What do Mick Jagger, Daniel O’Connell, Medieval monks & learning to play the bodhran have in common? Why, it’s the old Smithwick’s beer brewery in Kilkenny; now open to us ordinary folk as The Smithwick’s Experience.
That’s Kilkenny beer, right?
Well, yes and no. Let’s clear up some other confusions. Smithwick’s beer originated in Kilkenny City in the 1710 established Smithwick’s brewery, which sent the rich scent of brewing aloft over Kilkenny at the site where the medieval monks of St Francis’ Abbey first brewed. Smithwick’s was Ireland’s oldest operating brewery -303 yrs continuously as Smithwick’s- until 2014 when production was moved over Dublin way to the St James’ Gate Guinness/Diageo factory. Though the actual production of beer has moved, the site now houses The Smithwick’s Experience which opened in summer 2014 to bring to multi-media life the Smithwick’s Brewery’s captivating history.
The Smithwick’s Experience experience
Named as one of Lonely Planet’s top must-see attractions for 2015, I found The Smithwick’s Experience to be done very well & worth the €12 adult ticket and the 70 minutes it takes to do the tour. TIP: minus 10% if you book online. On the Smithwick’s Experience tour you’ll discover tidbits like why on earth these bathtubs are here, what enabled Catholic John Smithwick to found his brewery at the time of the punitive anti-Catholic penal laws, why the ‘Irish Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell became a good friend to the Smithwick family, and how Smithwick’s joined up with a rival Kilkenny brewer to help during the Irish Famine. And of course you’ll learn more about brewing! Don’t miss smelling the different varieties of fragrant hops; very intriguing scents! One should be a perfume- I loved it. You can also try out a brewery job, like giving a barrel of beer a stir. No sneaking a sip, please 🙂 TIP: the video at the very start of the tour is rather over the top. Don’t worry, folks, the rest of the tour isn’t so flowery.
Peruse over a pint!
After the tour, you may want to linger a bit over over your pint of Smithwick’s Red Ale to peruse the wall photos of celebrities who’ve enjoyed the hospitality of the Smithwick’s. Perhaps try the Smithwick’s tasting trio of beer for an extra €6; interestingly the general consensus at our table was that the Smithwick’s Pale Ale led the pack as our favourite. We toured as part of a group of beer/food/travel loving journalists, & were specially treated to an engaging meeting with Paul Smithwick, who, although the company was sold to Diageo many years ago, still is keenly involved with Smithwick’s and sits on the board along with his brother. Paul told us of visits from Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful and many others; we snooped around old Smithwick family guestbooks, full of the signatures international celebrities– and original letters from Daniel O’Connell! Told you Smithwick’s history is captivating!
So what’s the story with Kilkenny beer?
I’ll let Wikipedia explain:
Kilkenny Cream Ale is similar to Smithwick’s Draught; however, it has a cream head similar to Guinness, and it has a stronger and more bitter taste than Smithwick’s. The Kilkenny name was originally used during the ’80s and ’90s to market a stronger version of Smithwick’s for the European and Canadian market due to difficulty in pronunciation of the word “Smithwick’s”, but it now refers to a similar yet distinctly different beer. (via Wikipedia)
Knowing that TIP, & the following, will help you be like a local:
- Don’t ever say the w in Smithwick’s. Try saying it more like Smidicks, or Smithicks with the th rather soft & short. Say it more like 1 syllable, not 2.
- If you enjoyed your pint/glass of Smithwick’s on the tour & are thirsty for more, just down to the right a bit & across the street from the Smithwick’s Experience building you’ll find a charming row of pubs. Cleere’s is the one that the Smithwick’s brewery employees often frequented themselves, and I reckon that’s a great endorsement. In fact, ex- employees still meet up there on Thursdays. Maybe you’ll overhear some old brewery tales 🙂
Fuel for many a trad music session!
It’s nice being like a local, but some touristy things are great craic too! I can be skeptical of certain of these activities, but I’m willing to give ’em ago & see if that wariness is justified. In the case of learning to play the bodhran (Irish traditional drum) at Kytlers Inn pub with Damien of Irish Beats, my skepticism was rhythmically washed away by laughter, Smithwick’s Pale Ale, and the booming sound of this ancient instrument. As Kytlers serves the different varieties of Smithwick’s we all settled in with our choice as the lesson began, but we didn’t get many sips in; Damien kept us busy with nary a dull moment. Starting off simply, he gradually led us into more complexity, keeping us hard-bitten journos 😉 laughing with his quips. See my wee video below for a taster of the session & our musical abilities.
Beer with a side of witchcraft
Kytlers Inn is a rambling medieval stone built inn turned pub with lots of nooks; sort of easy to get lost in– perhaps due to its witchy history! Dame Alyce Kytler first started the Inn in the 1200’s, but after all 4 of her husbands died one after the other, she was accused of serving up more than pints and hospitality; she wound up convicted of witchcraft. You can discover her tale, and how she escaped being burnt at the stake, along with more of the wide-ranging history of Kilkenny on one of Pat Tynan’s Historic Kilkenny Walking Tours. Pat has been leading his tours in Kilkenny for over 30 years, and I highly recommend going along on one to get yourself better acquainted with this amazing little city. Kilkenny is small- it’s Medieval Mile is pretty much the length of the city, but it is choc-a-bloc with hidden spots & stories which you just won’t discover without a bit of help. Seriously, you all, Kilkenny City is a wondrous tapestry of charm, history, fine craft, culture, and top notch local food which you may not encounter without a bit of extra local knowledge. Don’t just zip in for a day visit, just mainly taking in the Castle & Cathedral– you’ll be missing so much!
