County Kilkenny has perhaps one of the highest concentrations of medieval remains in Ireland. Conquered in the decades after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, the area was heavily restructured. This saw an intensive and large-scale building programme begin as towns, castles and abbeys popped up across the landscape. As society became increasingly unstable and violent in the late 13th and 14th centuries the area was heavily fortified. This photo essay is meandering journey across four sites in a small area of Kilkenny – Thomastown, where you can get some impression of what a medieval landscape may have looked like and what can be seen there today. This journey is easy to replicate – there is a map of the area at the end of the article.
The journey begins in this field above. The landscape pictured was once the site of the busy settlement of Newtown Jerpoint. Abandoned in the 17th century, much has disappeared but tantilising traces of what was called “Nova Villa juxta Geripons” still survive. After the Norman conquest of Ireland in 1169 around 300 boroughs were established. Of these between 50 and 100 grew into towns. At Newtown Jerpoint a fortified bridge over the river Nore gave the settlement a focus and it developed into small village.
In this picture you can see what remains of the town – mainly lumps and bumps in a field. The outline of the thoroughfare through the medieval village although not very visible in the picture is strikingly obvious when you visit the site as it is situated between the noticable earthworks which form the remains of field boundaries and structures. Although the Newtown Jerpoint was never a major settlement – it was not walled nor did it hold courts of the justiciar, it was nonetheless a thriving settlement. In 1307 a valuation of the lands of Joan, Countess of Gloucester was carried out. Included in her several holdings was Newtown Jerpoint. In this valuation there are mentions of herbs gardens and orchards. The townspeople also produced ale and held a local court for resolving differences and planning collective aspects of local farming. Today there are only a few structures remaining above ground.
Situated to the North end of the town there were several mills built on a the small tributary on the river Nore -The Little Arrigle River. These would have been crucial to grind the floor from the wheat grown in the surrounding lands.
The most dominant building on the site was the parish church St Nicolas’s church (above).
This has been heavily altered over its life.
The original structure was a relatively simple structure consisting of a nave (foreground) and chancel (obscured by the later tower).
In the 14th century this tower was added over the crossing (the section between the nave and chancel) and would have been used as a house by the priest. Increasingly from the late 13th century domestic building took the shape of fortified buildings due to the increasing instability. This instability which amounted to a near collapse of Norman society in Ireland was caused by 3 major crises – “the Time of disturbance in 1294”, The 1315-18 famine and Bruce Invasion of the same years and the Black death of 1348-9. This crisis of epic proportions is the subject of a book I am currently writing. Remarkably the remains of the towns market cross survive in the graveyard of the church (above). The market cross as its name suggest delineated where the towns market took place. The parts above are the circular foundation (right), the rectangular base (left) out of which would have supported the missing cross. In many towns these were also where punishments were carried out.
The cross would have looked similar to this surviving market cross in Stow-on-the-Wold in England.
The town of Newtown Jerpoint was not the first settlement in the area by any means. Across the the Little Arrigle River in the mid 12th century the Cisatercian Abbey of Jerpoint was founded. Over the following centuries this would have grown into one of the most powerful economic centres of the region. In the middle ages religious monasteries performed a dual function of a religious institution and a major economic foundation akin to a modern corporation. The major abbeys in Ireland owned extensive farmland for example Christchurch in Dublin owned 10,000 acres in Dublin alone.
Jerpoint abbey today is a ruin. Pictured above is the remains of the nave of the cathedral in the abbey.
The abbey’s cloister was partially reconstructed in the 1950’s.
It gives some impression of what the the abbey would have looked like.
The remains of the chapter house which hosted meetings of the monks of Jerpoint.
As Ireland became increasingly violent from c.1270 the church was often caught up in the chaos. The machiolations over the entrance to the church in the picture above are testimony to this, as even abbeys were fortified. Indeed in 1356, amid the chaos that followed in the aftermath of the Black Death (1348-9) the Abbot of Jerpoint was accused of attacking the abbot of Tintern abbey, imprisoning the prior and subprior having robbed three horses. It should be said Philip the said abbot was acquitted!
