Other Names: Seven Castles
Kells Priory was founded in 1193AD by Geoffrey FitzRobert as an Augustinian religious house. FitzRobert was the brother of Richard de Clare ("Strongbow"), who played a leading role in the Norman invasion of Ireland. The priory lies on the banks of the King's River, about 8 miles south of the city of Kilkenny.
Located in politically volatile territory, the priory was sacked and burned on three occasions during the first 150 years of its existence. In 1252AD, by Lord William de Bermingham. Then again in 1326AD by the Scots army of Edward Bruce. Finally in 1327AD, by a second William de Bermingham.
Kells Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in the spring of 1540AD. In 1541AD the church and its lands were were surrendered to James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormonde. Subsequently, the prior was pensioned off but allowed to continue as curate of the church, which was put into use for the parish. The remainder of the priory became a farm, and the prior's tower and cloister served as a farmhouse. History is quiet regarding the fate of Kells Priory beyond this point, but the buildings eventually fell into neglect and ruin.
Kells Priory is spread over an impressive three acres. The initial phase of building is believed to have included the church, chapter house and refectory. The walls were a later addition, initially constructed to enclose the priory precinct, but not designed to have any substantial defensive role. A second adjacent enclosed area exists to the south - Burgess Court - which was constructed during the 15th Century on higher ground. This possibly served as a refuge for townsfolk during times of conflict, or for the containment of livestock. The defensive towers and fortified crenellated walls also date to back to this period. It's these that give the priory it's colloquial name "Seven Castles".
Today, although the church lies in ruins, the prior's tower survives in good condition. Most of the other monastic buildings are little more than remnants. It's the walls and defensive towers that are most impressive. The two sets of walls - the outer wall enclosing the entire area, and the smaller walled area enclosing the priory proper - are complete, and the towers that punctuate them are also largely intact. The gates that mark the entrances to both areas also survive in good condition. The area known as Burgess Court to the south is little more than an enclosed field, while the clerical precinct to the north contains all the remaining monastic buildings.
Kells Priory makes a powerful impression as it's approached across a field. The curtain wall is imposing, and the sheer scale of the ruin quite striking. In some ways, the most notable aspect is how quiet and deserted this site is. When I visited in 2013, there was no sign of Kells being developed as any kind of tourist attraction. It's unstaffed, and lies abandoned and apparently forgotten in a field. There were bits of scaffolding erected here and there, but no sign of any recent work being carried out. Even the path to the site isn't entirely clear. Like many Irish sites that I visited, I found it both sad to see such apparent neglect, whilst also enjoying the experience of visiting an abandoned ruin. Kells Priory is a spectacular and somewhat unique site, and I would highly recommend prioritising it for a visit.