Jerpoint Abbey was founded in the 1160s by Cistercians, a contemplative order of monks which originated in France, on land granted by the King of Ossory, Donal Mac Gilla Patric. It is beautifully situated by the Little Arrigle River, a tributary of the Nore, close to Thomastown in Co Kilkenny.
For almost 400 years Jerpoint was home to a wealthy and thriving community of monks and a focus for both the life and the economy of the surrounding region. After the Dissolution of Monasteries ordered by Herry VIII in the 1530s the last abbot, Oliver Grace surrendered the abbey to James Butler, the 9th Earl of Ormond, handing over not just the abbey but more than 14000 acres of land.
The abandoned abbey fell into ruin over the following centuries and was in danger of being completely lost until a conservation and restoration project, started in the 1950s, preserved the important remains for posterity.
Today the number and quality of buildings, carvings, tombs and other features that survive, from both the 12th century and a later period of construction in the 15th century, give a wonderful insight into both the beliefs and the way of life of this order of monks, who flourished not just in Ireland but all over Medieval Europe.
And if that sounds a bit dry and fusty, trust me it’s not – Jerpoint is a fascinating place to visit.
Life in a Cistercian Monastery
The Cistercians aimed to live an ordered and contemplative life, with each day much the same as the last and every waking minute planned and allocated either to prayer and meditation or to work, which was invariably related to farming.
There were two types of monk. Choir monks came from wealthy or noble families and often brought money or land with them when they joined the order. They were well educated and spent most of their day in prayer, meditation and learning. They worked mainly within the abbey walls and once they joined the order rarely left the confines of the abbey.
Lay brothers, from poorer backgrounds, did most of the manual labour, often spending their week at out-lying farms or ‘granges’, returning to the abbey only on Sundays. While the order professed to treat lay brothers “as themselves in life and death“, in reality they had a lower status; they dressed differently, sat separately at church and for meals and lived in different buildings.
A Monk’s Daily Life
The day began at 2am when the monks rose for the first of nine periods of daily prayer. There was an air of quiet industriousness throughout the day, with the monks observing a strict vow of silence broken only by prayer and chant or during the short period daily when conversation was permitted.
Choir monks had rigorous routines of worship and meditation to follow, with set times for prayer and for Gregorian chant in the chapel and in the cloisters. Lay brothers spent less of their time in prayer but had punishingly huge amounts of work to attend to on lands that extended to more than 14000 acres.
They kept huge herds of sheep and other livestock, extensive acreage was given to grain production, there were least two mills, large orchards and gardens grew both food and medicinal herbs while along the river they had fisheries and eel traps.
Such extensive land obviously produced more than was needed for self-sufficiency and they also engaged in trade – from early on they were large suppliers of wool to European markets – and were landlords, with portions of their land rented to local farmers.
Simple meals, primarily bread and vegetables with some fish and chicken but no red meat, were eaten communally. If a bowl of vegetables was a poor meal for a brother who’d spent the day working on the land, he could always keep his strength up with his daily allowance of up to a gallon of beer, brewed in the abbey!
As well as the monks there would almost always be guests staying at Jerpoint. The Cistercians had a tradition of offering hospitality and served as a sort of inn for travellers, who were welcomed and fed and were expected to fall in with the abbey routine.
What to See At Jerpoint
If you were a monk at Jerpoint and were magically relocated overnight to a Cistercian monastery anywhere else in Europe, it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference. Not only would your day have the same familiar pattern but your new home would be pretty much identical to the one you left.
You’d be in a rural area close to a river – the River Arrigal in the case of Jerpoint. Looking north from the central cloister you’d see a cross shaped chapel with transepts in each arm, while behind you would be the kitchen and refectory or dining hall. To your right the chapter house, where monks met anddid business, would have a dormitory overhead to accommodate the choir monks, while to the left would be storage and work areas and accommodation for the lay brothers.
This similarity is one of the reasons why Jerpoint Abbey is so important. Much of the detail of its buildings remain intact and give a unique insight into the daily lives of the monks not just at Jerpoint or in Ireland but throughout Europe.
When you first walk in to Jerpoint it’s not easy to see all that it’s telling us, you could look around and see nothing more than a bunch of well kept ruins. While I’d highly recommend the guided tour, led by very knowledgeable guides, if there are none available when you visit this guide should help.
The cross-shaped church to the north of the cloister is the oldest building at Jerpoint and was built in the typical Romaneque style of the 12th century. The main alter stood in the chancel at the east end with transepts, or side chapels, at either side forming the the arms of the cross.
The three high windows at the opposite end and the tower above the chancel were both built during a later period of construction in the 15th century.
