Ok so most of us will be aware that the Jolly old man whom brings joy to the good children all across the globe every year. Now whilst he can vary from country to country, the most commonly known version Father Christmas is well known pretty much everywhere with some regional and sometimes downright strange differences in parts of the world. Such as, Pere Noel in France, La Befana in Italy, Ded Moroz in Slavic countries and Sinterklaas in Holland. Im not going to look at the commercial changes of certain big global corporates here whom have changed the public’s perception of Old Saint Nick or the numerous Christian reasons for avoiding him. What I wish to look at today is the Irish connection to Santa Claus. So if you are under a certain age that should be in bed before Santa arrives with his sleigh full of toys, then please stop reading or you might end up with your name on the naughty list.
OK, so Father Christmas/Santa Claus is the modern embodiment of an early Christian saint, Nicholas of Myra. And well it would seem that St Nick is in fact buried in Ireland of all places. So how did he get there, well our story begins about 1600 years ago, where a chap known Nikolaos from Greece became the bishop of Myra, in modern day Turkey. By the time Nicholas died, on December 6, 345, word of his kind deeds and alledged miracles had become widespread public knowledge. One of the most famous stories about Nicholas was that he used his wealth to protect three young girls, whose father was too poor to provide them with adequate dowries. Without dowries, the girls were doomed to a life of prostitution as the only means of supporting themselves. Nicholas, it was said, put gold into three bags and threw them at the girls’ window. It is thought that the man who inspired the tradition of leaving presents under a Christmas tree, came from a wealthy family and he is believed to have given much of his fortune away.
After his death he was interred in the church at Myra, where he had served as bishop. During the first crusade much of Asia Minor fell to the Turks, and with Myra being such an important place of pilgrimage, sailors from Bari raided Nick’s tomb and removed most of his relics before the city fell. It’s important to remember that during the medieval period relics were not only important for places of pilgrimage, but they also attracted a huge commercial gain. It was then claimed that Venetians also came into possession of some of Nick’s remains and brought them back to Venice where they were placed in the church of St. Nicholas in Lido. As it happens there are numerous churches scatted across the globe which claim to hold relics of the saint, such as a tooth or a finger or toe bone. But a scientific investigation has confirmed that the remains in both Bari and Lido are part of the same skeleton.
And so we move on to how the inspiration for Santa Claus made his way to Ireland. Well as the story goes it was a French family, the De Frainets, whom had removed Nicholas’ remains from Myra to Bari in 1169 when Bari was under Norman control. After the Normans were forced out of Bari, the De Frainets moved to Nice, France, taking the relics with them. After Normans lost power in France, the De Frainets packed up once again, and moved to Thomastown in Ireland in or around 1200AD. This claim is backed up by Philip Lynch, the Chairman of Callan Heritage whom has stated that Nicks ‘remains were twice transferred across Europe in the 12th century’.
My initial investigation into this story led me to believe that Nick’s remains had been placed in Jerpoint Abbey, but this is not the case. I eventually tracked his final resting place to a long forgotten medieval town of Newtown Jerpoint which is just a short distance away from the famous Cistercian Abbey which shares its name. Just outside the ruined church of St. Nicholas, there is a beautifully carved grave slab, carved with an effigy of the saint, flanked by supposedly the two crusading knights whom took his remains from Myra. Newtown flourished for many years before going into decline and eventually being abandoned in the 17th century. The ruins and remains of St. Nicholas now occupy part of a working farm. But the land owners graciously open up part of the farm to the public at certain times of the year. You can even get a guided tour and check out the grave for yourself, just don’t tell the kids. To find out more about this little known, hidden treasure, check out the website JerpointPark. Despite numerous attempts to get down here over the last two years, my plans just never worked out, but I hope to remedy that in the New Year and do some exploring. In the meantime if you do get to visit before me, please let me know how you get on and don’t forget to tell Joe & Maeve I sent you 🙂