Bats in the Dark
The walk began in the late evening sun as a sizable crowd, nearly sixty adults, lots of kids and several dogs made their way from Riverside Drive to the weir.
It really was a pleasant walk, with the dramatic architecture of trees all around, the sound of river beside us, the occasional jogger going by in the opposite direction.
We were here as part of the Kilkenny Walking Festival for a bat walk with National Parks & Wildlife Ranger Jimi Conroy. As bats hibernate in the winter April is the perfect time to see them fly around trees, hedges and rivers after sundown.
Once at the weir Jimi gave a little talk, dispelling some myths about bats, they’re not rodents, are harmless and rarely bother people, that they aren’t blind, they just don’t use their eyes that much, explained how they roost in communal spaces, roofs of old houses, hollow trees, under bridges, only breed every two years, and when a baby is born, the female relatives of that mother gather together in a kind of nursery, a community of women.
Then he produced what he called a ‘bat box’, a hand-held device for detecting the sound bats make when they’re looking for food, with a switch to adjust for their ultrasonic frequency. Bigger bats have a lower frequency, smaller bats a higher one. The bat box detector converts the ultrasonic calls into audio,They use sonar, a pulse of sound, which bounces back off objects like an echo and creates a ‘sound-picture’ in their heads. They use this ‘echolocation’ for navigation and hunting. It’s so sophisticated they can fly at great speed, avoid all obstacles, and detect tiny insects on the surface of the water all in the dark.
Standing at the edge of the water, scanning the river with the bat box, surrounded by a pool of curious kids, Jimi explained that the particular bat we were waiting for was called a Daubenton, a water bat that comes out just after dark, feeds on the wing, flying just above the surface of the river in search of flies.
As dusk enveloped the river and a full moon rose over the silhouetted trees we waited for the first sounds on the bat box, watching the water for them to appear. This is the perfect time to see bats, Jimi told us, because the fly larvae are hatching and the warming weather acts as a ‘thermo-trigger’ to wake the bats from hibernation.
Dogs played in the water pools around the weir as it grew darker, trees on the far bank reflected perfectly on the black water, the moonlight allowing us to see reasonably clearly as salmon kissed the surface, a sign that the flies were out. Then, finally, the first sound on the box, a short burst of electrical clicking. Everyone leaned closer, trying to see in the gloom, suddenly attentive. But it went silent once more.Jimi scanned the air until he found it again, this time the sound was louder, with a rapid, higher pitch, the clicking noise getting faster the nearer the bat came until suddenly a swooping shape rushed by just over the surface of the water.
A ripple of excitement went through the kids. ‘There it is!’ We saw two more fly by after that and then it was time to go back, the cold suddenly beginning to kick in. As we headed back to Riverside Drive in the dark, catching sight of the moon shining on the water, Jimi continued to scan the shadowy tree boughs for Pipistrelle bats, still imparting information to those around.
All in all a very enjoyable and informative experience.
A Tourist in Your Own Town
Although everyone in Kilkenny is aware they live in a medieval town, and know a certain amount about it, it isn’t something they feel compelled to explore or even notice most of the time. And yet I’m sure many have walked through foreign cities visiting historical buildings and churches in a way they never have here.
It’s the special privilege of the tourist, it seems, to step out of life’s busy flow and enter the past. Someone else’s past. But maybe every once in a while we should become tourists in our own town, locate ourselves in time as well as space.
Which is exactly what I did last week when I went on a tour of the medieval city as part of the Kilkenny Walking Festival.
Pat Tynan expertly guided our small group through the streets, never burdening us with too much information, always informative and friendly, full of anecdotes, facts, legends and old song lyrics.
We began with the Tudor Shee Alms House, built in 1582 by wealthy merchant Richard Shee as a Poor House, housing six unmarried men and six widows. Pat drew our attention to its local limestone walls, the family crest over the door and told us about the curse that supposedly hung over any relative tempted to sell it.
