Thursday 19 July 2018

A real-life Santa is buried in a quiet Kilkenny graveyard

Philip Lynch at the grave of Saint Nicholas at St Nicholas Church in Newton Jerpoint in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Philip Lynch at the grave of Saint Nicholas at St Nicholas Church in Newton Jerpoint in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

Nick Bramhill

The real-life Santa Claus is buried in the ruins of a crumbling church in Co Kilkenny, local historians believe.

There is mounting evidence that St Nicholas of Myra, the Christian saint who inspired the legend of Santa, is buried in the ancient graveyard of a church just four kilometres from the lavish Mount Juliet hotel and golf complex in Thomastown.

The grave at St Nicholas Church - which many believe holds the remains of the real Father Christmas - in the lost medieval city of Newtown Jerpoint has barely received a single visitor since the start of December. Local politicians and historians say tourist chiefs are missing out on a gilt-edged opportunity to lure thousands of pilgrims and tourists to this neglected corner of the Marble County.

But Kilkenny mayor, Cllr Andrew McGuinness said he's determined to put the resting place of the greatest gift-giver of them all firmly on the world map by Christmas of next year.

"It's not only Kilkenny's best-kept secret, it's probably Ireland's best-kept secret," he said. "Santa Claus is a Kilkenny man and hardly anyone knows about it. But I'm determined to change this. There's great potential to develop a tourist-related business here."

Local historians believe the remains of St Nicholas, the 4th century philanthropist and Greek Bishop of Myra [which lies in modern-day Turkey], were moved to Jerpoint around 800 years ago. It was the kind-hearted bishop's generosity in his lifetime and habit of leaving anonymous gifts for the poor that led to his sainthood following his death in 346 - which in turn inspired the legend of Santa Claus and even the yuletide tradition of leaving gifts under a Christmas tree. Although the bishop was originally buried at a local church in Myra, historians believe that centuries later, early crusaders moved his body to Italy and finally to his current resting place close to Jerpoint Abbey in Co Kilkenny.

Supporters of the theory point to the grave slab itself, which features a cleric - believed to be St Nicholas - with the heads of two knights behind each shoulder. They believe the two knights depicted were the crusaders who brought the philanthropist's remains back to Ireland.

Evidence lends some credence to this tale, as the Normans in Kilkenny were keen collectors of religious relics and it is known that Norman knights took part in the Holy Land Crusades.

Philip Lynch, former chairman of Callan Heritage Society, supports another version of events that tells of a French family, the de Frainets, who removed the bishop's remains from Myra to Bari, Italy, in 1169 when Bari was under the Normans. The de Frainets were crusaders to the Holy Land and also owned land in Thomastown. But after the Normans were forced out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice in France, taking the relics with them. After the Normans lost power in France, a relative called Nicholas de Frainet took the remains to Jerpoint, where his family relocated and buried them in 1200.

But Mr Lynch (76), a local farmer and father-of-seven, said even if a hardy pilgrim wanted to visit the legendary gift-giver's grave, they'd have to get permission beforehand as it lies within privately-owned, gated land.

"It's very sad, because there should be thousands of pilgrims heading to see the resting place of St Nicholas at this time of year, but there's hardly any," he said.

"It's one of the country's main treasures, but it's hidden away behind a locked gate. This area badly needs a tourist boost and some money coming in and the answer is right there. But the tourism crowd in Kilkenny have done nothing about it. We're just days away from Christmas and it's very ironic that no one is going to visit the real Santa."

Sunday Independent

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