Jerpoint Abbey Photo: Gaelscoil Osraí
Saint Nicholas' grave slab
Photo: Anna Swider
Used by permission
According to local Irish legend, Saint Nicholas is buried in County Kilkenny. The grave is said to be in the ruined Church of St Nicholas, Jerpoint. The church is all that remains of the medieval village, Newtown Jerpoint, that fell to ruin by the 17th century. The village surrounded the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey, founded in 1183. Located on 1,880 acres, the abbey had its own gardens, watermills, cemetery, granary, and kitchens. It served as a launching point for Irish-Norman Crusaders from Kilkenny. The abbey was disolved in 1540.
The ruined church is now found on privately held farm land. Located to the west of the abbey, the church has an unusual grave slab with an image of a cleric, thought to be a bishop, and two other heads. The cleric is said to be St Nicholas and the heads, the two crusaders who, so the story goes, brought Nicholas' remains back to Ireland. Though the church dates from 1170, the grave slab appears to be from the 1300s.
The tale tells of a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint, traveling to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. On retreat, as they headed home to Ireland, they seized St Nicholas' remains, bringing them back to Kilkenny, where the bones were buried.
Evidence lends some posible credence to this tale as the Normans in Kilkenny were keen collectors of religious relics—possibly even more so than the Italians. And it is known that Norman knights from Kilkenny participated in the Holy Land Crusades.
Another version of the story tells of a French family, the de Frainets, who removed Nicholas' remains from Myra to Bari, Italy, in 1169 when Bari was under the Normans. The de Frainets were crusaders to the Holy Land and also owned land in Thomastown, Ireland. After the Normans were forced out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France, taking the relics with them. When Normans lost power in France, the Nicholas de Frainets packed up once again, moving to Ireland. This story has the relics being buried in Jerpoint in 1200.
Today St. Nicholas Feast Day is celebrated in Thomastown, the location of the Jerpoint church. During Yulefest schools and businesses are asked to raise money for children's charity Barnardos by wearing old shoes to school and work on December 6th. Dignitaries and the public are invited to Jerpoint Park for the Feast of St. Nicholas from 10 am to 5 pm, are asked to launch "Gift Sharing" by donating a Christmas gift for a stranger of any age to be distributed to those in need.
This poem by Bill Watkins commemorates the Irish St. Nicholas legend:
The Bones of Santa Claus
Figure: Walsh Crafts Pukane, Ireland
St Nicholas Center Collection
Devout wayfarer, cease your search
For in Kilkenny's ancient church
Saint Nicholas' sepulcher is found
Enshrined in Ireland's holy ground.
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.
Poem copyright © Bill Watkins: Author, Storyteller, Poet, Musician, Historian, Folklorist. Used by permission.