Whenever we visit Kilkenny, I always admire Rothe House on the Medieval Mile. This late 16th century merchant’s townhouse is the only one of its kind in Ireland and an important part of our national heritage.
Described as one of Kilkenny’s hidden gems, Rothe House is in fact made up of three houses and extensive gardens. It was only on our most recent trip that I finally made it inside to explore and it was certainly much more than I expected or imagined from the outside. It’s now well up there on my list of things to do in Kilkenny!
History of Rothe House
The plot of land on which Rothe House now stands was originally owned by Cistercian monks in the 13th century. At that time, property ownership was based on plots of land called burgage plots.
Road frontage was at a premium so burgage plots were long and narrow with outbuildings built behind the main home and shop front. The Cistercians lost possession of the land in the 16th century following the dissolution of monastaries.
In 1594, John Rothe Fitz-Piers and his wife Rose Archer built their first house on the site. Rothe was a renowned merchant and would go on to become the Mayor of Kilkenny four times. The first house included a shop on the ground floor where John sold silks and fine cloths, imported from mainland Europe.
The couple had 12 children and as the family grew they continued to build on the site. A second house was built in 1604 and third house in 1610. The Rothe family remained on site until the 1650s when Oliver Cromwell took control of Kilkenny. Their land was taken and they were banished to the west of Ireland.
The buildings were later used for a variety of purposes and eventually fell into a state of disrepair.
Kilkenny Archaeological Society
The building complex is now owned by the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. They purchased Rothe House in 1962. It was opened to the public as a museum and plans were made for the restoration of the complex.
An incredible amount of work has gone into the restoration of the houses and gardens over the years. While the buildings were completed first, the garden has only been open to the public since 2008. Most of the artefacts that can be viewed in the houses and courtyards were found locally or have been donated to the Kilkenny Archaeological Society.
Visiting Rothe House
I paid €7.50 for a self guided tour. This included a double-sided A4 page with an introduction to Rothe House and information about the houses, courtyards and garden. Further information panels are displayed throughout the site too.
It seems that a guided tours is available on Saturdays for a little extra and can also be pre-booked for groups of 10 or more visitors. It is possible to purchase a ticket to visit the garden only too.
Upon leaving the reception and shop area, you’ll head out to the first courtyard. The stairs opposite take you up to a beautiful wooden balcony leading into the the Phelan room, named after Margaret Phelan, a founding member of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. As the main reception room of the first house, this is where the Rothe family would have entertained their friends and guests. There are some stunning wooden furnishings and a number of portraits on display.
You can see the skull and antlers of a Giant Irish Deer above the fireplace. They were recovered from a bog in Kilkenny around 1900. The skull is hanging at the height it would be at if the deer was standing on the ground.
If you look at the photo below it should give you a good idea of just how large these animals were. Unfortunately the giant deer became extinct 10,000 years ago. Full skeletons of these magnificent animals can still be seen at the Natural History Museum in Dublin though. Well worth seeing, if you get the chance.
Above the Phelan room is the Lanigan Room, which was most likely sleeping quarters before the additional houses were built. There are some wooden beams in the room that were salvaged from nearby St Canice’s Cathedral during restorations. Two of the beams date from 1597. There is also a rather creepy looking but fascinating model of a Tudor plague doctor!
The second house is connected to the first by a corridor, which leads you through to a small room where two beautiful tapestries were on display. They appeared to be works in progress and some information is provided about the projects. In an adjacent room a small collection of period costumes were on display.
A beautiful wooden spiral staircase leads you downstairs. It’s not the original but was reconstructed in a similar style by the Kilkenny Woodworkers. On the ground floor there are a number of 19th century fashion accessories on display. There are also parts of the first flying machine built in Kilkenny and some information about the man and story behind it.
The third and last house was built in 1610. The ground floor was used as a brew house, keeping the family well stocked with beer for their daily needs! At one end of the room is a large fireplace with an oven at either side. The other side of the room contains an archeological exhibition including many items that were found during the excavation of the garden.
While there is nothing of note in the first or third courtyards, there are some items of interest in the second courtyard. There is an example of a cist grave, which dates from the Bronze Age. It was found in Carlow in the 70s and is a small coffin-like box made from stone. It was used to hold the cremated remains of the dead.
Close to the cist is a large well or cistern, which was built in 1604. It collected rainwater to meet the needs of the household.
The Tudor Garden at Rothe House
To access the gardens you’ll need to make your way through to the courtyard behind the third house. Unusually, access to the garden is then via a set of stairs, though it looked like there is also a lift available. While the houses are very interesting, the garden turned out to be the highlight for me.
Perhaps it was because I had no idea it was so big! Although narrow, the garden stretches back a long way to the city wall. It really is impressive and a total oasis in the middle of the city.
The gardens area was being used as a car park prior to reconstruction, so it’s fantastic that they have now been restored to their former glory. During excavations in 2008, the original layout of the garden was discovered and it has been painstakingly reproduced.
It now replicates a typical urban garden of the time and includes plants and trees that would have been grown by the Rothe family. There are vegetable patches, herbs and even an orchard.
There are lots of information panels throughout the garden about the plants, herbs, restoration and more. I also read that there were ducks in the garden but they must have been hiding on me as they were nowhere to be seen!
How much time do I need to see Rothe House?
While you could rush through in about 30 mins if you had to, I would allow longer as there are quite a lot of interesting artefacts on display. It also depends on how much you enjoy gardens, as you could also spend quite a bit of time out there. I was at Rothe House for almost an hour and a half in total and could have spent longer but they were closing!
Genealogical Research at Rothe House
Rothe House is also a genealogical research centre for Kilkenny city and county. So if you believe you have any ancestry in Kilkenny, this is the place to start your search! It’s possible to make an appointment with the genealogist or pay online for the research to be completed.