Kilkenny is a halfway point for me. My decision to spend six days here is completely coincidental. I’ve left Doolin, E has gone home, and I’m heading eastward towards Dublin. So I want to find a midpoint and allow myself stationary time to catch up on writing, play music, and establish a routine (and basic amenities would be nice). So I book six nights in a hostel in the medieval town of Kilkenny.
As the bus arrives, I’m pretty happy with what I see. Medieval cathedral and castle towers rise from two main points in the town. The streets are colorful, with several side-streets that seem to be entirely pedestrian.
One of the first things I learn about Kilkenny is that, despite being a small place, the town contains over 100 pubs. This means traditional music every night of the week, with the later nighttime sessions happening mostly on weekdays.
I’m not the most extroverted person. I do the withdrawn, writerly thing well, and there are times when I can be awkward or uncomfortable in social scenarios. This can make it daunting to be involved in an intrinsically social type of music, because playing traditional Irish sessions usually means going out to a bar by myself and breaking the ice with strangers. I always get disproportionately nervous when I head out with my fiddle in a new place.
However, most people who have been to Ireland will agree that the people here are some of the friendliest and most welcoming you’ll find anywhere in the world. The folk culture of Ireland, be it instrumental music, singing, dancing, or storytelling, is completely communal. The main venue for Irish music is the traditional pub, where people come together to share in music and good company (craic). This shared vitality is what originally drew me to Irish music; I had never before encountered a tradition of music that was so celebratory, and being in the middle of that type of community is special every time.
The music in Kilkenny does not disappoint. My first night, I play in a pub where a quiet, small, open session is taking place, and the musicians are very helpful in telling me where I’ll find nightly sessions throughout the week. My second night, I go out with some spontaneous friends from the hostel to a new pub, where three musicians are playing a high-energy gig. I’m happy to sit back and listen, but the band asks me to join in close to the end of their set. I get to play into a mic and start up some tunes. As always, I’m learning from the musicians around me, and my own playing adapts slightly to match their energy and style.
These musicians refer me to my gig for the next night. I feel like I can finally head out with more confidence and fewer nerves.
Like many travelers, I can reach my saturation point with hostels. Sharing your space with so many strangers gets exhausting when roommates come into the room at all hours, when you can never find a moment of privacy, when too many people are using the wifi and slowing it down, etc. However, hostels are built around the idea of bringing travelers together, and a good hostel can offer an unforgettable social experience. My hostel in Kilkenny, Macgabhainn’s, has a wonderful atmosphere, and the home-style layout around one main living room means that people come together every night.
A & A are two girls from Germany and Canada. On my third day in Kilkenny, we decide to rent bikes and ride on a nature loop that winds north of the town, reaching, at its apex, the archaeological site of Dunmore Cave.
Dunmore Cave is one of the most excavated national monuments in Ireland, and reputedly the site of a Viking massacre in 928. A large depository of human remains was excavated at the rear of the cave, which matches up with historical and literary references to a massacre and a dark place.
We follow the cave guide down down hundreds of steps. The temperature drops drastically once we pass under the entryway stalactites, which were used to date the cave. The various rooms and sections of Dunmore Cave have been given names throughout the excavation process, and the names chosen make a poet’s mind run wild with word associations and possibilities: The Cathedral, the Crystal Hall, the Fairy Floor, the Rabbit Burrow.
All around us, the process of growth and change is slow, constant. We see spectacles like the Market Cross, the largest stalagmite pillar in Ireland, which has taken thousands of years to grow its crystallized layers. We also see flat patches of ground that glisten in artificial light: the sign that new stalagmites are in the infant stages of formation.
We reach the Cathedral, the end of the cave tour, and the site of the supposed massacre. Here, women and children were run into a tunneled wall cavity as fires were lit, with all of the smoke and heat trapped in a stone dome around them. The cave guide ends the tour by turning off all artificial lights in the cave so that we can experience a similar darkness. No natural light penetrates this deep, and our eyes could take hours to make out any kind of shape or shading.
I can hardly explain the sensation of standing in that darkness, knowing the depth that extends around me. I can’t even bend down or turn without feeling unsteady. I imagine torchlight, the red flashes that would have reflected layered crystal and stone, and the people who, regardless of the circumstances of their death, saw only that light as the last thing in their lives.
In celebration of in-between places like Kilkenny, I’ve chosen John Montague’s “Between” as the poem for this post. Many of my experiences in Kilkenny feel like something I’ve “come suddenly upon”, since my visit here is so unplanned and spontaneous.