To understand the true importance of Jerpoint Abbey, Thomastown, situated after a bend on the road, along the old national primary route to Waterford (N9), you must go back to when it was at the height of its powers before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s.
And you have to walk around the cloister (the square-shaped covered walk) with the ‘Garth’, green area in the centre, and try to imagine the White Monks, their heads bearing the shaved tonsure as they walked in the cloister walkways praying or singing in Gregorian chant. As they passed the beautifully designed and simple structure that have passed down to us, it would have been difficult for them not to be touched by the different images that confronted them as they walked around.
These figures carved in stone include such images as St Anthony of Egypt, the 4th Earl of Ormond, a manticore, a wyvern (legendary winged creature with a dragon’s head, lizard’s body, two legs and a barbed tail), a man with an upset tummy, knights and images of both St Catherine of Alexandria and St Margaret of Antioch. Interestingly both of these female figures are represented three times each in Jerpoint along with a carving of St Mary. These carvings echo some drawings found on medieval manuscripts.
It was very much an all-male, hierarchical system with the under-classed, lay brothers not allowed into the cloister and living in a separate area outside the inner sanctum. And let’s put one thing to rest. St Nicholas (now known as Santa) was not buried here by knights coming back from the Crusades. It’s a lovely, romantic tale but has no basis in truth any there is no written record to support it.
Folklore has it that his remains or a piece of his body or a relic associated with him lie in the abbey but that does not mean to say there is no link to St Nicholas and the area. He is strongly associated with the church named after him, not far from Jerpoint and close to the lost village of Jerpoint which has been lovingly and wonderfully unearthed and brought to life by Joe O’Connell. And it does have a certain aura and who knows the remains of St Nicholas may have ended up there.
The lost town, which grew up beside the abbey and declined dramatically in the 17th Century, is extremely important and greater links between the State-run abbey and the work on the telling the story of that town should be closer, making it an even better experience for visitors.
What should be at the centre of all this history – opening it up to as many people as possible. Brian Keyes wrote extensively in this paper about the lost town of Jerpoint and it is available on the Kilkenny People website.
Jerpoint Abbey still has a huge significance and still has a strong resonance with the surrounding community. Although there have been no funerals in the abbey precincts for the last few years, local families still have plots here and are entitled to be interred here.
The guides at Jerpoint are in possession of a map from early in the 20th Century which shows the various family plots dotted around the abbey and the supervisor, Dr Breda Lynch wouldn’t mind discussing it with anyone who thinks they might be able to name some of the plots.
I think that you have to climb the stairs to the open-air first floor of Jerpoint to really understand the life of the monks. And if there was a higher visitor platform it would make an even greater impression with visitors. If you are from Jerpoint like the retired Bishop of Ossory, Dr Laurence Forristal, you still have great memories of the place and people from here have a great respect and pride in it and maybe that’s why it has lasted so long - the reverence of the community it.
As one commentator has described it: “The dark, biscuit-coloured tower of Jerpoint Abbey, with its battlements, rears above a bend on the road south of Thomastown.”
What an apt description and that colour is in part due to the Dundry stone used in its construction and the fact that it has survived wars and natural calamities to remain relatively intact compared to others is amazing. There are no rich tapestries here, no priceless antiques and no portraits of in-bred toffs with long noses but here you can touch history and appreciate the lifestyle of those who lived and died here.
Receiving a five star tour from one of the most eminent scholars on the Cistercians in Ireland, Dr Breda Lynch, helps your appreciation of Jerpoint and as we walked up the wooden stairs to where the monks dormitory was and because the roof has long since been removed, we can see the Kilkenny-Waterford railway line where, in times past, trains stopped and people got off to view Jerpoint. In the fields below the first floor we can make out the outlines of various outbuildings and defences and the remains of the drainage system which may have included a system of reed beds (eco-friendly monks). But it is the monks and their existence that characterises your visit to their meagre sleeping quarters.
Their day started at two o’clock every morning and they walked down the stairs from the dormitory to the ground floor and into the church where they sang in Gregorian chant the first of the nine prayerful periods. I’m not sure there would be many takers today for the life of a monk in an enclosed order.
