The Bishop’s Palace & The Heritage Council
In its search for a permanent headquarters in Kilkenny, the Heritage Council saw the potential of the Bishop’s Palace. It was larger than the incumbent bishop needed, and agreement was reached for the Heritage Council to purchase and conserve the building and part of the site. There was some disquiet that a building in continuous use as a bishop's residence for 800 years was being pressed to a new usage. However, the episcopal connection with the site is not completely severed, as the new See house has been built in the grounds.
Using the Conservation Plan methodology introduced to Ireland by the Heritage Council, the historical significance of all aspects of the building and site was documented. Based on a careful survey of its qualities, Consarc Architects drew up plans for the building’s re-use. The Heritage Council, conscious of the rich tapestry of history that could be read in the building, was anxious to demonstrate that 'heritage' is a living thing, and that having a respectful attitude to heritage does not curtail creativity or contemporary interventions. Accordingly, the plans for the building included adding a pavilion of steel and glass on the site of the demolished former seventeenth-century kitchens. The new construction is supported on the foundations of the surviving older structure below, an apt metaphor for the work of the Council.
The building is eighteenth century, or Georgian, in appearance, and this character has been generally retained as the dominant theme. The stair hall — with its elaborate carved timber balustrades, Venetian windows, panelled walls and plasterwork ceiling — was designed to impress in 1739, and it still does today. It will continue to be used as the principal stairs in the daily life of the building. The functions of the Council were fitted into the existing spaces of the building, avoiding major alterations. The Dining Room at ground floor and Drawing Room at first floor are the two biggest rooms, and will be used for public meetings, and the Heritage Council's own deliberations, respectively. The first-floor Library continues to be used as such, housing the works of the Heritage Council's Publications Grants Scheme and much more. The bedrooms have been turned into individual offices. On the ground floor, the former bishops' private chapel is now an office, and other rooms will be made available for exhibitions.
As might be expected in a building of this age that has been in more-or-less continuous use, new finds often led to more questions, rather than providing firm answers. Throughout, the multiple layers of the building's history are presented within the framework of its eighteenth-century character. For example, the stone piers supporting the seventeenth-century vaults can be seen alongside later plasterwork mouldings, and the cut stone medieval window surrounds have been exposed but with timber sash windows. In the fifteenth-century tower, the corbels that once supported a tower house floor and a wall of rubble stone have exposed the medieval character of the masonry.
Minor structural repairs were carried out. Modern services (heating, electrical power, telecommunications, security) were threaded through the structure, respecting the principle of minimum intervention. A lift was installed after a thorough archaeological investigation of the minor rooms it displaced; the digging revealed much information about the previous internal arrangements, and the top of the lift shaft was kept below the existing roof. Lighting is by freestanding up-lighters, thus avoiding disturbing the wall plasterwork. Where modern interventions had to be made for fire safety reasons, they have been executed in steel and glass, differentiating them from the historical carved timber and plasterwork details. Great care was taken to restrict the impact of the construction process on the gardens, and most of the trees and planted shrubs have been retained.
As the new headquarters for the Heritage Council, an important part of Kilkenny’s built heritage has been preserved for the future. It is hoped that with its new use, greater public access to and enjoyment of this historic place will be possible.