Friday, November 30, 2012

Visiting Santa's Grave

I found out recently that Santa is buried in Ireland. No really he is and you can go visit his grave. Though a bonus, I didn't go to avoid having to get the sprog Christmas presents, I'm pretending to be Buddhist to do that.

Thomastown in Kilkenny is a funny town. It is beautiful looking and full of hippys but also has a rough edge to it. There are all sorts of art workshops and tea shops that the posh people run during the day and at night there is an air of menace and divilment about some of the pubs there.

John Martyn the towns most famous resident seems to also traverse these two characteristics. He has the hippy spirituality of his friend Nick Drake but also looked and acted like he was well up for a row.

It turns out that Thomastown may have always had the strange mixture of spiritual and hedonistic. Just outside the town is the famous Jerpoint Abbey and close to there is the newly rediscovered and Newtown.

The story of Newtown is that some Norman knights from Kilkenny headed off on the crusades in the 12 century. Taking religious relics was one of the major hobbies of the time like pokemon but with dead people. These two took back to Newtown what they claimed were Santa's bones and relics of St Nicholas. The story goes they got these in modern day Turkey. The aim of collecting these was possibly to create a tourist attraction to compete with other relics in Ireland. There is no way of telling at this remove that they were but contemporary accounts at least reveal that the people of the time believed they were.

The town thrived with these relics used as a draw for tourists and pilgrims. A three story church of St Nicholas was built.

A town developed around it including three mills. Eight pubs and a whore house the remains of which still exist. This was out of a total of 13 houses so pubs played a big role in the town. This shows religious pilgrimage may not have been so holy.
The town is at the last navigable point on the Nore, where it meets the Arygle.
These rivers powered the mills and allowed fish farming in the floodplain. Fish farming still takes place in the next door Goatsbridge farm which shows how little changes over time.

On the grave of Santa himself is the famous symbol of St Nicolas, the three figures.

These represent the three bags of gold Santa put down the chimney to pay the dowry of a poor mans three daughters. This both explains Santas chimney shimmying antics and the Pawn shop symbol. St Nicholas is the patron saint of pawn shops.
The guide explained the three heads on the gravestone as representing St Nicholas and the two crusaders who took his bones back to Ireland. The three figures symbol was generally thought to represent Jesus and Mary in medieval symbols.

The town was abandoned when the plague struck around 1346. Mills were havens for rats and towns were decimated while the more Gaelic countryside was much less effected. Monk John Clyn in nearby Kilkenny as the plague descended wrote the chilling 'so that the writing does not perish with the writer, or the work fail with the workman, I leave parchment for continuing the work, in case anyone should still be alive in the future and any son of Adam can escape this pestilence and continue the work thus begun'. The bridge over the river collapsed though the remains can still be seen. And the very existence of the town faded from memory to only recently be rediscovered. The stones from the houses were used in the railway bridge you can see form the ruins of Newtown.

The grave of St Nicholas is well worth a visit. The tour is informative and entertaining. The site is not over developed like some Irish tourist destinations. And the trip ends on the brilliant Father Ted touch of watching a sheep dog herd geese. Next time you are in Kilkenny head to Thomastown and Jerpoint and take the right lane up by the fish farm, it will at least save you money on Christmas presents.

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