Zero tolerance in old Kilkenny

A woman being led to the Ducking Stool


Part 1

The advent of cement streets and pathways made it easier to keep Kilkenny swept clean and to keep litter at bay. But it wasn’t so easy back in 1336 when things were decidedly rotten in Cat City.

In that year, Gilbert Fort was Sovereign- or Mayor- of the town and commons of Kilkenny. He enacted a decree that obliged every citizen to sweep the pavement outside his or her house. This act of cleanliness was to be performed twice weekly: on Wednesday and Saturday. Anyone failing to sweep in accordance with this ruling was fined sixpence, threepence on Wednesday and three pence on Saturday.

Two years later, in 1337, a new Mayor adopted a more effective get tough policy to keep Kilkenny tidy…if not exactly beautiful. Sovereign John Cross was determined to punish litterlouts, and the Corporation agreed with his sentiments. It banned the washing of clothes or animal entrails in public fountains, a practice that the nobility found obnoxious and totally unacceptable in a “civilized” age.

To deter the practice, the Corporation decreed that any such clothes or entrails should be confiscated and that the people washing them in the fountains would be placed in either a Tumbrel or Ducking Stool. The Tumbrel generally consisted of a cart on wheels. It was also known as the Scold’s Cart. The culprit was strapped into this, wheeled along public streets, and exposed to the jeers of the people.

The Ducking Stool was even nastier. Bound to the stool, the prisoner was lowered into water to receive a ducking, hence the name given to this instrument. With the stool resting on a riverbank, or held over a large bath, the chastiser operated a special lever attached to the stool to subject his prisoner to whatever degree of suffering and humiliation he or she had merited.

The ducking stool was also used in Kilkenny to restrain “loud women” and convicted gossipmongers. The logic behind ducking such unfortunate women was to “cool their immoderate heat”, according to the Town Sovereign. An English rhymester of later years summed up the popular attitude of men towards the public ducking of women.

If jarring females kindle strife,

Give language foul, or lug the coif,

If noisy dames should once begin

To fill the house with horrid din,

Away, you cry, you’ll grace the stool;

We’ll teach you how your tongue to rule.

Cruel husbands could also, legally, be complained by their wives and receive a ducking in the nearest pond or at a suitable spot along the Banks of the Nore, but men ruled and it was the women who mainly suffered.

Another instrument used to punish women accused of excessive gossiping was the scold’s bridle. This was an iron cage designed to fit around the head. It had a spiked tongue of iron.

When the clamp was placed on the woman’s head, the adjustable iron spike would be positioned directly over her tongue to effectively prevent speaking. If the clamped woman tried to talk, she suffered an injury and her tongue bled.

Women in clamps were sometimes paraded through the streets of Kilkenny, to draw the ridicule of the populace, including other women who, in many cases, were as guilty as their clamped fellow citizens of talking too much. Hefty fines for gossiping in later centuries replaced this cruel form of punishment.

Needless to say, more serious offences were punished in Kilkenny as elsewhere in Ireland by the application of correspondingly greater penalties. Murderers, armed robbers, burglars, and forgers were among those hanged for their misdeeds.

Treason carried the death penalty with added pain! In addition to being half-hanged and taken down from the scaffold before expiring, you then had your intestines cut out and burned in front of you.

You’d still be conscious but in considerable pain as the fire and smoke rose from your extracted insides. To (quite literally) add insult to injury, you’d hear the cheering of the throng amidst your anguish. A public disemboweling drew bigger crowds than a hurling match or bull-baiting. It was a festive occasion.

After all that agony, you were beheaded. Your body was then quartered and perhaps hung in chains for a few weeks as a warning to other would-be traitors.

To prevent them from rotting too quickly, the head and quarters were parboiled. Though the exact details of the punishment varied slightly from one execution to another, this was more or less the norm for treason, whether you were guilty of it or wrongly accused by somebody with a grudge.

To be continued…



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