Paddy Neary: The Three Tholsels

The Three Tholsels

Researched and read by Paddy Neary

One of the best known buildings is the Tholsel building on High Street in Kilkenny City. Regarded by many as”medieval” in fact it was built in 1761.

The word “Tholsel” comes from two Saxon words, toll meaning a tax and sell meaning booth or seat. Somewhat equivalent to the modern day Custom House.

Since Kilkenny became a walled town, merchants paid a toll on all goods brought into the town. The proceeds from the tolls were used for the walls, bridges, pavements and buildings. Such a building stood in Kilkenny at the beginning of the 16 th Century. The first reference to a toll is in the Liber Primus and it relates to the construction of a Tholsel in 1517. It was then an old structure and may have been 200 years old.

So we had three distinct buildings in Kilkenny and are referred to in 17th and 18th Century as the Old Tholsel, the New Tholsel and the Tholsel of Kilkenny.

Two different locations are mentioned as the site of this Tholsel. One being the site of the Allied Irish Bank, the second at Mannings Travel Agency

In1517 the little and great solars and timber gates in the Tholsel were constructed at public cost. On the east side of the structure a new gate way was built and in it was placed the great iron grate taken by force from the castle of Bernard the then Mac Giolla Phadraig of Cookhill (Cullahill) in Ossory. Sir Piers Butler, later Earl of Ormonde was responsible for this structure and used it as a deterrent to his enemies.

The Earl of Ormonde who died in 1614 by his last will appointed a hospital to be built on a waste piece near the old Tholsel. Walter Butler who succeeded as the eleventh Earl in 1631 procured the charter for this incorporation in 1631 under the name of the “Hospital of our Blessed Saviour” It was better known as The Ormonde Poorhouse. About 1840 this building was taken down. Later the Victoria Hotel was built on the site.

The historian and Town Clerk, Patrick Watters, mentioned one location as “on that part of behind High Street which Pudding Lane runs”. That building was also used as a Courthouse and the City Gaol underneath. The location of the Gaol is identified on Roque’s map of Kilkenny in 1757 as on Mannings site.

The “new” or second Tholsel was built at the end of the 16 th Century fully one hundred years after the original building fell into disuse. Both were used for a time for the same purposes giving rise to the names the “Old and New Tholsels” In 1578 a messuage of land was granted to Edmond Shee and John Roth by Thomas Marshall near the Market Cross and their heirs for the use of the

Sovereign Burgesses and Commons of the said town of Kilkenny. The present Tholsel being of equal measurement from North to South as its predecessor it was easy to identify the lane which formed a public pass way from the High Street at the Market Cross down to the back steps into Kieran Street.

An inquisition held in the New Tholsel in 1619 found that Helias Shee was seised of his lands and castle at Clonmorne and his Mansion house within the City of Kilkenny. This new Tholsel was built on part of the site of the present building .It was sited entirely on the street and separated from St. Mary’s Lane by a row of houses. Watters refers to leases of a number of shops under the
New Tholsel. These holding/shops were always four in number and the wider or part of the building which projected out into the street was an open public
market place A shop in ye Tholsole near ye Market Cross set to Mathew St. Leger in May 1747 for £6 10s per annum. A shop in ye Tholsole set to Otho Cosgrave from
1 st May 1747 for £3 10s per annum. A shop in ye Tholsole set to Matthias Daws from March 1747 for £5 per annum. A shop in ye Tholsole set to James Hackett
in March 1740 £5 per annum.

The new building was topped by a cupola with a town bell and a clock. There is a reference by Bishop De Burgo in 1759 by which he forbids the celebration of Mass in any chapel in the City on Christmas morning before 6 ‘ o clock . He adds “by 6’0clock I mean 6’0clock according to the Town Bell”.

The upper floor of the Tholsel was occupied as the Upper Chambers or Town Hall. It appears to have been part of the original design to erect a entabalature inscribed with the public functionaries then holding office in the city. The following is a facsimile of its arrangements “this tholesole rebuilt 1761” Antony Blount, mayor. Eland Mossom, recorder. John Watters, Henry Gale, Sheriffs.
Sir William Evans Morres and John Blunden M.Ps It appears that this entablature was to be fitted into the space now occupied by the city coat of arms. This shield (the coat of arms) was only installed in the early part of the 1820s.

The mayor’s new office was a small building at the rear of the Tholsel, this addition included the round room and closet over it the spiral staircase connecting both. The bottom room was properly fitted out for the administration of justice and was used as the Mayor’s Court down to the year , 1856. Mr William Lanigan being Mayor removed his court to the upper floor and
the smaller of the two rooms. This room is still used as the Mayor’s Office. At the rear of the building in Marys Lane is a limestone slab inserted in the masonry which gives the date of the foundation of this part of the building, in Roman capitals MDCCCXXIX by NAT. ALCOCK.

John Hogan, historian and Mayor in 1883 relates to the building of our present Tholsel in 1761 and details the cost of construction as £1315 commenting today (1883) it could not be completed for less than £3000. The work was described as rebuilding but it fact it was a completely new building, twice the size of the structure it replaced. The designer is not known but remembered as Italian and the building was seen as having much the style of public buildings in Italy.

An extensive renovation of the building took place between 1947 and 1952. A huge fire engulfed the building in 1985 and, only for the prompt action of the Town sergeant not only would the Tholsel have been gutted but the collection of priceless civic and historical documents would also have been destroyed.

After two years of repairs and rebuilding the Tholsel reopened in 1987.With all civic business now being conducted in the County Hall, John Street, we hope the council have plans in hand that this historic building with its ancient title is not lost to the future citizens of Kilkenny.


  • John Hogan Kilkenny 1884