Modern bust of Saint Canice in Kilkenny city
Kilkenny means church of Cainnech and is a city in County Kilkenny famous for it’s culture, heritage, crafts and imposing castle which is open to visitors for a small fee. The city has many important churches and has two fine cathedrals; St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral built in 1857 in the English early Gothic style and Saint Canice’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, which dates from around the thirteenth century.
The interior of Saint Canice's Cathedral, KIlkenny
Saint Canice’s Cathedral stands on an ancient Christian site that dates back to the sixth century and legend has it that it was the site of Saint Canice’s monastery. It has a very good example of an early Christian round tower and visitors can climb to the top of it and get a great view of the city. It is one of only two round towers in Ireland that can be climbed to the top by visitors.
The round tower at Saint Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny
Saint Cainnech of Aghaboe, known as Saint Kenneth in Scotland (and affectionately called Saint Kenny by local cats*) was an abbot and a scholar. He is said to be one of the original twelve apostles of Ireland sent out under the blessing of Saint Finnian. The twelve were Ciaran of Saighir, Cairan of Clonmacnoise, Brendan of Birr, Brendan of Clonfert, Columba of Terryglass, Columba of Iona, Mobhi of Glasnevin, Ruadan of Lorrha, Senan of Iniscathay, Ninnidh of Loch Erne, Laserian of Leighlin and Cainnech (or Canice) of Aghaboe. Saint Canice’s feast day is on 11th October and he is the patron saint of the city of Kilkenny.
Unlike his friend and companion Saint Columba, Saint Canice did not guard an impressive copy of the scriptures, but he did write two important commentaries on the Gospels. One of these commentaries became nicknamed the Chain of Cainnech and was considered to be one of the most important commentaries in Britain, Scotland and Ireland right up into the Middle Ages. Although he founded numerous monasteries both in Scotland and Ireland, his settlement at Aghaboe was to become the most important. Some tales connected with him talk of his love for nature and his gifted style of preaching. He seems to have favoured a very stark form of monasticism that can be seen elsewhere in Ireland. He is said to have been responsible for the building of monastic cells on the islands of Eninnis and Ibdon and on the shores of Loch Laggan (the remains can still be seen at this spot). In his old age he retired to a hermits life that he seemed to favour and spent his last remaining days in prayer in a cell on the island of Loch Cree.
There are quite a number of strange tales connected to Saint Canice. One such tale tells of how he loved retiring to a solitary existence in the forests to pursue his work on the Gospel commentaries. Here he was so still and focused on his work that the deer became easy in his presence; so at ease that he was able to balance his manuscripts in their antlers!
The sign at the well
The well is quite close to a busy road, but the steep bank means that the enclosure has a bit of peace and quiet. This is quite an impressive well with a little early Irish church shaped structure and an open gulley to the nearby stream. The water is clear and bracing with a very forceful flow into a rectangular trough. The structure has some seating and offers more quiet and privacy. It’s a little bit of solace in the middle of the city and I have to confess that I was really taken by surprise - it’s rather beautiful. Tradition has it that those leaving for foreign lands should drink from the well before they depart and they will be assured of a happy return to Ireland. The waters were also thought to be a protection from dying from cold or a fever or a loss of religious faith. More importantly it is said to have been the baptismal site of one of the last great pagan King’s of the area, King Brude.
The well house viewed from the gulley
There is an ancient Troparion that became incorporated into the anonymously written Irish poem (although attributed to Saint Columcille) ‘In Praise of Cainnech ‘, whose text is held by University College Dublin as part of the Thesaurus Linguae Hibernicae. Here seems as good a spot as any to recite the Troparion.
In honour thou dost rank with Ireland’s Enlightener,
O Lover of the Desert, great Teacher of the sacred scripture,
Father of Monks and Founder of Monasteries, O blessed Cainnech.
Labouring for Christ in both thy native land and farthest shores,
Thou art a tireless intercessor for the faithful.
Pray for us who hymn thee, that despite our frailty we may be granted great mercy.
The well basin
How to find it:
St Canice’s Cathedral is easily found, so make your way there first. Walk down Dean Street as far as the roundabout and then turn left up Dominic Street and then take the first right into Kennyswell Road. The well is on the right through a gap in a fairly high stone wall.
*Kilkenny people are known as ‘cats’ after the nickname for the hurling team.
Detail from the Dean's stall in Saint Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny