What happened our Pompeii?


What happened our Pompeii?
Newtown - a
trading town of
great importance
THE find is an exciting
An artists inmpression by Uto Hogerzeil of the deserted 12th century medieval town at Newtown, Jerpoint.
Picture: Michael Brophy
What happened our Pompeii?
TO put it in context as a
medieval urban settlement, the town of Newtown would have housed
400-500 people at its
peak. It was enclosed
and had a church, courthouse, and defensive
towers. It boasted a river
crossing of the Nore, a toll
bridge basically where
everything that crossed
- human, sheep or grain
- was paid for. A thriving
local economy of a medieval time when Ireland’s
population was just over
200,000 - and the population of Kilkenny city
almost 1,000.
So Newtown was half
the size of Kilkenny at the
time, and an important
trade route on the way
to the port of New Ross.
It’s neighbours Thomastown and Bennetsbridge
survived and thrived - yet
the answer to why Newtown became Kilkenny’s
Pompeii lies just across
t h e r o a d a t Je r p o i n t
The local Cistercian
order were significant
landowners in Leinster
- farming 20,000 acres.
Their industry was the
key factor in ensuring
t h a t Ne w t ow n w a s a
destination of not just
prayer but of trade. When
King Henry VIII had his
troubles with Rome, and
founded the Church of
England, the monasteries were brought to heel.
And Jerpoint Abbey was
targeted. Legend has it
that the first ‘attack’ was
survived by the monks
hiding and avoiding
the soldiers. When they
left, the monks thought
they were out of ear-shot
one for Cóilín Ó Drisceoil
- probably one of the
most significant he has
come across in his career
working in the county
with Kilkenny Archaeology.
“The site itself was
charted in the early 19th
century, and the properties that were there have
been known. There have
been small excavations
and artefacts were found
in the 1980’s so it’s no
surprise, but the fact that
its now accessible and
we are uncovering more
is important. The people
of Kilkenny should realise what is right on their
doorstep and just come
out here and experience
it” said Cóilín Ó Drisceoil.
He described it as Kilkenny’s Pompeii. Built
around 1200 it was a
trading town, half the
size of Kilkenny.
“It followed a trade
route from Kilkenny City,
to Bennetsbridge, then
Newtown, then Thomastown and on to New
Ross, which was the port
of the Lord of Leinster,”
he said.
The towns reliance on
the economy of the Cistercian abbey in Jerpoint
was the key to its demise.
That Priory was dissolved
in 1540, and by the 1600’s
Newtown was no more.
Cóilín revealed that the
town of Newtown and
the church of St Nicholas
was linked to the same
Augustinian order as
that of St Johns on John
Street, Kilkenny. The
trade off likely at the time
was to maintain St John’s
as St Nicholas’ went in to
“The fact that no tillage
took place here saved the
site. All the humps and
bumps are here, there
are dozens of examples
of dwellings. The site is
simply vast, its the best
preserved example of a
deserted town from the
Norman age. Absolutely
nowhere else like this
where you can walk the
streets and visualise the
town. It’s pretty unique,”
he added.
Cóilín explained that
the citizens of that time
were called burgesses,
and they had greater
rights than the serfs in
the fields working in rural
Ireland. So to become a
town dweller basically
secured your economic
future and standing and while your produce
was subject to taxes, your
rights were greater.
There were 14 taverns
in the town - testament
to the pilgrimages that
took place to St Nicholas
tomb and the Cistercian
One of the earliest
financial records dates
from 1376, when the
rebuilding of the bridge
took place. There are
various other financial
transactions recorded
- mainly the taxes to the
local lord.
“So few people know
about this sight, but it’s
important for the people of Kilkenny to know
where they came from.
“We’re really only at
the starting point. Our
research programme
is on Newtown but just
above the site is a towns
land called Oldtown, so
we would have to wonder was there a town
there even further back
from the date of Newtown and the residents
moved to here,” said Mr
Ó Drisceoil.
and presumed it was
safe to ring their bell for
their brothers to return.
Unfortunately it was not,
the soldiers came back
in a vengeful state and
wreaked havoc on the
monastery. Newtown’s
fate was sealed.
