Former pig farmer, Joe O’Connor proudly surveys the rolling 115-acre field that he purchased 11 years ago in retirement. He uses his walking stick to point out the crumbling ruins of a church in the distance – stones that stamp an ancient mark on the fresh folds of grassland, which are themselves concealing a bigger treasure.
“What we have here is a 12th Century lost medieval town. One of the most important in all of Ireland.”
Little did Joe know when buying this land and the stately Belmore House overlooking it, that he would have a new role – as the appointed caretaker of an ancient civilisation; the custodian of an old Irish settlement that dates back to 1200 AD.
This is Jerpoint Park – an east Ireland town established over 800 years ago before vanishing from all records in the 1600s. Joe explains that when he drove by all those years ago, all he found was a ‘for sale’ sign on the gate that overlooked an overgrown mass of land. “As soon as I got to the front of the house, I knew I had to have it. I can’t explain why, I just really, really wanted it.”
The deserted medieval borough of Newton Jerpoint, in County Kilkenny, is located to the west of the Cistercian Abbey of Jerpoint and was once an important town founded by Norman colonists.
Plans show that at its most prosperous in 1450 AD, there were approximately 27 houses in the town and 14 Taverns (a pub at every second house), alongside a tannery, brewery, a woollen mill, a courthouse and the church, which contains the Tomb of Saint Nicholas (the very saint who gave his life and money to the poor, inspiring today’s Santa Claus figure).
Because St Nicholas is buried here, pagans came and prayed in the church, before staying overnight in the houses. Pilgrimages to the site continue to this day.
As we wandered the grounds, home to Joe’s flock of sheep, we followed the curves in the ground where the streets were once paved and stood amongst the raised mounds of earth that camouflage the foundations of the houses.
We walked down to the River Nore that runs at the bottom of the farmland and looked back. From here it was easier to piece together the layout of Jerpoint – preservation of Ireland’s early urbanisation.
It wasn’t until Joe moved in that he noticed small parts of an old stone wall shrouded by overgrown oak trees, and knew it was something much bigger than he could have ever imagined. With the help of the Heritage Council, this small area was carefully excavated, with Joe its new chief curator. This was when the church ruins were first discovered.
“I have no doubt that there is something very, very special here, on account of the things that have happened,” said Joe, as we stood within the ruins of the church of St. Nicholas, whose tall wall slabs and dominant arches remain, standing next to an enclosed family cemetery.
Here he told the stories of how he and his wife, Mauve, got married on St. Nicholas’ feast day on 6th December, a few years before they bought this place; that his son is named Nicholas after his grandfather (as is common practice in Irish family lineage); and the tale of a man who once visited on the auspicious December 6th date to ask Saint Nicholas if he wanted to be known. Inside the church, the man said: “On the 12th second of the 12th minute of the 12th month of 2012, there will be a change.” On that day a pilgrimage group came and lit a candle at quarter to 12 to ceremonious music and prayer and on that very second, the candle went out.
Strange coincidences, or planned occurrence?
Joe may not have planned his fate in inheriting an ancient kingdom, but it seems it was meant to be. A farmer for 50 years, his new role was not to stop but to become the patriarch of a lost town that now needs to be showcased to the world. Maybe one day a bigger story will emerge, for Joe does not recite facts in regurgitation from a history book, but tells the stories as if this has always been his ancestral home.
“I believe I was appointed to this. I had no say in this at all. Someone up high is calling the shots and gave me this job.
I feel like I am one of them, and I too will be buried here.”
If one thing’s for certain, I will never forget farmer Joe, and I hope his story is never, ever lost.
Things to Know About Visiting Jerpoint Park:
- Jerpoint Park, located two miles from Thomastown, is immersive travel at its best. Joe shows visitors around his land and provides a detailed historical background to the area. Following the tour, his wife Maeve serves up tea and fresh scones with clotted cream and jam in their beautiful family home.
- Visit the Jerpoint Park website for further details on how to get there, viewing times and more information on this ancient site.
- In the future, Jerpoint Park will become a larger archaeological site as it is slowly uncovered. For now, it remains a mysterious, yet treasured find in ‘Ireland’s Ancient East’, accessible to the public as part of the joint co-operation between the private landowners, Joe and Maeve O’Conner, local councils and the Heritage Council of Ireland.
- Wander through 5,000 years of history in Ireland’s Ancient East. I explored the southeast region in conjunction with Ireland Tourism and iAmbassador as part of a campaign to bring the country’s centuries-old history to life.