Voices of hope - return of the spirit of St Nicholas to Kilkenny

There are those who might say that here in Kilkenny you have no need for a voice of hope. Most of us think that if Angela Merkel were to change places with Brian Cody we might have some hope for the future of the European game plan, and on the other hand, some of the rest of us might have some hope of winning a medal in the All-Ireland Hurling final.

There are those who might say that here in Kilkenny you have no need for a voice of hope. Most of us think that if Angela Merkel were to change places with Brian Cody we might have some hope for the future of the European game plan, and on the other hand, some of the rest of us might have some hope of winning a medal in the All-Ireland Hurling final.

But you invited me here this evening to be a voice of hope and I am very glad to say that I can be. What I am about to tell you now is almost like a Da Vinci Code or Name of the Rose novel, so you’ll have to fasten your seat-belts and be patient until we get to the point: the Jerpoint!

I was heading for Waterford from Dublin in February 2010 and I passed Jerpoint Abbey on my way. This triggered a memory and a prompting from the Holy Spirit, that St Nicholas was meant to have been buried somewhere near there. That is two years ago now and I have been on the St Nicholas trail ever since.

The Normans, of whom you have so many souvenirs in this magnificent town of Kilkenny, were a pretty greedy and bloodthirsty lot and their story is full of guts and gore. Their invasion of Ireland was a two-stage process, which began on 1 May 1169 when a force of loosely associated knights, at the request of the ousted king of Leinster, Dermot McMurrough, arrived to get what they could and destroy what they could not. Two years later on the 18th October 1171, Henry II landed a much bigger army in Waterford to establish his continuing control over the people of Ireland and, more importantly, the unruly force that had gone before him. The way the Normans kept the natives under control was to establish monasteries which would organize and regulate the surrounding countryside. The Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey was founded in 1183, twelve years later. Located on 1,880 acres, the abbey had its own gardens, watermills, cemetery, granary, and kitchens. It served as a launching pad for Irish-Norman Crusaders from Kilkenny.

What are called ‘the crusades’ is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing and another great disgrace to add to the tally of European atrocity. Most of these crusades occurred between 1095 and 1291. So they more or less run parallel with the Norman conquest of Europe. After some early successes, the later crusades failed and the crusaders were defeated and forced to return home. Several hundred thousand soldiers from all over Europe became Crusaders by taking vows. Historians have given many of the earlier crusades numbers. The First Crusade [1096-1099] was launched on the 27th November 1095 when Pope Urban II made an appeal to his French audience to cease fighting one another and to turn to the east against non-Christian enemies. He seems to have been responding to appeals from the Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine empire. What he unleashed was a massive movement which aimed at the capture of Jerusalem which had been overwhelmed by Muslim forces and had not been in Christian hands for over 640 years. The first crusaders won back Jerusalem in 1099 not without the massacre of many of the city’s Muslim and Jewish population. However, the crusading army refused to return the land to the control of the Byzantine Empire, who had sent out the plea to Pope Urban II in the first place.

The Second Crusade was from 1145 to 1149: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, himself something of a spiritual terrorist, encouraged by his preaching this Second Crusade, but was upset with the amount of misdirected violence and slaughter of the Jewish population of the Rhineland. So, he regretted his impetuosity.

Third Crusade 1187–1192: Saladin united the Muslims and easily overwhelmed the disunited crusaders in 1187 and all of the crusader holdings except a few coastal cities. The Byzantines, by this time fearful of the crusaders themselves far more than the muslims, made an alliance with Saladin. Saladin’s victories shocked Europe. Hearing of the siege of Jerusalem in 1187, Pope Urban III died of a heart attack. Pope Gregory VIII issued a bull to launch the 3rd Crusade. Frederick Barbarossa, Philip II of France and Richard Coeur de Lion (r. 1189-1199) of England established this crusade; the pope’s role was minor. Frederick died en route and few of his men reached the Holy Land. The other two armies arrived but were beset by political quarrels. King Philip feigned illness and returned to France, there scheming to win back the duchy of Normandy from Richard’s control. Richard captured the island of Cyprus from the Byzantines in 1191. Cyprus served as a Crusader base for centuries to come, and remained in European hands until 1571. The Crusader army headed south along the Mediterranean coast. They came within sight of Jerusalem. However, Richard did not believe he would be able to hold Jerusalem once it was captured, as the majority of Crusaders would then return to Europe, and the crusade ended without taking Jerusalem. Richard left the following year after negotiating a treaty with Saladin. The treaty allowed trade for merchants and unarmed Christian pilgrims to go to the Holy Land (Jerusalem), while it remained under Muslim control.

Jerpoint abbey was founded during the reign of the conquering Henry II, and was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1540. So, it’s all about plunder and murder and pillage and power. Now, in order to persuade the local people, in other words you lot, that the monastery itself was of divine origin and invested with supernatural powers, it was useful to have buried there some saint of high standing with a guaranteed reputation as a miracle worker. St Nicholas, whose name was ‘the wonderworker’ was definitely playing in the premier league. He had lived in Myra, which is in present day Turkey, from around 270 until he died on the 6th December 343. Myra was another name for the older metropolis of Lycia which is associated with Saint Paul, who is recorded as having changed ships in its harbour on one occasion. The earliest church of St. Nicholas at Myra was built in the 6th century. The present-day church was constructed mainly from the 8th century onward. At the beginning of the ninth century, Myra was overtaken by Muslims. After a siege in 809, the town fell to Harun al Raschid [yes, indeed, the very same one that Yeats wrote a poem about in his book A Vision]. Later in the eleventh century, between 1081 and 1118, Myra was again overrun by Islamic invaders.

And here is where the plunder of St Nicholas’ grave began. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari in 1087 collected half of Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving the rest in the grave. These remaining remains were later collected by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade (1096–1099). The first part of the relics (about half of the bones) were translated to Bari. They arrived on the 9th May 1087 and were housed in the church of St Stephen there. We have also to remember that in 1054 there was the East-West Schism (or Great Schism), when medieval Christianity split into two branches: Roman Catholic and Orthodox. So the Normans, who were in the Catholic camp, wanted a new church built in Bari in the Roman style and wanted to oust the Byzantines and all their influence both architectural and spiritual. When the remains of St Nicholas were brought to the church which they built in his name in Bari they were carried by two bulls now depicted on either side of the main doors.

The remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100. This tradition was confirmed in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two cities belong to the same skeleton. So, whether it is St Nicholas or not, it is certainly the same guy.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, as you might say, in 1993, a grave was found on the small Turkish island of Gemile near Rhodes which historians believe is the original grave of Saint Nicholas. On 28 December 2009, the Turkish Government announced that it would be formally requesting the return of all St Nicholas’s bones to Turkey from the Italian government. Turkish authorities have cited the fact that St Nicolas himself wanted to be and actually was buried at his Episcopal town. They also claim that his remains were illegally removed from his homeland.

Now the Irish version of the story tells the tale 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 possible credence to this tale, the commentators say, not, I hasten to add, either John Giles or Eamon Dunphy, because the Normans in Kilkenny were keen collectors of religious relics—possibly even more so than the Italians.

I arrived at Jerpoint Abbey in 2010 and I asked the two women at the interpretative centre where Santa Claus was buried. They said – he is not here but he is in Old Town Jerpoint which is a few miles away. First turn right after the Abbey on the way towards Waterford. The graveyard is on private lands but the farmer will let you in if you tell him we sent you. I could not find the place they suggested and drove on. Then something made me turn back. I found a B&B called Old Town Farmhouse and asked the lady of the house where Santa Claus was buried. She said ‘We’re all Normans here!’ Her name was Fitzgerald. She said they had all heard this rumour but thought it was a myth. She told me to drive past the entrance to Mount Juliet and there I would find on the left a gateway to Old Town where the graveyard was situated. The farm was called Belmore House and it had recently been acquired by ‘a very nice man.’ I rang the intercom at the gate and a voice told me to enter their avenue and take the first field road on the right and walk over that field to the ruined church and graveyard. I did this and found the most beautiful little ruined church with the graveyard overlooking Jerpoint Abbey. I came across a stone grave slab which was broken but had three ancient figures on it and I knew that St Nicholas was there as a real presence.

Another Irish version of the story tells of a Norman family, the de Frainets [or Frenet], who were the ones who had Nicholas’ remains removed from Myra to Bari in 1169 while Bari was under Norman rule. These de Frainets were crusaders to the Holy Land and also owned properties in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny. When the Normans were forced out of Bari, the family moved to Nice in France and when the Normans lost power in France, Nicholas de Frainet moved to Ireland. This story has it that he brought the relics to be buried in Jerpoint in 1200.

The church of St Nicholas is all that remains of the medieval village, Newtown Jerpoint, that fell to ruin by the 17th century. The village had surrounded the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey, which, as we said, was 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. 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. One of these could also have been a bishop. Though the church dates from 1170, the grave slab appears to be from the 1300s. 
Coming back to the present: On 26th July, this year, we came here on pilgrimage from Glenstal Abbey to Kilkenny first of all and then on to Jerpoint Park where we celebrated mass at the burial place of St Nicholas. Later on the 8th October I went to Bari in Italy where St Nicholas is said to be buried also. In 1965, after Vatican II, the Dominicans who are in charge of the church where his relics are housed, allow the Orthodox to worship in the crypt around the altar where St Nicholas is buried. On the Monday I arrived they were having a full day of services which I attended with two others from Ireland.

So who is St Nicholas – and what did he ever do for Ireland – as they said when they were building the Cathedral in Galway? Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, stockbrokers, pawn-brokers, children and young women who are looking for a husband and don’t have a dowry. In Myra his house was beside three others where the daughters had come to marriageable age but could not get a husband because the didn’t have a dowry. So, he took three bags of gold and the threw one through the front door of the first house, one through the front door of the second house, and because the front door of the third house was closed he climbed up onto the roof and lowered the bag of gold down the chimney. These three bags of gold are the round symbols which you can still see outside the doors of pawn-brokers shops. Later when the Dutch settlers founded New York as New Amsterdam they brought St Nicholas with them and they called him Santa NicCLAUS which is why he has returned to us as modern Santa Claus.

So, why would Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, want to have his remains resurrected in Ireland this year? Three reasons. There will be a new kind of prosperity returning to this country as from now. This will not be based on greed and selfishness but rather on generosity and enlightened philanthropy in the spirit of St Nicholas the secret giver; secondly he represents a return to a more original Christianity which was present on this island and is inserted into the geography and the ancient monuments scattered throughout our land. It is a unifying ecumenical spirit which preceded all the rifts which occurred and which separated us from the Orthodox in the eleventh century and later with the Reformation which tore this country apart. And finally, the name of this great saint means ‘Nico’ which is ‘Triumph’ and ‘laos’ which is the same word we use for the people of God, the laity: so he represents ‘triumph of the laity.’ He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus. And his discovery now here in Kilkenny means that everything which he represents, kindness, generosity, philanthropy, had been buried in Ireland and need to be resurrected in our country starting here in Kilkenny. Nicholas the wonderworker and patron of the laity has to help us to take back the church of Jesus Christ to and for ourselves so that the spirit of his humanity can inspire us with new hope. This is meant to happen here as of now. The feast of Nicholas is on the 6th of December. The change of consciousness will occur on 12/12/12 a week later so that the real Santa Claus can arrive in our houses on Christmas eve, the 24th of December, 2012.