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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
heritage ireland

The best medieval statue in Ireland is 8ft tall and in a ruined church in Kilkenny...

Want to explore Ireland’s history? Archaeologist Neil Jackman has two suggestions for you to visit in Kilkenny.

IN THIS LATEST article in the Hidden Heritage series, I have more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland. In this edition we explore some of Ireland’s finest medieval treasures in County Kilkenny.

As ever, I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions – if you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny

unnamed (1) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

Jerpoint Abbey near Thomastown in Kilkenny has one of Ireland’s best collections of medieval sculpture and architecture. The Abbey is believed to have been founded by a donation by the King of Ossory Dónal Mac Gilla Pátraic in around 1160AD, and may have originally been a Benedictine foundation but it was taken over by the Cistercian order by around 1180.

The abbey is laid out in the traditional Cistercian way with a cruciform shaped church with cloisters to the south. The abbey was adapted and changed throughout its history, particularly in the 15th century, when a papal indulgence was granted to raise funds for the renovation and repair of many of the buildings.

The Cistercians first came to Ireland in around 1142 and established their first foundation at Mellifont in Meath. By this time, the Cistercians were one of the most powerful religious orders in Europe.

unnamed (4) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

The life of a Cistercian monk was strictly apportioned between religious study and manual labour, with all tasks scheduled to fit around regular communal prayers. Every day the monks arose for Matins at about 2am, then Lauds at 5am, Prime at 6am, Terce at 9am, Sext at noon, Nones at 3pm, Vespers around 5pm and finally Compline at 6pm. It was a life of almost unvarying routine and absolute discipline. Monks performed their tasks in silence, their meals were plain and largely vegetarian and their habits were made of coarse, undyed, wool. A Cistercian monk in England, Ailred of Rievaulx, described the daily experience:

Our food is scanty, our garments rough; our drink is from the stream and our sleep often upon our book. Under our tired limbs there is but a hard mat; when sleep is sweetest, we must rise at bell’s bidding. Self-will has no place; there is no moment for idleness or dissipation.

This austere life contrasts quite sharply with some of the elaborate and charming (and sometimes humorous) sculptures and depictions that you can see around the Abbey. Inside the church, you can see a wealth of medieval tombs. Some with ‘weepers’, sculptures of the apostles and saints that surround the base of the tomb. Many of these were created by the medieval master sculptor Rory O’Tunney, who was based nearby at Callan. The saints are recognisable as many hold a symbol of their martyrdom.

unnamed (5) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

In this picture you can see (from left to right) St. John, St Thomas holding a lance (the manner of his martyrdom), St Simon holding a saw in his right hand (he was said to have been martyred by being sawn in half), and St. Bartholomew holding his skin (he was said to have been flayed alive). The figure on the far right represents St. Paul holding a sword in his right hand (he was said to have been decapitated by sword on the orders of Emperor Nero) and St James Minor.

A number of other fascinating tomb effigies can also be seen, the earliest of which is that of Abbot O’Dulany who died in 1202. Perhaps most intriguing is the effigy of two Norman knights known as The Brethren, depicted in their armour side by side (see below). It is suggested that they may represent two of the sons of William Marshall.

unnamed (3) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

The cloister really is wonderful, with an almost unparalleled wealth of sculpture, where saints, religious figures, courtly ladies, knights and fantastical beasts like dragons and manticores can all be seen, some carved with a sense of humour that you might not expect in an austere Cistercian abbey.

Exploring Jerpoint is always a rewarding day out and each time I revisit I notice some other great sculpture or detail I had overlooked before. Jerpoint is under the auspices of the OPW. It has an informative visitor centre and you can enjoy a guided tour. For opening hours and entry fees please visit here. Jerpoint Abbey is around 2.5km south-west of Thomastown on the R448 and it is well signposted.

Kilfane Church, County Kilkenny

unnamed (6) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

If you fancy seeing more spectacular medieval sculpture (and who wouldn’t?!), just a very short drive from Jerpoint you can visit the ruins of the medieval parish church of Kilfane. Inside the church, propped against the wall, you can see something truly special: the Cantwell Fada (also known as The Long Man), probably the most impressive medieval effigy of a knight anywhere in either Ireland or Britain.

This incredible knight stands over 8 feet tall, and is the largest of its type, described by Professor Roger Stalley of Trinity College Dublin as ‘a colossus among medieval effigies’.

unnamed (7) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

It depicts a knight wearing a metal skull-cap covered by a coif, and a chainmail hauberk protecting his torso as far as his knees. It is under a cloth surcoat with deep folds and a sword belt. He has prominent spurs on his feet, showing that he fought from horseback. His shield bears the arms of the Cantwell family, a prominent family of Norman nobles who accompanied Theobold Walter during the Norman arrival in the late twelfth century. For their distinguished service, the Cantwells became lords of Kilfane. It is not certain what member of the Cantwell family the effigy represents, though some scholars believe it to be Thomas Cantwell who died in around 1320.

Apart from this truly incredible effigy, Kilfane Church itself is well worth exploring. It is a long rectangular church that probably dates to the 13th century. Inside you can see a number of features like the sedilia (the priest’s seat), and a very fine tower. It’s a lovely atmospheric site, made really special by the most amazing piece of medieval sculpture I have ever seen.

unnamed (8) Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

You’ll find Kilfane Church less than a 10 minute drive from Jerpoint Abbey. Simply follow the R448 through Thomastown heading north towards Dungarvan. You’ll see a sign for Kilfane Church (and Kilfane Waterfall and Historic Garden) on your right after around 4.5km. Drive up the narrow road and park opposite the 19/20th century Church of Ireland. Pass through the small black gate opposite the modern church and follow the little path under the trees to the medieval ruins. You’ll find it at co-ords 52.555151, -7.119077


Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog where I have more suggestions for great places to visit. You can also download audioguides from my website, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

More from Neil Jackman:

Ireland’s largest Norman castle was built by a womaniser who ended up being decapitated > 

The huge 17th century fort in Cork where a key battle between two English kings was fought > 

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