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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Where change began



Jerpoint Abbey is definitely not one of the ‘forgotten places of Ireland’ but for a long time I avoided it despite the glowing reports it receives from visitors.

They say it is ‘Where Irish medieval sculpture reached new heights’. Much of the early 11th century buildings can still be traced but it is the images in the semi-restored cloisters that are centre of attention. They display knights, ladies, saints, big and small creatures and a man with a tummy ache.

On a more religious theme there are graphic replicas of the apostles: Peter with his keys, Thomas with his lance, Simon with a saw, Andrew with an X-shaped cross, Bartholomew with his skin (he was flayed alive) and Paul with his sword.  Women are also there: Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch. But no Irish saints! It was as if they were to be forgotten and a new spirituality was being introduced to replace them.

That is when I realised why I had resisted Jerpoint for so long. 

There were two ‘foreign’ influences at work there. One was the Normans who had little respect for Irish culture and tradition even though they were fellow Christians. 

When I asked the OPW lady guide why a remote location like Jerpoint was chosen for a Cistercian abbey she replied simply, ‘This is a very good agricultural land’.

The Cistercians were independent of the local community because they were economically self-sufficient on good land granted by their fellow Normans. To give them credit, they used the land well to introduce the latest agricultural methods.

However their monks were isolated within their self-sufficient high walls, unlike the earlier Irish monks who lived simply among the local people. They had no reason to preserve native Irish saints.

The second influence was reform-minded Irish like Malachy of Armagh. Impressed by what he saw in Rome, he wanted to introduce a diocesan and parish structure to replace the monastery-centred traditional system. Undoubtedly not all the Celtic monasteries had preserved the spirit of their inspirational founder. Nor did it help that Irish kings tended to control the monasteries for political and financial reasons.  Often a lay member was appointed abbot to ensure the monastery ‘remained in the family’.  

Despite its many attractions Jerpoint, for me, will continue to be an example of how the Celtic tradition of ‘teaching by example’ was changed to the institutional ‘teaching what to do’ approach. The new practices may have had short term benefits, but few lasting.      

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