A Letter from Ireland:
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Saint Nicholas of Kilkenny

Children the world over await the arrival of Saint Nicholas at Christmastime, envisioning his arrival by sleigh from some secret homeland at the North Pole. In this letter we will visit Kilkenny, the possible resting place of the actual Saint Nicholas.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are very welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas in these parts – the airports will start to get busy a little later as recent emigrants return home to be with their families over the festival period. We can hardly wait as we count our own two children among them! How are things in your part of the world today?

I’m settling into a nice cup of Lyon’s tea as I write, so do join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.

A More recent image of “Santa Claus”!

Do you remember being a child coming up to Christmas? For most of us it was a wondrous time – and maybe you are still lucky to see that wonder in the eyes of your own children or grandchildren? In our house, among the very many preparations for Christmas, there was a focus on getting onto the “nice” list while staying off the “naughty” one. You know whose list I’m talking about of course – good old “Santa Claus” himself.

Now that Carina and myself are older, wiser and just a little more sceptical – we were both delighted and surprised to recently come across the final resting place of old Santa Claus himself! Do let me explain.

Saint Nicholas of County Kilkenny.

Just this last October, we were on the road to County Kilkenny – researching a Homelands feature for one of our Green Room members whose ancestors came from that county. We were close to Thomastown, just south of Kilkenny City and a sign caught our eye: “Newtown Jerpoint: The Lost Town.” Now, that sounded like it was worth a detour!

Inside thirty minutes, we were on a guided tour led by Joe O’Connell – the local farmer who inherited this same “lost city” on his recently-bought farmland. He showed us around the remains of a town that had been abandoned for the past 500 years – not quite a “Pompeii”, but not far from it –  in the middle of the rolling hills of Kilkenny. The town grew in prominence during late-medieval times – and for one very particular reason. Pilgrims arrived from all over Europe to visit what they believed were the remains of Saint Nicholas of Myra – old “Santa Claus” himself!

Joe was kind enough to give us the following background:

“Saint Nicholas was born about 260 AD in what is now Turkey. The poor knew him throughout the land for his generosity, his love for children, and being associated with ships, the sea, and sailors. He was eventually consecrated Bishop of Myra, just miles from his hometown where he died in 343 AD.

Images of St. Nicholas in paintings, icons, statues, collectibles, and stained glass often show him with three bags or balls, symbolising the three bags of gold he tossed through the chimney of the home of a poor man in his village for the daughters’ dowry, so they would not be sold as slaves. So he was also seen as the “gift giver”.

Over the years, Saint Nicholas became patron of many places and people, and many churches are dedicated to him as well. Saint Nicholas is the third most popular subject of icons in the church, with only Jesus Christ and the blessed Virgin Mary having more representations.”

Maybe you have a Nicholas/Nichola in your own family? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

As Joe provided us with this background, we stood in a small graveyard outside a ruined medieval church (called Saint Nicholas’s of course). In front of us was a slab depicting the Saint, with two Norman knights at his shoulders. So, how did his remains end up in the quiet field in the middle of Ireland?

The story goes that following Saint Nicholas’s death, his remains were moved to the city of Bari in Italy. It was during the time of the Crusades, and the knights of the time put a high stock on preserving the relics of saints and other icons. One version of the story talks of a family that moved Saint Nicholas’s remains from Myra to Bari.  These were the Norman “de Frainet” family who held lands around Bari. However, the family were eventually forced to leave Bari and retreated back to their French lands near Nice in the south of France. The de Frainets also held lands near Thomastown in Kilkenny – and Saint Nicholas’s remains were eventually moved to the field in which we were standing – a part of inland Europe that was free from the marauding invaders of the time. I do believe this is the family who we eventually came to know as de Freyne/Freyne (or sometimes Freeny).

However, over the following decades and centuries – the presence of the remains of Saint Nicholas in these parts became widely known. A whole town grew to service the needs of the accompanying pilgrims. This town – Newtown Jerpoint – thrived into the 1600s, but then went into decline for unknown reasons. It’s only today that “pilgrims” such as ourselves have begun to visit this fascinating place in the company of such a wonderful host as Joe O’Connell.

Over the years and centuries – the story of Saint Nicholas has merged with many other myths and stories from around the world and developed into the Santa Claus we know today.

I knew we’d get to see him if we waited up long enough!

Many thanks to Joe O’Connell of Newtown Jerpoint for showing around his remarkable farm. As a special gift to you – here is a video of Joe O’Connell giving us a tour of Newtown Jerpoint and the grave of Saint Nicholas:

How about you? How do you and your family celebrate Christmas in your part of the world? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

That’s it for today – as always, do feel free to share any questions or stories of your own. We’ll chat again next week (maybe a day or two late!)

Nollaig shona dhuit! (Nullig hunna du-it) – Happy Christmas to you and your family!

Mike and Carina.

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