You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny, the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried. Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).
We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.
The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.
Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007) the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.
(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.
At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!
‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)
Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?
It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.
That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.
Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.
So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.
Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!
I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.