The religious were not free from casual violence in society either . In the early 14th century a certain William Schort was charged of having “waylaid John, a monk of Geriponte on the highway between the town of Welles and Kilory and robbed him of a horse and cloth to the value of forty shillings”1
The militarised nature of society in medieval Ireland is evident across the landscape in Kilkenny. A few miles up the Nore from Jerpoint is Grenan Castle situated just outside the medieval town of Grenan now called Thomastown. Grenan is by no means the most fortified of medieval castles but none the less it was a well defended residence. Situated on a floodplain of the river Nore it was built to control this important medieval routeway. The Nore is located at the tree line in the left background.
Grenan was built in the early 13th century by the FitzAnthony family. It is classified as hall keep. The castle was possibly built on the site of a previous motte and bailey like that at nearby St Mullins – you can see the earth works on which the settlement is built in the picture above.
The ground floor is unusual – it is divided into three identical arched chamber. The chamber above is situated at the northern end of the castle.
Access to the first floor is through a stair case immediately inside the entrance.
Access to the first floor is obstructed by this hole (pictured here from the ground floor). This appears to be intentional due to the finished stone edges. This may have been a way of hoisting materials to the upper floors avoiding the narrow staircase.
The first floor was divided into two chambers. In the foreground was a large hall occupying two thirds of the floor space while the remaining third was a private chamber. The remains on the dividing wall can be seen to the left of the window on the right of picture. This floor also contained a small church. Unfortunately the third floor has collapsed entirely.
The first floor included a garderobe – a medieval toilet which was simply a shoot to the outside usually protected by a metal grid to stop potential attackers using the toilet as an access point. The garderobe chute at Grenan (above) has since been heavily pilfered for stone.
Grenan castle would once have been surrounded by walls. All that remains today are these few stones.
The final stop on our journey through medieval Kilkenny involves crossing into the neighbouring parish of Kilfane to the medieval ruins of the parish church there.Built in the 14th century it is a testimony to the volatile and violent society in the Ireland at the time. When it was constructed the parish priests residence was located in a defensive tower adjoining the church.
The church itself is relatively small.
The tower consists of four floors. The ground floors may have been a sacristy.
Access to the first floor was through this stair case.
The first floor was protected by a trap door situated over the steps in picture above. You can still see the sockets for the hinges in the left and right background of the picture above.
This floor also contained the garderobe of the tower.
The upper floors have all collapsed
The most interesting feature of the church of Kilfane is this enormous carving of a Norman warrior bearing the Cantwell coat of arms.
Standing 2.41 metres tall the statue according to local lore is that of Cantwell Fada (meaning tall Cantwell) who died in 1319 reputedly at an old age. Roger Stalley the art historian however has argued the statue dates to the 13th century. The figure’s legs are crossed and this has lead some to argue the person depicted may have fought in the crusades. This is entirely possible given that king Edward I of England went on Crusade in the 1271-2. This crusade had participants from Ireland most notably Geoffrey de Geneville who returned to Ireland as justiciar in the aftermath. Indeed the general areas connections to the east does not end there.
Back at Newtown Jerpoint his grave slab of St Nicolas at the graveyard there appears to be influenced by Byzantine art.
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If want to visit these sites they are all located within a few miles of Thomastown in county Kilkenny. Both Jerpoint and the lost village of Newtown Jerpoint cost a small fee to visit while Grenan and Kilfane church are free. If visiting Grenan great care is needed as the castle is in poor repair particulalry if you climb the stairs. Kilfane is on private land but is accessible through a right of way. You will find it by following the map. Its is situated off the road opposite a modern church on the left as you approach from Thomastown.
1Cal Just Rolls VOL III pge 154
2 Calendar of Documents relating to Ireland Vol V pge 188.