We continued round the corner to St Mary’s, once the parish church of Hightown, its graveyard holding the tombs of many of the town’s merchants. We learned that the medieval laneway running behind the Town Hall was once called Coffin Lane as it was used to transport coffins to the graveyard.
On High St. we stopped across the road from the Hole in the Wall, once the inner house of a Tudor mansion built by the Archer family (their coat of arms can still be seen on the wall over Callanan Auctioneers). Later it became a renowned supper house and apparently the Duke of Wellington used to dine there. Pat recited an old song about the place: ‘If you’re ever in Kilkenny/remember the Hole in the Wall/Where you can get blind drunk for a penny/Or tipsy for nothing at all.’
As we moved from one building to the next, Pat filled us in on the general history of medieval Kilkenny, how it was a Norman town, its walls built in the 1200s, how it was split between Hightown and Irishtown, both with their own assemblies.
At the Tholsol we learned that its name comes from the old English words toll (tax) and sael (hall), spoke of the fire that badly damaged it in 1985 (which I remember seeing) and looked closer at the fantastic coat of arms on the side wall (which I never normally see despite passing under it countless times every week).
Next was the Butter Slip which I’d always assumed was called that because it was, well, slippy. But no, it was because both it and the Market Slip were shortcuts to a boat slip at the river where boats docked. It wasn’t clean with the slop from buckets being thrown out windows, so some wore shoes with high heels and soles to avoid it.
From there we entered Kytler’s Inn, once home to Alice Kytler, Kilkenny’s famous witch who married four men who all died mysteriously, was accused of heresy and witchcraft before escaping to England. It was her maid Petronella who paid the price, tied to a cart, paraded through town, whipped and burnt to death.
All around us in the bar were images of black cats. Someone mentioned they’d heard how the Kilkenny cats name had come about, something to do with Cromwell’s soldiers using them for fights, tying their tails to a clothes line. When this was banned, they secretly continued doing it until one day an officer approached and in a panic a soldier cut the cats free with his sword, leaving their tails hanging there.
Sadly, according to Pat, this is probably a myth. The truth is more prosaic. It was more likely the fighting cats name derived from the way the Hightown and Irishtown assemblies fought with each other all the time. Outside again, he drew our attention to the bricked-up 14th century windows on the side of the Inn and explained this was because of a window tax, the origin of the phrase ‘daylight robbery’.
We stopped next at the sculpture of St Canice outside the Bank of Ireland and then onto Parliament St. where we learned of the Confederation of Kilkenny, how successful it had been between 1642-1649, with its own currency, how the city’s decline began in 1650 with the arrival of Cromwell, and although the merchant families returned after 1660 it was the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 that saw the end of the merchant class, most of whom left with the Flight of the Wild Geese in 1691.
Despite a cold breeze the sky was blue above the imposing Tudor façade of Rothe House as we stood across the street listening to Pat tell us about its restored gardens and how The Ring entrance to the brewery was once used for bull baiting.
Then we turned up Abbey St and under the Black Freren Gate, part of the old town wall, stopped there to take in Canice’s Cathedral and tower in the distance, learned that Cromwell’s soldiers kept their horses there, allowed them to drink out of the fonts, how it was said they were the only baptised horses in Ireland.
Finally we arrived at the Black Abbey, home of the Dominican Friars since 1225, took in the stone coffins outside, mentioned the Black Death of 1348, gazed up at the rib-vaulting roof, learned how the friars hid statues in the walls, saw one such statue of the Holy Trinity in a class case, marvelled at the Great Rosary Window and decided it had been worth every cent of the €70,000 it cost to restore it.
And that was that, a pleasant hour’s walk on a bright if chilly afternoon and the perfect introduction to Kilkenny’s medieval heritage, a reminder that the city we live in has grown up around the old one, subsumed it, with the tour as a form of archaeology, the medieval town revealed to us, hiding in plain sight.
It was interesting to step out of the flow of modern life, the way we’re always rushing more or less blindly from one place to another, and just stand on the street looking around, looking up, locating yourself in your environment. I’d recommend it to tourists and locals alike.