending coals to Newcastle” and the collection would have a greater educational value if it remained in Kilkenny.

The motion was defeated but revisited in 1896, when the Society approached Dublin about taking the collection, the offer was declined, however 2 years later notice was received by the Society to surrender its accommodation in Butler House. This forced the Society to take action and a committee of trustees was established to oversee the running of the Museum.
In the Summer of 1900, the Committee brought the collection to Rothe House, history was to repeat itself, for in 1907 Michael Murphy wrote to the Society that promised subscriptions were not forthcoming and they were struggling to meet the costs of running the Museum. An offer was made by the Corporation to house the Museum in the new Public Library but nothing ever came of the proposal. Richard Langrishe in 1908 made an appeal for subscriptions but failed. But two years on, Langrishe wrote to the Society claiming the rent had fallen into arrears and the landlord had threatened to take possession of the collection. Langrishe concluded “the citizens of Kilkenny take no interest in it” and unless the Society will resume possession of their property I fear it will be dispersed before long.” Immediately the Society wrote to Dublin offering them the collection on loan, this time the offer was accepted and within weeks the Kilkenny Museum closed its doors to the public. The collection that had been in Kilkenny for over sixty years was transferred to the National Museum of Ireland.
Many years later at a Council meeting in June 1963, a resolution was passed empowering the Society to donate the collection to the National Museum. Katherine M Lanigan wrote to the Society stating she understood that the donors of the objects in the collection legally retained their property right, and as such the Society were not empowered to donate to the National Museum. This was the same legal advice given to the Society in 1917 when the Academy had sought to purchase the collection. The President of the Society wrote to Katherine Lanigan to say the matter had been re-examined and the National Museum would continue to hold the objects on trust.
The establishment in 1945 of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society followed in 1962 by the purchasing of Rothe House. The Society opened its doors as a Museum in 1966 with a new collection, 56 years after the former Museum closed the same doors to the public.

A catalogue survives of the items transferred to Dublin in 1910 and so it should be possible to track these items now in Dublin.

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