These Cistercians, were originally from Citeaux, France and were followers of the Rule of St Benedict which revolved around three basic principles; peace, prayer and work. As stated their day started at 2am and they were allowed a 1lb weight of coarse bread and two dishes of boiled vegetables per day. It gets a little better. They were also allowed eight pints of abbey-made beer every day. This beer was thick and had to be strained before drinking and was lighter than today’s Smithwicks but it was this beer that gave them the energy, we are led to believe, to keep going. They were banned from eating any four legged animal but they could feed on chicken, fowl and fish. However, standing there, Dr Breda explained that in the calefactory in font of us (again without a roof) a fire was lit on All Soul’s Day and quenched on Good Friday. This was the only heat in the entire complex.
Here, four times a year, the poor monks were bled and had up to four pints of blood removed. Yes, 16 pints a year. There was even a special “monastic blood pit” at many monasteries like Jerpoint. In medieval and early modern times it was erroneously thought that “letting blood” was good for all sorts of ailments and was common practice across the medieval world.
Records show that by 1228 there were 36 monks and 50 brothers living in the abbey. Thankfully, we learn that in the 15th century it had lost some of its austerity and the monuments to lay people and the secular wall paintings, still to be seen, are testament to that. When the monastery was handed over to the Butlers in 1540, the abbot, Oliver Grace, surrendered a castle, several water mills, cottages, weirs and fisheries and around 14,500 acres.
Of course what we’re left with today only tells half the story there would have been outer defences where crafts people were and where the gardens, vegetable rows, herb gardens, orchards, granary and other intricate features of every day life were kept. The Cistercians were also very hospitable and the abbey was like an inn or hostel for travellers and it was constantly trying to out do its sister monastery in Graignamanagh, Duiske and they fought for years over the daughter house in Kilkenny and we believe the abbot at Jerpoint had a town house in Kilkenny city, at the rear of another heritage gem, Rothe House.
The oldest part of the abbey is the chancel (the space around the altar in the sanctuary) and the original altar was, it is said found hidden in the parish church of Thomastown and returned after the changes introduced by Vatican II. One of the more fascinating parts of Jerpoint is in the North Transept, again a technical word. With the chancel and the south transept it formed the cruciform shape (crucifix like formation) that is a part of all abbeys. This dates from the 15th Century and while Romanesque in character, it is obviously from a later date.
Anyway, in a chapel in the North transept we find a beautiful set of carvings known as The Weepers. This tomb sculpture is by the famous O’Tunney family from Callan.
The abbot seemed to have been an all-powerful Papal prince-type figure and he would preside over the meetings of the monks in the wonderfully restored Chapter House. The room is now complete with underground heating and lots of modern technical gizmos which in no way interfere with the fabric of the interior. The room is a long, undivided space covered with a barrel vault and here every day, we are told, the monks were allowed to talk, they observed a vow of silence the rest of the time, when the rules of St Benedict would be read out, any problems discussed and more importantly any punishments meted out.
Before that, off the chancel, the original sacristy survives and it is used for storage while on the other side of the Chapter House is the Prior’s office, again it has been painstakingly restored with various pieces from the abbey inside along with their importance and place.
We also understand that the abbot had a separate residence from the abbey presumably with all the trappings of luxury you would expect from a man in control of thousands of acres, water mills, fisheries, eel traps, the list goes on and on...
And just to mention that the inside and outside walls of the main body of the abbey were not what we see today. They were plastered and whitewashed and then false masonry joints added to make it look more authentic - All seems a bit flash for an abbey but was normal in those days.
It is important to note that first duty of the OPW at sites like Jerpoint Abbey is to conserve and the guide service is there to help in the conservation and to present the site to the public.
A Monastic Landscape: The Cistercians in Medieval Ireland by Breda Lynch is a detailed study of various aspects of the Cistercian Order in medieval Leinster, including Jerpoint by the Slieverue born academic. It focuses on the lands that the monasteries held in the province, including the great houses of Mellifont, Baltinglass, Jerpoint, Duiske, Tintern and Dunbrody. The main content of the book deals with the identification of the lands held by the Cistercian houses of Leinster, with references to other provinces. The last chapter deals with the fate of these monasteries in the post-Dissolution period.