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Monday 20 May 2019

'It's so far fetched some people don’t believe it': Is the legendary grave of St Nick Ireland's best kept secret?

Joe O Connell pictured at the tomb of St Nicholas at Jerpoint Park in Thomastown Co. Kilkenny (Picture Dylan Vaughan)
Joe O Connell pictured at the tomb of St Nicholas at Jerpoint Park in Thomastown Co. Kilkenny (Picture Dylan Vaughan)

Ralph Riegel

RESEARCHERS are considering using DNA testing to determine if the legendary Irish grave of Santa Claus, or St Nicholas of Myra, is directly linked to relics of the saint in Italy and the US.

The proposal came as Oxford University confirmed that a bone supposed to be from the fourth-century saint, and owned by a US-based priest, does in fact date from the correct period of around 343AD.

St Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) during the early Christian period, was famed for his kindness and generosity.

His habit of leaving anonymous gifts for the poor of the then-Greek city he lived in is believed to have inspired the modern day legend of Santa Claus, St Nick or Sinterklaas.

He died in Myra in December 343AD and, over the centuries, became one of the most beloved of early Christian saints.

It is believed that Crusaders raided his Myra grave to bring back prized relics of the saint to Europe – with such relics being worth more than gold or diamonds to the church or monastery that possessed them.

Multiple relics, in the form of bone fragments, ended up in Venice, the departure point for some Crusaders to the Holy Land.

However, a legend also claims that some of St Nicholas’s bones were brought to Ireland by two Norman Crusaders and were buried in a Kilkenny church named after the Greek bishop at Jerpoint.

Santa Claus waves in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland (Stock picture)
Santa Claus waves in Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland (Stock picture)

In the medieval period, Jerpoint was one of the most famous of Ireland’s monastic settlements and boasted strong links with the Crusades.

Joe and Maeve O’Connell own the land that surrounds the tomb.

“It is the best-kept secret in Ireland and there is no doubt about it. The problem is that it is so far fetched that people don’t believe it,” said Mr O’Connell.

“Around 10,000 people a year come to see the tomb and Jerpoint, but they are mostly foreign tourists.

“People don’t realise it is the only place in the world where an ordinary person’s house still exists from that era.”

Mr O’Connell provides tours of the tomb site over the summer, but will give tours made by appointment over the Christmas period.

Former Mayor of Kilkenny, councillor Andrew McGuinness, said an elaborate stone slab in the Jerpoint graveyard outside Thomastown is believed to be the final resting place of St Nicholas, or Santa Claus. Tellingly, the ancient grave slab appears to endorse the Crusader link, with St Nicholas depicted between two knights in armour typical of the period.

Another local theory, revealed by Callan Heritage Society’s Philip Lynch, is that a noble French family, the de Frainets, took the body from southern Italy, which was controlled by the Normans in the 12th century, to Ireland via France.

The Oxford tests, while not proving that the fragment of pelvic bone is actually from St Nicholas, has reignited the debate about confirming whether relics scattered all over the world actually belong to the same person, or possible Christian saint.

Now, researchers believe that conducting DNA tests on the various bone fragments held in reliquaries of St Nicholas around the world may just hold the key to confirming if the remains are indeed those of Santa Claus.

However, any DNA examination of possible bone fragments at the Kilkenny site would first require an exhumation – a move that would be contentious.

Prof Tom Higham, of the Oxford Relics Cluster, said the close dating of the bone to the era involved raised interesting questions.

“Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest,” he said. “But this bone fragment, in contrast, suggests we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself. (Yet) science is not able to definitely prove that it is (Santa Claus) – it can only prove that it is not, however.”

Church officials believe there are around 500 bone fragments which purport to be those of St Nicholas, the majority in Venice.

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