In the 5th century, St Kieran is said to have visited Kilkenny and, on the site of the present Kilkenny Castle, challenged the chieftains of Ossory to accept the Christian faith. Subsequently, St Canice established his monastery here. Kilkenny consolidated its importance in the 13th century under William Marshall, the earl of Pembroke and son-in-law of the Anglo–Norman conqueror Strongbow. Kilkenny Castle was built to secure a crossing point on the Nore.
During the Middle Ages, Kilkenny was intermittently the unofficial capital of Ireland, with its own Anglo–Norman parliament. In 1366 the parliament passed the so-called Statutes of Kilkenny, a set of Draconian laws aimed at preventing the assimilation of the increasingly assertive Anglo–Normans into Irish society. Anglo–Normans were prohibited from marrying the native Irish, taking part in Irish sports, speaking or dressing like the Irish or playing any Irish music. Any breach of the law was to result in the confiscation of Anglo–Norman property and death to the native Irish. Although the laws remained theoretically in force for more than 200 years, they were never enforced with any great effect and did little to halt the absorption of the Anglo–Normans into Irish culture.
During the 1640s, Kilkenny sided with the Catholic royalists in the English Civil War. The 1641 Confederation of Kilkenny, an uneasy alliance of native Irish and Anglo–Normans, aimed to bring about the return of land and power to Catholics. After Charles I’s execution, Cromwell besieged Kilkenny for five days, destroying much of the southern wall of the castle before Ormond surrendered. The defeat signalled a permanent end to Kilkenny’s political influence over Irish affairs.
Today Kilkenny enjoys a vibrant economy thanks to all those visitors crowding the streets. There’s also a fair number of service industries about and it’s the regional centre for more traditional pursuits like agriculture (you’ll see farmers on tractors stoically dodging tour buses).