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Located on the Kings River (Abhainn Ri), a tributary of the Nore, Callan has for centuries been the second largest urban area in County Kilkenny. It has a population today of approx 3,000 people. It lies 10 miles from Kilkenny City, and about 2 miles from the County Tipperary border. It is very much a border town, bordering County Tipperary but also the Province of Munster, and the Dioceses of Cashel and Emly.
It is very difficult to determine how long people have lived in Callan and its general hinterland of West Kilkenny. The oldest human structures found in the area date back to the Stone Age. These are the ‘Passage Tombs’ located at Knockroe near the village of Windgap, built some 5,000 years ago (the same period that Newgrange, Co. Meath was built). During the construction of the By-pass around the town in 1996-97 a large well preserved ‘Fulact Fiadh’ (cooking site) dating back to pre-Christian times was discovered on the north bank of the Kings River at the site of the new By-pass bridge.
Located in the countryside west of the town are the sites of ancient early Christian Monastic settlements at Killamery, Kilkieran, and Ahenny. They contain some of the most exquisite and ornate early Christian ‘High Crosses’. The whole area is dotted with ‘Ringforts’, or their sites, indicating a prosperous settled farming community in the early Christian period (500-1100 AD.).
Local tradition states that Callan (or in Gaelic Callainn) is named after the high King of Ireland Niall Caille who was drowned while trying to cross the river here with his army in 844 AD during the height of the Viking Wars. He was marching from the Kilkenny direction to bring some warring clans to heel but when he arrived at the ford on the river (near where the ‘Big Bridge’ is today) he found it was in flood. One of his soldiers tried to cross but got into difficulties and in attempting to save him the brave king was drowned. His body was later recovered downstream and he was interred at Kilree (the Kings church) near Kells. The river subsequently became known as the Abhainn Ri., or the Kings River, and the place where he was drowned Callainn, or Callan.
The actual town itself is of Norman origin. It was founded by the great Norman overlord William, Earl Marshall, Lord of Leinster (1144-1219), husband of ‘Strongbows’ daughter Isabelle. The town was built on the south side of the Kings River in the form of a cross, with its principal streets running north, south, east and west (a linear medieval town). The centre of the town where these streets intersect is still known as ‘the Cross’ today.
The new town was granted a charter in the year 1207. This ‘Foundation Charter’ confirmed extensive rights and privileges on its Burgesses and Freemen, who together with the Sovereign (Mayor) constituted the ‘Corporation of the Town and Liberties of Callan’. (In 2007 we celebrated the towns 800th birthday. President Mary McAleese unveiled a commemorative plaque at the Friary, Mill Street in February of that year). Subsequent charters were granted at various times down the following centuries including significant ‘murage charters’ in the years 1339 and 1403, authorizing the Corporation to levy tolls for the erection and maintenance of a defensive wall or embankment and ditch around the towns perimeter.
The Liberties (or rural areas under the Corporations jurisdiction) extended unevenly from one to 3 miles approx from the town encompassing an area of about 3,600 acres.
A large number of Welsh, English, and even Flemish settlers made up the bulk of the population of the town through the Middle Ages. Many of them intermarried with the native Irish, and eventually as the well known quote has it “became more Irish than the Irish themselves”.
The borough remained part of the estates of William Marshall and his descendents until purchased by the Ormonde Butlers in the year 1391. It prospered under the Ormondes and became one of the principal towns in their extensive domain.
In 1585 it was created a ‘Parliamentary Borough’ and granted the privilege of being represented in the Irish House of Commons by two MP’s. It retained this privilege until the Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain in 1801.
Callans prosperity continued until the year 1650 when a Cromwellian army under the command of Colonel Reynolds attacked the heavily fortified town in February of that year. He captured it after three days of fierce resistance lead by Captain Mark McGeoghegan the commander of Skerrys castle in West Street. However the towns Governor, Robert Talbot surrendered the ‘Great Castle’ which was situated at the east end of Mill Street without firing a shot, and abandoned the townspeople to their fate.
The town was sacked and left a veritable ruin by the enraged ‘Roundheads’ lead by Oliver Cromwell himself who had arrived from Fethard with considerable reinforcements of cavalry, infantry, and artillery.
Much property, both of houses and land changed hands as a result of the subsequent ethnic cleansing and confiscations. The victorious Puritan-Protestant owners became the new ruling elite of the area, and the Catholic Irish and Anglo-Irish became “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for them.
The town expanded very little for about 200 years after the Cromwellian devastation remaining primarily confined to its medieval boundaries. The churches and castles, which were such prominent features prior to that era, gradually fell into disrepair. By 1800 only the remnants of three castles remained. Indeed the entire town deteriorated into such a state of poverty and neglect that visitors were shocked by what they observed. “The very impersonation of Irish poverty and wretchedness” is how one English writer summed up his impression of the place. He laid the blame on absentee landlords, “whose sole interest was in extracting all they could from the place in rents”. Another writer, Rufus Chetwood who paid a passing visit in 1748 observed that the town “seemed to lie in the ruins Oliver (Cromwell) left it”.