A Canadian friend who has traveled much of Ireland, the UK, and Europe put it this way
“Kilkenny has a big character & a fascinating history, and so much to offer for such a small city. I’m struck by how un-pretentious the people here are even though they live in this gem. You can see they love their city, are eager to share it and tell you about it– without the pretentiousness I’ve found in similar spots in other countries. Kilkenny City is really accessible– not just because it is small and easy to walk everywhere, but because the people are genuinely welcoming and friendly. Going on the Historic and the Fab Food walking tours gives you the added bonus of meeting some of the people who are behind the small places which add to Kilkenny’s character; like Pat Tynan, who has been doing his tours for 30 years but yet still is enthusiastic about his city and its history. I’m impressed with Kilkenny.”
Stunning stones & tasty treats
The Fab Food Trail of Kilkenny also lets you meet some Kilkenny craftspeople as well as sample foodie gems. Wait til you see the unique gem jewellry of Rudolph Heltzel– stunning enough for a Rolling Stone, or you! I’ve done this tour twice with Eveleen, and also her Fab Food Trail of Dublin, and yup, they are fab. From traditional family butchers to modern artisan foodstuffs, you’ll see why Kilkenny is a food lovers hot spot. The Fab Food Trails Kilkenny tour tends to be on Saturdays, with the odd Friday- do click the link to see current dates. The tour lasts about two and a half hours (€50 at time of writing,) and you will be tasting several food delights. One of the tour stops is the downstairs cafe at The Kilkenny Design Centre– TIP: the upstairs cafe changes character & becomes a full service restaurant on Thursday through Saturday nights in season.
The nighttime incarnation upstairs at the Kilkenny Design Centre is called Anocht. (Generally from 5.50 to 9.30pm Thurs-Sat.) Like a local TIP: ‘Anocht’ is the Irish word for ‘tonight’. I’d been meaning to go eat here for ages; they’ve gotten good reviews, won awards, and as an enthusiastic cash-strapped fan of Early Bird menus I found Anocht’s Early Bird tempting for a special night out. But I just never got there. Luck would have it that I finally went as part of this Smithwick’s Experience inspired tour. A special menu incorporating Smithwick’s as an ingredient in most of the dishes was the challenge to the chefs, and boy did they do well. (See photos in my video.)Thank gawd I still had my gallbladder at that point or I would have been devastated to not be able to eat it all :-0 If you’ve got YOUR gallbladder, go! Or, even if you haven’t, go! Apparently once a gallbladder-less person’s liver adjusts, you become able to eat normally/mostly normally again. So, I’ll be back, Anocht. YUM!
Super spot to soak up the sun
Whilst on the subject of food, I must mention the enormous & very tasty lunch portions at our accommodation, the River Court Hotel. Go with a big appetite! One of the fab things about having food, coffee, or a pint here is that you will find that the River Court has a large outdoor seating section along the river with a spectacular view of Kilkenny Castle just across the Nore. TIP: On a sunny day, this is one of the best outside places to sit and sip or sup in Kilkenny. If river, duck, & people watching as you have a drink or a bite is your thing, check it out. On the warmest days you may even be treated to the sight of daring young people diving into the river from John’s bridge. Bring your swimsuit & join in? 😉
You don’t have to be Mick Jagger to get satisfaction from a Kilkenny visit (ahh, couldn’t resist..) As well as the things I’ve mentioned here there’s loads more you’ll enjoy in Kilkenny City. And the green & gorgeous Kilkenny countryside is full of treasures, too; from the Neolithic to the present. You can find out more here; I’ve even made a Google Map trail you can follow. If you’ve any questions about Kilkenny, I’ll do my best to answer; you can ask via Vibrant Ireland & Travel’s Facebook page, or @VibrantIreland on Twitter, or comment on this article. Cheers! Enjoy your pint of Smithwick’s & I hope you will love Kilkenny as much as I do 😀
Transparency: I was a guest of Smithwick’s on this sampling of Kilkenny. Being a guest doesn’t change my opinion of what I experience, but it does enable me to tell you about things I couldn’t otherwise afford– for example as a Kilkenny resident for over 10 years I’d never stayed in accommodation there. Being able to stay at the River Court Hotel now means I have firsthand experience & I can advise; I’m often asked about places to stay. Our room looked out over the river to the castle, and was quite nice. The bed was big & super comfy, and I slept well. As always, I advise when you stay anywhere to bring good earplugs (I swear by the soft silicon ones.) I forgot mine this trip! Oops. One of the prices you pay for staying so central in cities/large towns is that they are filled with people & noises. I had the window open & heard a few late night revelers messing about over by the bridge. Shutting the window helped of course, but TIP: be aware that the John’s Bridge & John’s Street area of Kilkenny has very active, often loud, late-night pub-clubs – if you are a light sleeper ask about a room farthest away from the street.
Sample the fun! Video of my Smithwick’s Experience inspired tour of Kilkenny: