It seems a Norman Family, relocating to Kilkenny brought more then just their suitcases of French perfumes, fine wines and strings of garlic. Apparently the French penchant for durty, cheating, va va vooom, thievery has a long historical precedent, as evidenced by their alleged translation of the relics of St. Nicholas to Ireland sometime during the 12th century after having nicked them from the ‘Holy Land’.
As previously reported here at Blather
Lost in Translation
Much as I love the idea that the Irish are secretly compiling a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of holy relics of feast days (Well, we do have dem bones, dem bones, of that Valentine fella), there is unfortunately no historical or archaeological truth to the entire story.
First of all, there are several independent accounts of the actual bones of St. Nick being
swiped, robbed, “removed” (under divine direction) from Myra and spirited away to their present location at Bari (Apulia) in 1087 AD. Which happily provides us with debunking fact number 1: as this was several years BEFORE the First Crusade even took place.
Don’t take my word for it, read for yourself from the horses mouth…
Hosanna in the Heistness
What the sources actually seem to suggest, if one reads between the medieval lines so to speak, is an Ocean’s 11-type Heist by Norman Bari Sailors (as opposed to their bastard Salty Dog rivals, the Venetians) who, following the takeover of Myra by the Seljuk Turks, decided that the prospect of
the extremely lucrative pilgrimage traffic associated with possessing such relics was too good to pass up them durty a-rabs gettin their paws on the extremely lucrative pilgrimage traffic associated with possessing such relics the holy bones of ‘their patron saint of sea-farers, was just too hot to handball handle.
Nothing to do with the crusades, at all, at all.
Following their triumphant return, the relics were personally placed and sealed by Pope Urban II (who had yet to launch the Crusades) in a crypt underneath the main altar, over which was eventually built, the Basilica di San Nicola. The subsequent 800 years of historically and archaeologically attested pilgrim traffic, thronging to partake of St. Nick’s Manna that supposedly oozes from the shrine (Eeeeeewgh) shows that those Oceans 11 boys had the right idea for their kick-starting their towns economy.
Unfortunately, it does put a dampener on any tenuous historical basis for the bones being taken from the Holy Land itself, (several centuries after they were already taken) and allegedly brought to Jerpoint Abbey by Crusaders from the De Freynes Family.
Whass jer bleedin’ point?
Which brings us to debunking fact number 2: the alleged grave where the bones are supposed to lie, are not in fact in Jerpoint Abbey, as reported recently, but across the river, at an adjacent Church site, that of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church at Newtown Jerpoint.
Did the name not give yis any clue, for feck’s sake?
Well, its not that unheard of in medieval Ireland. There are other medieval dedications to St. Nicholas in both Carrigfergus and Galway, and of course, St. Nicholas of Myra Church on Francis Street in Dublin, stands on the site of an original Franciscan foundation of the same name dating back to 1235.
As it survives today, the church ruins at Newtown Jerpoint exhibit three or more phases of building stretching from the 13th-15th centuries. The extension of its chancel and the erection of a rood screen and gallery in the 14th-15th centuries suggests its importance to the emerging merchant classes of the nearby market town and exhibits all the hallmarks of being a chantry chapel.
This means that during the later medieval period, if one was so inclined, one could leave the church a wad of cash, swag and/or property in ones will…which guaranteed a ring-side seat for eternity within the church and regular prayers for the salvation of ones soul, by specially paid ‘corporate’ chantry priests, employed and maintained by the proceeds of the above mentioned ‘swag’.
Why is this important? Well, it means that it was a busy place for burial and re-burial throughout the 13th-16th centuries, as they constantly churned up earlier burials to facilitate later ones before being interrupted by a minor kerfuffle known as the ‘dissolution of the monasteries’. It also means, those that were being buried, were the type of merchant class people who liked to make a show about status and having far too much money at the end of their lives, usually commissioned elaborate, sculpted funerary monuments to be erected near their final resting places.
Such monuments for the time usually take the form of effigy slabs and are certainly not unusual, being broadly associated with church sites all around the Leinster and the north Munster areas originally settled by Norman families. Within the churchyard of St. Nicholas Parish Church at Newtown Jerpoint there is a 14th-century medieval slab effigy of an ecclesiastical figure, which bears much similarity with other such effigy slabs (usually that of a parish priest) to be seen at St. Audoen’s in Dublin, or St. Peter’s in Waterford.
And this is the grave that is allegedly where the bones of St. Nicholas lie.
Now, one doesn’t have to be blessed with keen archaeological skills of detection to note the whacking great crack running across the width of the slab above, which judging by its age, colour and wear, is not that ‘fresh’. Indeed, it looks just like many other whacking great cracks running across many other such grave slabs of the period, which are located in many other such graveyards.
These are generally considered signs that the slab in question has been moved at some point in the past. Which raises the distinct possibility that the slab is not in its original position. Who would do such a thing? Well, although we cannot know for sure, I wouldn’t be too surprised if it was shifted at some stage in the late nineteenth century by Victorian and Edwardian antiquarian interest groups, who, embracing the era’s love affair with romantic, overgrown graveyard settings, had a very common habit of ‘trying things out’, when tidying up graveyards. There are many examples, records and documented occasions where this happened in similar rural graveyards throughout Leinster.
However, lets not be too hasty. Lets suppose that this slab IS in its original position…and for the sake of argument, lets also ignore the OBVIOUSLY later headstone in the background, suggesting this slab has been plonked down on top of a much later row of graves…
Which leads us to debunking facts number 3-7: if the most sacred relics of a most important and fashionable saint of the early church had in fact been brought here, however which way, by returning Norman crusaders sometime in the 12th century (Cue the Ballygown music there RoisÃn), do you really think they would have waited some time (what’s a century between old friends?) before NOT given them pride of place within the original 13th century church?
Not only that, but actually enshrining them OUTSIDE in the churchyard (at a carefully measured distance that was not to be encroached upon by subsequent enlarging of the church itself)?
Only to be covered with a fashionable effigy slab (that of a lowly parish priest to boot ) sometime in the 14th century?
More importantly, whether true or not, surely the prospect of people thinking they were there, and actually believing it to be so would have made some sort of register within Irish (and other) documentary sources throughout the middle and early modern ages? (There isn’t).
Really now, have you ever known a Kilkenny person to pass up such a goldmine opportunity to extract money from
gullible gobshites tourists?
Alas, the real story behind this is simply that of bored editors (looking for Christmas themed shenanigans to break the monotony of recession filled news) paying far too much attention to local historical ‘experts’ out to make a splash. Mind you, it does remind one of that old joke about the Cavanman who brought his kids to see Santa’s grave…
What is annoying is that this country is literally FESTOONED with incredible historical, architectural and archaeological gems (of which Jerpoint is certainly one) which deserve appreciation in their own right, without pseudo-historical bollixology in tandem.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to
ruin read bedtime stories at the local orphanage…about how Coca Cola used the bones of a middle eastern saint to create an advertising campaign to sell more products…
good article.. ye may also be interested in the santa / satan tales over yonder…
An excellent and interesting article, Mark. I highly recommended.
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