During the second part of the 18th century the town earned for itself the unenviable title of ‘Callainn a Clampair’ (Callan of the Ructions), and travellers at that time were advised to “walk through any town in Ireland, but run through Callan”. The cause of these ructions, or disturbances, was the prolonged feud between two powerful and ambitious gentry families, the Floods and Agars, for control of the Corporation. (Control of the then ‘rotten boroughs’ determined which two MP’S were elected to the Irish House of Commons). Violent scenes often occurred at every election culminating in the famous duel between the renowned statesman and orator, Henry Flood, and James Agar in 1765. The duel took place at a location called ‘The Triangle’ near Kilkenny City. Agar, an impetuous and aggressive individual fired first. He missed. Flood remained cool, took a pinch of snuff and then shot his adversary dead. He was tried for murder, but was acquitted because dueling at that time was both widespread and tolerated. However the Agars were to ultimately prevail, and James Agars son, George, systematically destroyed the Flood power base in Callan in the 1780’s and gained absolute control of the Corporation.
George Agar was raised to the peerage as ‘Baron of Callan’ on the 6th of June 1790. At the Union between Ireland and Great Britain in 1801 he was elected one of the 28 ‘Original Representative Peers of Ireland’ and took his seat in the House of Lords in London. He died a bachelor in 1815 and his title became extinct. His Callan estate then passed to his second cousin, Henry Welbore-Agar, 2nd Lord Clifden, and remained in that family’s possession until the early part of the 20th century. The last member of the family to own property in this area was Lady Annally.
It was as the market town to the surrounding countryside that Callan gained some prosperity. The farming community, in addition to spending money on the goods and services available in the town, provided a source of both permanent and casual employment for large numbers of people.
The principal industries in the town and its environs were a distillery, a mill, and for a period in the early 18th century an iron smelting works on the Kings River near Goats Bridge. An attempt to establish a weaving industry by introducing Huguenot weavers in the 1760’s failed after some initial success. Tanning and boot making were also carried out on a considerable scale, as was milling and bread making.
One of Callans most enduring and successful industries is sculpturing and tombstone making. Over the centuries some of the finest monuments in the South East of Ireland were sculptured in the town. In the late Middle Ages the O’Tunneys excelled. Examples of their work are to be found in St. Canices Cathedral, Kilkenny, Kilcooley Abbey, and Old Saint Mary’s church, Callan. In more recent times the O’Sheas and Molloys carried on this craft. To day Pat Murphy has a splendid monumental works in West Street.
The town had one major economic advantage insofar as it was situated on the main Dublin – Cork Mail Coach Road. A considerable volume of business built up around this fact, such as inns, the provision of horses and fodder, not to mention harness making and vehicle repair.
Callan had no powerful resident landlord to fight for its inclusion in the railway network when the railways were being built in the 19th century.
The 19th century saw a substantial amount of reconstruction, and the bulk of the buildings that now constitute the towns core were built in that century. The improvement in the town’s fortune coincides with the abolition of the corrupt and incompetent Corporation in 1840 and its replacement by locally elected Town Commissioners who had the people’s interest at heart. Tolls were abolished, and markets and fairs properly regulated. The streets were repaired and foot paths put down. Gas lighting was introduced in 1858, and a supply of clean well water was provided by means of hand pumps. Terraces of attractive houses were built to replace the wretched hovels in which so many of the poor lived.
The 19th century also saw the erection of new schools and churches. The Christian Brothers opened their school in West Street in 1868, and the Sisters of Mercy built their school for girls in 1871. The Augustinian Church in Mill Street was opened for worship in 1819, and the Parish Church (or the Big Chapel as it is known to generations of Callan people) was completed in 1843.
Ironically the biggest building project ever undertaken in Callan was the Poor Law Union Workhouse which opened its doors for ‘paupers’ in 1841. It covered an area in excess of six acres contained within a high cut-stone wall.
In the 20th century the town continued to develop. The Co-op Creamery was established in 1899 and had a major impact on the rural economy. A bacon factory was built in the 1920’s, and other enterprises such as knitwear manufacture developed also. Schemes of new houses were built, and the road network greatly improved. The advent of electricity and motorized transport revolutionized life in general; the latter contributing to major traffic problems in the town before the By-pass was constructed and opened in 1997.
Callan’s fame moreover rests just as much with its people, as with its buildings and monuments. Few places anywhere have produced such an impressive list of sons and daughters. The O’Tunneys, sculptors; Blessed Edmund Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers; Mary Butler, Abbess; James Hoban, designer and builder of the White House in Washington DC; the Candler family who gave the world Coca-Cola; the Cudahy family who revolutionized the world ‘Food Industry’; John Locke author of the ’emigrants anthem’, ‘Dawn on the Irish Coast’; Anastasia Burke Thornley, Australian entrepreneur; renowned artist Tony O’Malley; playwright and author, Thomas Kilroy, and the Gaelic diarist, Amhlaoibh O’Suilleabhain (Humphrey O’Sullivan).