Kilkenny Pastimes: Bull Baiting

Written and read by Paddy Neary

Bull Baiting

Before speaking about bull baiting and Kilkenny, I am sure you the listener would like to know something about the pastime. It was practised widely in England and quickly spread to Ireland. Before the event started the bull’s nose was blown full of pepper to enrage the bull before baiting. The Bull was then placed in a pit and specially trained dogs were set on the animal. A variant of the sport was “pinning the bull” the bull was tied to an iron stake so that it could move within a radius of about 30 feet. Dogs were set upon the animal one at a time, a successful attack resulting in the dog fastening his teeth in the bull’s snout. There existed a long held belief that baiting improved the flesh for human consumption, but by early 19th Century the sport began to die out. Partly due to it being a public nuisance, and concerns about cruelty to animals. A bill for the suppression of the practise was introduced into the House of Commons in 1802 but was defeated. It was finally outlawed in 1835 when Parliament introduced the Cruelty to Animals Bill, which forbade the keeping of any house, pit or other place for the baiting or fighting of animals.
The most popular past time in the 16th Century was Bull Baiting. From the time of Henry VIII Bull Baiting was a sport enjoyed by the inhabitants of London and was patronised by the two Queens of England Mary and Elizabeth.
It was taken under the patronage of the Corporation and all arrangements connected with the past time was under the control of a Committee which was styled “The Grand Council of Bull Ring” It must have been a particular privilege to be amongst those people for it is recorded in the Red Book in 1591 two of the Burgesses were admitted to the Grand Council on payment of 20 marks, not an inconsiderable sum in those days. When James I granted Kilkenny it’s city charter in 1609, the title of the town Magistrate was raised to Mayor, whilst the title of the chief official of the grand council was raised to Mayor of Bull Ring.
The Corporation passed a bye law in 1591 that persons duly elected to serve on the Grand Council and refusing to do so was to forfeit £20 and 40 days imprisonment without bail. It is recorded that a Robert Garvey consented to serve Lord of Bull Ring for life without wages for being admitted free. After the City Charter was granted in 1609 the Corporation made a payment £6-13s-4d a piece to the Sheriffs who served the office of Mayor of Bull Ring, and the same salary be settled on future Mayors of Bull Ring. The Corporation made a further order on the butchers of the City that they always to provide sufficient Bulls for the Bull Baiting to be used on St. John’s Day, the Christmas holidays and that butchers who do not contribute to be prohibited from following the trade.
Early in the 18th Century bull baiting although still in high favour amongst the lower orders seems to have fallen into disrepute amongst the wealthier classes of Kilkenny society and the municipal body ceased to patronise the past time. So the title Mayor of Bull Ring was discontinued and the person who held the title was retained under the title High Constable. Although Bull baiting was excluded from polite recreations it still remained a favourite pastime with the lower classes, the butchers kept the arrangement of the sport among themselves as they supplied the animals. In this way it survived well into the 19th Century, a Bull being baited regularly every Michaelmas Day, on the occasion of the swearing in of a new Mayor into office. Some Mayors even contributed towards the festivities in order to make themselves popular with the butchers’ fraternity.
The original Bull Ring was located in the vicinity of St. Francis Abbey, the neighbourhood is still known as The Ring. Bull baiting also took place on St. James’ Green and the last time the spectacle was witnessed there was September 29th 1837.