When thinking about creative and artistic things to do and see in Kilkenny with kids, you might think back to the Kilkenny catwalk. The trail of 21 cat sculptures that were scattered across the city till earlier this year. Not only did they attract visitors from far and wide but they also provided creative work for local artists. That was Pangur Bán, the mischievous cat from Kilkenny studio Cartoon Saloon’s first feature film, The Secret of Kells.

If you decide to take a city cycling tour, you will visit the breath-taking murals under Ossory Bridge by local artist Mick Minogue. Or if you take in the medieval mile tour, the story of Petronella - Alice Kyteler’s maid, is brought to life in another of Minogue’s murals on the very site of burning in 1324. But more on all that later.

Cartoon Saloon

“We laugh that it took us 16 years to become an overnight success”, Chief Operations Officer of Cartoon Saloon, Catherine (Cath) Roycroft tells me smiling at the in-house joke. There is truth to it though, as while the company formed in 2009, it took ten years to make their second feature file Song of the Sea and according to Cath “from that second Oscar nomination (2015); everything took off”.

Cath is infectiously enthusiastic about both the work of the studio and the city itself telling me that “It’s been amazing to be part of the story”.

The studio founders Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey met in Ballyfermot College. Tomm, who is from Kilkenny, had the idea for the now infamous Irish Folklore Trilogy which began with The Secret of Kells [followed by Song of the Sea and then WolfWalkers], while in college.

The studio came into being when they took a space in Kilkenny’s Young Irish Filmmakers, a group that Tomm was part of in school. Cath said, this afterschool group was for the kids, that weren’t interested in hurling and rugby, which was really the only outlets for kids at the time.”

The Secret of Kells is based on the origins of Ireland’s most famous illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kells.

Telling stories that matter

As children are the ones predominantly absorbing these stories, I ask Cath do they feel a responsibility in terms of their messaging. Her response was that telling stories that matter is the most important thing to Tomm, Paul and Nora.

“The stories are what make what we do different to what is coming out of other studies. Take Song of the Sea, it’s a beautiful story about the mythology of the selkies, but also loss and grief. WolfWalkers focuses on the environment and what we’re doing to that and how diversity sometimes is a problem.


I suggest five Oscar Nominations must have made a huge difference to the studio economically, to which she replied; “Awards don’t directly pay the bills but the publicity is incredible and it gives people confidence to come work with us or invest in our films. There is a really lovely period of time between the nominations being announced and the actual awards when everyone’s a winner. It’s about making the most of what happens in that window”

In about 2013, the studio took on a managing director, Gerry Shirren who Cath credits with being instrumental in their growth; “The ideas were there, the gorgeous projects were there but Gerry brought in the business and the relationships that we didn’t have”.

Value to Kilkenny

In the height of COVID-19, the studio employed 260 people, their highest number. With all live action shut down but animation going in kitchens and bedrooms around the world, a lot of projects got greenlit that may not have been greenlit for years.

In relation to the city itself, Cath says that “About 11 years ago, we had a bit of a crisis. We were like, ‘what are we doing in Kilkenny? We need to be in Dublin. That’s where all the major studios area, that’s where the big broadcasters get off their planes’ and we really struggled to know where we belonged.”

So what changed, I ask?

“I don’t want to put everything down to Song of the Sea but it felt like that was a moment when people saw us differently. Hidden away in this building for years and nobody knew anything about us and suddenly, people wanted to engage with us, the city wanted to engage with us. We started to see the value of being in Kilkenny.

Saoirse in her sealskin coat. Song of the Sea tells the story of Ben and his little sister Saoirse – the last Seal-child – who embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea.

Kilkenny became a selling point for the company she explains “taking a job with us means you’re going to live in this gorgeous city. You’re going to walk to work and go to the Set theatre to watch a music gig one night and Clears the next night. We have municipal theatre, Butler Gallery and the Castle Park.”

It was at this point that the partnerships began; creating spaces for creativity with the County Council or outreach and education in schools, working with the arts office to put pencils in kid’s hands.

How is it done?

While their first love is 2D animation, the studio uses a combination of hand drawn and technical animation. Cath explains the two strands; “with the hand drawn elements, you are drawing directly into the computer. So your pen is digital and your paper is a screen. The rigged animation, you build a skeleton and move the bones.”

Although admitting that her simplification of the process might “horrify the guys” she explains the three main elements, the story, the characters how they look and move, and then the world and how that looks and moves and interacts. As an example of the latter she says; “if you look at WolfWalkers you have the city style which is angular and straight and then the forest style is organic and softer. So it feels like you’re reading a beautiful, illustrated book that’s moving.”

