BY JOHN FITZGERALD
The Kilkenny Heritage Walkers marked their 600th outing last Saturday. The big occasion coincided with a tour of the site of the former city jail from which IRA volunteers staged a daring breakout in 1921.
Mayor Joe Malone addressed the walkers in the lush surrounds of Castle Garden before the dedicated men and women set off yet again to explore the City’s rich and internationally renowned heritage.
Kilkenny’s First Citizen was flanked by the irrepressible Marianne Kelly, feted for her recent Lady Desart talk at Rothe House at which she effectively “channeled” the kindly aristocrat, attired in early 20th century costume.
Marianne thanked the Mayor for supporting the runaway success story that is the weekly walking routine that has taken participants along a multitude of historical pathways. Starting in 2012, they’d toured every street and laneway of the mediaeval city, also venturing beyond it to explore or rediscover the county’s cultural gems, some of them previously hidden or neglected until the group brought them back into the public spotlight.
They accomplish this via a mix of thorough research, excellent rhetorical delivery, and the group’s highly infectious enthusiasm as they visit churches, holy wells, revered landmarks, old mills, and a variety of time-honoured locales, traversing much-loved laneways and ancient spaces. There’s social side to it too: Walkers get to make new friends and they can look forward to the lively and informative exchanges that follow each outing.
Veteran guides Paddy Neary and John Comerford were among the participants on Saturday, but especially prominent for this milestone event was Eamon Kiely, the acclaimed military historian who can always be relied on to open up the pages of the past and fill in the inevitable gaps in our understanding of that “Other Country.”
Eamon gave one of his most riveting presentations to date, recalling how a prisoner in the summer of 1921 noticed an abandoned cellar underneath the notorious Kilkenny jail. This inspired men serving time for their roles in the struggle for Irish independence, to attempt a daring breakout.
They planned the high risk venture for later in the year. Over a period of months, they bored a hole down into the cellar and from there entered another cellar where they commenced their impeccably plotted freedom bid.
By the agreed date, November 22nd, they’d completed the tunnel, which was 50 yards in length, and six feet deep. The exit point, measuring three feet in diameter, appeared just outside the outer wall of the prison in Rioch’s Street.
Luck was on their side and forty-four of them shuffled through the tunnel. Emerging, they were assisted by sympathetic locals and fellow volunteers on the outside. Among the escapees was rebel priest, Father Pat Delahunty, whom all the prisoners revered as both a spiritual pastor and a man who followed in the footsteps of the great Fr Murphy of Vinegar Hill.
He ended up in Chicago where he attended to the Last Rites of death row inmates in that city’s prison. Fr Dehahunty Terrace in Kilkenny is named in his honour and the walkers paused here to pay homage to his memory.
Eamon Kiely opined that Kilkenny’s“Great Escape” of 1921 ought t be the subject of a major movie, a sentiment shared by the walkers who applauded his well-researched account of one of the biggest jail breaks in Western European history.
Even as the group expressed gratitude to the Mayor, Joe Malone, for his valued patronage, the walkers were equally conscious of the presence among them of a former Mayor, Betty Manning, a woman whose contribution to the preservation of Kilkenny’s antiquities is legendary. It was she who lobbied so eloquently and persistently for the protection, and, where possible, restoration of what remained of the 13th century City Walls.
It was a proud day for Kilkenny in 2018 when Talbot’s Tower on Ormond Street was officially declared open to the public.
This had been a priority of hers. She had used her term as Mayor to the utmost to ensure that her beloved native city would not, if she could help it, lose its priceless medieval heritage to the ravages of time and change. So it was entirely fitting that Betty Manning was among those completing the 600th “time travelling” walk.
The Heritage Walkers turn out every Saturday, regardless of weather conditions, setting off mainly from the Horse Trough on the Parade along whatever route is agreed on for the day.
Long may they tread the streets, lanes, hills, and boreens of our county… in their quest to keep the past alive in the minds of this and future generations.