The centrepiece of the city from 1335-1771
The Market Cross is better known in Kilkenny today as a shopping centre, but where did the name come from?
The Market Cross was a monument which was erected in 1335 in the centre of the market-place, to mark the dedication of the community to the service of the Christian Deity and also to remind the traffickers, in the midst of their buying and selling to inculcate silently but forcibly the lesson of honesty and integrity in the fulfilment of their bargains and the regulation of their business transactions. The Cross naturally became the usual scene of public religious ceremonies. It stood in the centre of High Street, between the Butterslip and the Tholsel, and appears to have been an exceedingly light and elegant structure. The Cross was 57 feet high (17.4 metres) and was very wide at it's base. Several old writers have left us descriptions of it which give us an idea of what it may have looked. Though, it is not the writings that make us imagine it's beauty, but the drawings taken from various viewpoints. The drawings not only give us a glimpse of the monument, but they give us a look at the High Street as it would have looked in the 1700s.
In the seventeenth century there were several private crosses, like that a portion of which still exists at the Butts, erected in different parts of Kilkenny by the wealthy inhabitants, as tributes to the memory of departed friends and relatives, but there were two crosses of a different character, of more imposing proportions. The lesser one, known as Croker's Cross, having been placed as a military trophy (Croker's Cross was erected in the year 1407, in commemoration of the victory gained over the Burkes and O' Carroll's, at Callan, by Sir Stephen Scrope, the lord deputy, in whose army the burgesses of Kilkenny served, under the leadership of their sovereign, John Croker.), whilst the greater cross was founded in the midst of the High-Street of the city, the Market Cross.
We are afforded an interesting notice of the situation and general appearance of both those monuments by a manuscript preserved amongst the Clarendon papers in the British Museum, which appears to have been a fragment of a history of Kilkenny, written in the beginning of the seventeenth century, and never finished nor published. The writer - whom there is reason to believe was David Rothe, the then Roman Catholic bishop of Ossory, a gifted scholar and antiquary - states that:
"Towards the south the city is divided into four ways, and in the centre of the intersecting streets was erected a marble cross, which they call Croker's Cross, elevated on a four-square base of many steps of which one side looks to the street of St. Patrick (now Patrick Street, the second to the Castle-street (now the Parade), the third to St. John's (now Rose-Inn Street), and the fourth to the High-town (now High Street); almost in the centre of the High-town stands prominently forth another cross of similar material, but of more beautiful and magnificent fashion, from whose square graduated base rises a vault supported by marble pillars, and at its apex a graceful cross of polished marble; above which, at the point where it's gablets diverged, were originally sculptured the statues of the saints to whose guardianship and patronage the city was of old committed. These are St. Canice, St. Kieran, St. Patrick, and St. Brigid the Virgin. At the time at which this cross was erected, it is recorded in the archives, that many of the inhabitants made pious vows for the safety, prosperity and protection of the newly founded municipality - nay, some are even said to have burned the sign of the cross with glowing iron into their flesh, in order to their making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that God might condescend to prosper the undertaking of that community and town.”
John Clyn, a Franciscan friar of Kilkenny, living at the period of the event in 1335, described what happened in his 'Annals of Ireland':- "The same year, on Thursday, the morrow of Lucia the Virgin, the great cross was put up in the centre of the market-place in Kilkenny, at which time many persons, flying to the cross, were marked on naked flesh with the sign of the cross, with a red hot iron, that they might go to the Holy Land”.
The Market Cross was the scene to many gruesome encounters, and there are records of heads being decapitated and hung from the cross for all to see circa the 1640s by Cromwell. Three of these heads were actually uncovered quite recently with excavation works at James Green. In 1650, much damage was inflicted on the cross by the muskets of Cromwell's soldiers after they used the cross on top for target practice. This was after the surrender of Kilkenny to his forces. This damage was later repaired.
It was deconstructed in 1771, when it was calculated to weaken the sympathies of the civic council for monuments of the kind, also it was due to the thoroughfares being impeded by the large graduated bases of the Market Cross and of Crokers Cross and they also removed it due to many mischievous subjects meeting beneath the Cross to conduct illegal business such as gambling. The Corporation of Kilkenny had tried to frighten these people away by placing the public stocks beneath the cross but it was to no avail and the cross was removed to stop this congregation of mischiefs for malpractice.
The stonework of the Market Cross was set aside to be reconstructed on the Parade, piece by piece by Mr. Anthony Blunt. Though, due to financial difficulties he incurred, this never happened and the stonework found it's way into being used for common building purposes.
If High Street was ever pedestrianised, something like this should be placed at the centre of it. A detailed drawing with exact dimensions of the Cross is on display in the National Library of Ireland making it possible to construct an exact replica.