SAINTS PRESERVE US (or vice versa)
by Mike McCormack, AOH Historian
May the Saints preserve us is an old saying among the Irish, but it is conversely true that Ireland preserves the remains of many Saints. At this time of year, we can reflect on such Saints as Brigid (Feb 1) and Patrick (Mar 17), who rest in Erin’s soil, but there are two who aren’t even Irish and sleep in the Isle of Saints and Scholars.
The first is St. Nicholas, a generous native of Turkey who devoted his significant inheritance to works of charity. He became a monk, then an abbot, and then an Archbishop. He died in Myra, Turkey, in December 342 and his feast day is December 6. The enhanced legend of Santa Claus (sant niclaus) grew from the life of this generous Saint and spread across Europe and eventually the world. According to tradition, centuries after his death, a band of Irish-Norman knights traveled to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades, and upon their return to Ireland, they brought with them the earthly remains of St Nicholas. They had them re-interred in the Church of St Nicholas in the village of Newtown, Co. Kilkenny according to a story by John Fitzgerald in the December 2002 issue of the Cork Holly Bough. Today, the Church of Saint Nicholas lie in ruins in the medieval village of Newtown, which itself fell to ruin by the 17th century. Among the facts supporting the tradition are that the Normans were keen collectors of religious relics, and that Newtown was home to the Cistercian Jerpoint Abbey, which served as a launching point for Irish-Norman Crusaders. The abbey, founded in 1183, was dissolved in 1540, but its remains today attract many tourists. The ruined church, now on private land west of the abbey, contains an unusual grave slab dating to the 1300s. It is carved with an image of a cleric, thought to be a bishop, and two other heads. The cleric is said to be St Nicholas and the heads, the two crusaders who brought St. Nicholas’ remains back to Ireland. Hibernian Historian Malcolm Rogers (AOH Div 61 Philadelphia) writes that, several Norman noblemen owned land in the locality of Richard de Clare. “William de Dene had half an acre at Ogensy, the district around Thomastown, ‘Barony of Gowran’, William Archid (le Archer), had a quarter acre at Archerstown, in the ‘parish of St Patrick’s . . . Today it’s difficult to glean much information about these Norman knights, although some reports describe both William de Dene and William Archid as ‘bellicose and pious’. . . William de Dene and William Archid must have felt very at home in their new environment – sharing a great religious faith with their new neighbors along with a readiness to fight all comers for their beliefs. In fact, just the sort of men we are looking for. Could the two Williams be the Crusaders who brought Santa to Kilkenny?” We may never know, but the Church remains a place of pilgrimage every Christmas.
Kathy Collins, on VirtualTourist.com, noted that Jerpoint Abbey has “ruins from the 14th and 15th century including the outlines of the cloister. . . It is said that the remains of St.Nicholas, the ancient Bishop of Myra in Turkey who was the original Santa Claus, were moved to Jerpoint Abbey by Crusaders who re-buried him here in a tomb that now is marked by a broken slab decorated with the carving of a monk.”
The second Saint of foreign birth who sleeps in Ireland is more historically documented and that is the renowned St. Valentine, whose feast on February 14 is honored worldwide by lovers, who use the occasion to send messages of undying affection to their sweethearts. It’s also a day known to postmen (though not as eagerly) who are burdened with carrying those messages on hundreds of thousands of cards decorated with hearts and flowers. The exchange of affectionate messages has been a custom since Roman times, and cards have been used since the 16th century. Although the name of St. Valentine (a third century Christian martyr beheaded in Rome about 269 AD) has become attached to this ritual, little is known about the man. What is known, however, is that St. Valentine’s feast day on the Church calendar happens to coincide with the old pagan celebrations of spring, perhaps explaining why the amorous rites associated with those celebrations have become attached to his name.
According to an article in Ireland’s Eye magazine, in 1836, Pope Gregory XVI sent a gift to the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street, Dublin, in recognition of the work of the church’s former prior, Father John Spratt, who was widely recognized as a very holy man. The gift was a relic of a Christian martyr – a small gold-bound casket containing the earthly remains of St. Valentine. The relic had been exhumed from the cemetery of St. Hyppolytus on the Tiburtine Way in Rome, placed in a special casket, and brought to Dublin where it was enshrined in the little Church with great ceremony.
Each year, on February 14, the casket containing the Saint’s mortal remains is carried in solemn procession to the high altar of the Carmelite Church for a special Young People’s Mass. This little known Dublin church also sells Valentine’s Day cards, and those that can be purchased there can truly be said to be the genuine article!