The Market Cross in Kilkenny

Peter McQuillan

Hello, I’m Peter McQuillan.

The Market Cross of Kilkenny

If you mention the Market Cross in Kilkenny nowadays, most people will take it as a reference to a shopping centre. But for over 400 years, the city had a real market cross, and it was a very important and imposing monument indeed in the High Street between the Butterslip and the Tholsel on the Tholsel side of the street. The cross was erected in 1335 and caused quite a stir, as recorded by Friar John Clynn, the great chronicler of mediaeval Kilkenny. He said the great cross was put up in the centre of the market place in Kilkenny, at which time many persons flying to the cross were marked with the sign of the cross on the naked flesh with a red hot iron, that they might go to the Holy Land This was at a time when the crusades against the Muslims were capable of create religious fervour, even among the burgesses of Kilkenny.
John Prim, a founder of the original Kilkenny Archaeological Society in the mid-19th century, wrote about it in the Society’s transactions in 1853, saying that the cross was a symbol of religion, intended to remind the traffickers in the midst of their buying and selling of the Deity ruling over all and to inculcate silently, but forcibly the lesson of  honesty and integrity in the fulfilment of their bargains and the regulation of their business transactions.
So, what did it look like?
From sketches which survive, it seems to have been very tall, probably 15m or more, say about 50 ft. Bishop David Rothe, writing in the 17th century, described it as a monument of splendid and magnificent design, from whose graduated base rises an arch rested on marble pillars and surrounded by a cross of polished stone. With the pillars were four sculptured statues of the saintly patrons of the city: Canice, Kieran, Patrick and Bridget.
Clergy found the cross a convenient place to preach to the citizenry. And at Corpus Christi, the young men of the town were accustomed from an early period to perform there the curious or religious plays named Mysteries for public entertainment.
And history has many references to the cross over the years. At 1642, at the time of the Confederation, following the slaughter of detachment of government troops by the large Confederate Army near Ballyragget, the heads of two officers and five others were hung on the market cross on the next market day, before burial in James’ Green.
Then, in 1645, when the city welcomed the papal nuncio Rinuccini with a large procession, the Nuncio recorded in his memoires that they stopped at the very high cross in the middle of the city, where a prayer was recited, before going on to the Cathedral.
In 1680, a local Jesuit, Father Archdecan, wrote a graphic account of the damaging of the cross by Cromwellian soldiers in 1650 and concluded by saying “But behold the wrath of an avenging God quickly pursued the authors of this sacrilege. A mysterious malady seized them, so that none survived it more than a few days”. He didn’t mention the Plague, which was rampant in the city at the time.
After the Williamite excesses at the end of the 17th century, there was a new corporation and their attitude to remember monuments of this kind changed. Among the burgesses, much of the respect for the cross and its purpose was lost. It became a haunt for idlers and dissolute characters who frequented the markets and it was a scene of gambling and mischief.
In 1771, the chief magistrate was Alderman William Blunt jun., a man of strong Puritan disposition. He set about clearing the idlers congregating around the cross. He was wont to pounce on card players, arrest them and have them carried through the city in ludicrous costumes with high peaked paper caps bearing images of the ace of spades. This behaviour reflected more the magistrate than the card players. He had become known for his wilful actions and the Corporation had had to ??? following some legal actions against them by citizens. In any case, he pulled down the superstructure of the cross, leaving the base without the authority of a corporation.
Was it his intention re-erect it in the Parade, as some people said? Or did he just knock it down as part of his campaign against its misuse? Cut stones from the monument were stated to be stored in the yard of the Alderman’s house at the coal market and ultimately were used for common building purposes.

(Transcribed by A.-K. Distel)