Butler Gallery

The most important partnership that Cath speaks about is the relationship with Butler Gallery. “It’s really important to talk about Anna O Sullivan, the Galleries director and curator. She came to us with the idea ‘let’s show off what you do’ and from that we started thinking about showing how we make a film from idea to screen.

“We started with Song of the Sea, went into The Breadwinner and then WolfWalkers so it’s a well-defined relationship that just continues to grow. Working with Butler Gallery was massive in that it got people thinking about the studio a little differently. We weren’t just a company that put cartoons on television. We were 100 [at that time] creative people and we started to wonder how can we all work and engage together?

Keep an eye out for the studios next feature file My Fathers Dragon coming to Netflix this year. www.cartoonsaloon.ie

Where to go and stay

Kilkenny cycling tours

Our guide in Kilkenny Cycling Tours called each person by name as we made our way to the Ossory Bridge emblazoned with the aforementioned giant murals and through the castle park.

On your Kilkenny cycling tour, you will visit the murals painted by Mick Minogue, native to the city, under the Ossory Bridge.

We enjoyed ice-cream in the castle yard before cruising past The Courthouse and the Black Abbey. This is a really fantastic way to see and learn about the city covering much more ground than on foot. With bikes for all ages and cycling riverbank paths and backstreets, it is very safe for children but you. However if you prefer to navigate water than traffic, the company also has hydrobikes.

Adults €25; Children €12.50. Visit kilkennycyclingtours.com

Kilkenny Medieval Mile

If you are in any way fascinated with the macabre, there is nowhere better to experience the 800 years of Kilkenny history than on the Medieval Mile tour. A fantastic storyteller, our guide provided the children with just the right snippets such as the “fact” that famed witch Alice Kyteler flew at night on a broomstick – yes that particular fable originated in Kilkenny.

India McKeever having a rest in one of the many many coffins at Kilkenny Medieval Mile Museum.

Starting at the Medieval Mile Museum you walk the slips of Kilkenny, learning as you go, before finishing up St Mary’s graveyard home to the remains of 40,000 Kilkenny citizens, more than the city’s current population. There is a Lego search in the museum if the historical reading gets too much for the younger ones.

Adults €12; Children €5.50. Visit www.medievalmilemuseum.ie

Butler Gallery

As pointed out by Cath, the newly-restored Butler Gallery is helping inspire a whole new generation of artists and creators through its workshops, exhibits and interactive tools. The range of activities are particularly suitable for families with creative children who love art, history, culture and architecture. The heritage building is run on a not-for-profit basis and is free of charge to visit.

Butler gallery runs A children’s programme runs the third Sunday of the month and also has a host of Cartoon Saloon related activities for kids to enjoy.

A children’s programme runs the third Sunday of the month. This programme begins with a tour of the exhibitions with children encouraged to share their ideas and opinions about the works. Then they have an opportunity to make their own work in response. The gallery also has a great café.

Free to visit. See www.butlergallery.ie


After a long day on bikes, wondering around exhibitions and looking out for witches, what do kids want to do – they want to go to the hotel pool.

We were guests of the Newpark hotel, just 15 minutes’ walk from the city centre. Now although I have attended many meetings in the hotel this was an opportunity to use the leisure facilities. The extent of amenities for children are unmatched.

A wildlife farm and activity park may have been the initial move but the weekend we visited, a whole new type of visitor landed – life size dinosaurs that move and roar.

There is a petting zoo, fairy trail, playground, indoor games room and that all important swimming pool. But this hotel is far from a crèche, there is a really good Kids Club to give adults an evening break and a peaceful dinner. One floor of the hotel is adult only, home to the hot tub equipped suites but if you don’t want to leave the kids at home, there is an [adult only] outdoor infinity pool.

A wildlife farm and activity park may have been the initial move but the weekend we visited, a whole new type of visitor landed – life size dinosaurs that move and roar.

Speaking with marketing manager Joanna Hannick, you get a real feeling for how the group (Flynn Hotels which is family owned) operates, constantly looking for new ways to attract guests. A wildlife farm and activity park may have been the initial move but the weekend we visited, a whole new type of visitor landed – life size dinosaurs that move and roar. This project sees the group invest €250,000 as well as creating 10 new jobs including ‘Jurassic Newpark’ rangers. The space is similar to the paddocks depicted in the Jurassic Park movies, but, we are assured “without the escaping dinosaurs or ensuing carnage”.

Family Breaks for two adults and two children staying in a classic room start from €648 for two nights B&B with one evening meal.


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