IT is a bitterly cold Friday evening in Kilkenny city, two days after Ireland has been subjected to another in a series of equally chilly budgets, and David McWilliams is teetering on the brink of tears.
He is telling of a time when his father, having been made redundant and terrified that his Glenageary neighbours might find out, tried to keep himself busy by any means possible. “He told me in later years he used to go down to Brittas Bay and walk, for the whole day… That’s what unemployment is all about; it’s psychological, it’s emotional, it’s deep, and it’s corrosive.”
It’s an unusual moment of pathos for the famed economist, but not one that lasts for very long. The evening is not a solemn occasion, after all, but one of celebration, and of new tidings and beginnings.
The setting is the ‘Hole in the Wall’, at 17 High Street: a building not currently known to very many, not least because of its misleading exterior facade (a currently derelict retail unit last occupied by Sasha). Step down the medieval alleyway to the left, though, and its richer heritage is revealed.
Built in 1582 as the inner house of Martin Archer’s mansion – and thus predating Kilkenny’s status as a city – the Hole in the Wall was family home to the Archer family for almost 70 years before being seized during the Cromwellian conquest of 1649. Once returned to local ownership, it served as an ale house, as a meeting venue for the Charitable and Benevolent Societies and as a setting for the duels of passing highwaymen.
More pertinently, though, it was put to use in the 1860s as a debating theatre where the burning topical and social issues of the day would be discussed with vigour and, presumably, a great deal of bile (it’s entirely possible that the deadly duels of the highwaymen might well have coincided with the more divisive disputes of the day).
It is for this use – of a venue for intellectual brainstorming – that renowned cardiologist Dr Micheal Conway has restored the building, having purchased the derelict property in 1999 and spent a decade restoring the property to its former glory, replete with eloquent tapestries and downstairs tavern, where attendees were offered a glass of wine to celebrate the venue’s rebirth.
McWilliams himself failed – as he so rarely does – to disappoint, holding his audience captive with his thoughts on how Ireland could, at a stroke, rescue itself from its slump, by temporarily suspending its membership of the European Monetary Union and the euro, and devaluing the newly reconstituted Irish Punt.
“We will not become competitive until a shopping basket in Dundalk costs the same as a shopping basket in Newry,” the author and broadcaster explained. “All this nonsense of a 2% wage cut here, or 3% wage cut out there, won’t make a difference. All it’ll make us is insolvent.”
Befitting the tone of the evening, tough, McWilliams’s talk was not entirely foreboding of doom, and had its wittier segues too.
“In 50 years time we’re going to write very interesting books,” he joked, hypothesising the research of historians decades from now. “‘Do you remember a little country in the west of Europe? A little country that thought it was a very good idea to denude its entire retail base, and allow it to migrate to a different jurisdiction called ‘Newry’? And it had a public sector strike where the teachers responded to the inequity of the system by driving to a different jurisdiction to buy booze?’ That’s what is happening in Ireland.” A brisk but weighty question-and-answer session followed, staying true to the intended aim of holding a genuine debate.
And so was a venue one central to Kilkenny’s intellectual culture reborn in the modern age. Next on the agenda is a lecture tomorrow evening (December 17, 7.30pm) on the history of the short-lived University College which sat on the grounds of Kilkenny College for the six months prior to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 – a suitably academic topic for a venue with much to offer the Kilkenny of today: a portal away from the financial turbulence of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, to a bygone but altogether captivating era.