In the chancel and transepts there are several stone coffins with detailed carvings of their occupants, including Felix O’Dullany, the first abbot, and patrons of the abbey such as the Butler family of Kilkenny Castle.
Look out for ‘the brethern’, a slap carved with two knights and the double coffin with effigies of ‘a harper and his wife’.
Many of the carvings of ‘weepers’ on the sides of coffins have been identified as apostles, saints and the occasional angel and each carries objects or ‘attributes’ relevant to their lives.
On this carving in the north transept St Peter carries a key, St Andrew a saltire cross while St James is wearing a pilgrims hat and holds a staff.
The choir monks came to the church to for ‘offices’ or prayers four times daily and would have stood (seats were a much later addition!) in the front part of the nave, while the lay brothers, who being busier with work attended twice daily, stood at the back behind them.
The cloister was at the heart of monastery life, with all the main buildings opening onto it. It was where monks came to study and read scripture, to to walk in silent prayer or to chant. The central part, known as the garth, was surrounded on all four sides by a covered ‘abmulatory’ or walkway.
The pillars supporting the arches of the walkway are beautifully decorated with stone carvings, some with additional smaller carvings at their base.
The walkway was built during the period of reconstruction that took place during the 15th century, when the early Cistertian distaste for decoration had obvoiusly waned.
The pillars depict a great diversity of characters: apostles and saints, bishops and patrons, Norman knights and ladies, dragons and grotesques, even a man with stomach ache. Among the known figures are St Catherine of Alexandria, St Margaret of Antioch, St Anthony of Egypt and James Butler, the 4th Earl of Ormond.
The Chapter House
Apart from a brief period daily when they gathered in the Chapter House the monks observed a strict vow of silence. While one can imagine that this place, with its low vaulted stone ceiling, was a hub bub of conversation as they discussed their work or exchanged news, as often as not they spent their time there quietly listening while the abbot addressed them or read out the rules of St Benedict to remind them of their vows. It was also where punishment was meted out.
Next door the prior’s office was the engine of abbey business. The Chapter House now houses a small exhibition of details or decorations from the abbey buildings found during the restoration works
The Monk’s Dormitory
Over the Chapter House is the dormitory where choir monks slept, which is accessible and from where there is a great view over the abbey and surrounding countryside. You can readily see traces in the area surrounding the remaining abbey buildings of what was there before: outbuildings, defensive walls and even the drainage system which dealt with waste.
The dormitory was deliberately sparse, with no private spaces. All monks slept there, even the early abbots, though later abbots probably had a separate dwelling outside the current buildings.
The Calefactory, Refectory & Kitchen
Of these three buildings apart from some entrance doors and the high wall that once separated the refectory from the calefactory remain, but they are fascinating nonetheless.
The kitchen was one of the few places where choir monks and lay brothers worked together, preparing meals for the community and any resident guests. All ate in the refectory, in silence.
The calefactory was a fascinating place. It was the only room in the abbey which was ever heated. A fire was lit there on All Soul’s Day in November and kept burning until Easter Friday the following March or April. Heat from this room warmed the adjoining refectory during the winter and also ensured that documents and manuscripts, stored in a room overhead, were not destroyed by dampness.
It was also where, four times annually, monks came to be bled. At the time regular blood-letting was seen as a good way to maintain health, though they took four pints of blood at each session so it can’t have left them feeling great in the immediate aftermath.
A Lost Medieval Town: Newtown Jerpoint
It was not unusual for towns to grow up in the vicinity of monasteries, and although Jerpoint Abbey is now in a rural spot there was once a fairly substantial town nearby. For perhaps two centuries Newtown Jerpoint was effectively forgotten by all but a few historians. A detailed survey of the site was carried out in the early years of this century which revealed a busy town, with two main streets, over 50 dwellings, a mill, a church and a tower house.
Newtown Jerpoint deserves an article of its own, which I’ll get to soon. But for now, take a look at the aerial view of Jerpoint below, where you can clearly see the ghostly outlines of the lost town below the current field divisions.
Visiting Jerpoint Abbey
I’ve an admission to make. Jerpoint Abbey is not far from where I live, I drive past it regularly but for years I never visited and knew almost nothing about it. PLEASE don’t make the same mistake because Jerpoint Abbey is without doubt one of the most fascinating places you’ll visit in Ireland.
Entrance is free with a Heritage Card, otherwise €3 for adults with concessions for children, families and groups. The abbey is open to visitors all year round but with curtailed hours in Winter so check before you visit. There is a carpark and toilets on site but no cafe or refreshments.
Guided tours start regularly, are free and highly recommended.