A passion for the project
Cóilín Ó Drisceoil, Site Director with his daughter, Bea at the Jerpoint dig.
Picture: Michael Brophy.
A head on a plate
THE two knights that brought the relic of St Nicholas to Newtown were De Denn
and De Freyne - and both are immortalised on the tombstone of the Saint with
carvings of their faces either side.
De Den was a roguish character who lived in nearby Grennan Castle - next to
the hurling grounds in Thomastown. When King John came to Ireland to get his
taxes - De Den was on his hit list.
He let it be known that when his army came to Grennan Castle, they wanted
his head on a plate.
So De Den had his staff prepare a lavish feast in the banqueting hall - but cut
a hole in the middle of the table enough for his head to peep through.
The feast was covered in cloth, and when King John arrived the cloth was
pulled back for De Denn’s head to appear - as if on a plate.
Moments later he sneezed and King John - the man not noted for his sense of
humour as Robin Hood would have testified - broke in to laughter which was
joined in by his knights. He told De Denn he could keep his head - but he had
better pay his taxes.
Joe O’Connell’s Border Collie Cap herds the wild Geese at Jerpoint Park. Picture: Michael Brophy.
IT’S more than obvious that Joe and Maeve
O’Connell are passionate
about bringing the story
of Newtown to life. For
Joe, he sees himself as a
caretaker of this historic
site. “It’s just in our hands
for the next 35 years or
so, someone else can
look after it then. None of
the previous owners, intensively farmed the area
through the centuries, so
the site was spared and
that’s a blessing. Maybe
forty years ago I would
have looked at things different, but certainly not
now,” said Joe.
Joe, a native of Carrick
On Suir on the Waterford
side, is farming all his life
- and still is on a section
of his 131 acre holding.
But the site of Newtown
is special. He learned as a
young man a simple lesson when he chainsawed
a half dozen beech trees
on a farm of what hasty
development can do and how it can never be
fully recovered.
A stroll with Joe
O’Connell through the
site is a guided tour not
to be missed. He has
garnered a lot of information, and is hungry
for more. Jerpoint park
h a s o f f e re d t o u r i s t s
numerous attractions in
a country setting. One
such attraction is probably unique. Joe, and his
champion sheepdog Cap,
together provide a demonstration of sheepdog
herding but it’s not a herd
- but a flock of geese.
If you want to see the
geese herded and in
full flight - just go down
and visit and Joe will be
happy to oblige. Unsure
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Jerpoint Park.
Basically, a herd of
geese, including treacherous ganders, patrol the
crowds but are quickly
subdued with the arrival
of Cap who ‘encourages’
the geese around the
yard as if it was a scene
of One Man and His dog
- but with a significant
difference. It’s just one of
the attractions at Jerpoint
Park- a country escape
with pony and trap rides
and fishing thrown in.
Joe takes you through
the streets of Newtown
and how the Norman
settlement once stood.
he noted that previ ous farmers grew black
thorn bushes around the
old houses as a forme of
natural barbed wire to
keep their livestock off
the stones. That in many
respects has protected
the integrity of the site.
But it’s quite clear
where the streets lined,
and where the dwellings
were and the LIDAR scan
is the key to helping a
visitor envisage this.
The two partial structures that are still standi n g i s t h e g e m o f St
Nicholas Church and
graveyard, and one wall
of the defensive tower in
the middle of Newtown.
To celebrate the feast day
of St Nicholas on December 6, the grounds of Jerpoint Park will be open
free to the public. Check
out their website www.
jerpointpark.com for further details.
Heritage Council backing project
THE Heritage Council
continue to be enthusiastic supporters of the
development of the site.
Four years ago they produced a Heritage Conservation Plan for Newtown, Jerpoint and have
been working on the site
ever since.
Head of Conservation
at the Heritage Council
Ian Doyle has described
the site as “very important.”
“As a failed town, its
important to see the history of it and the proximity to Jerpoint Abbey is
also very significant. But
the setting of Newtown
is fantastic, and what it
makes it stand out not
only in Ireland but possibly in Britain also is
our ability to trace documentation to this 13th
century site. We have
the material to trace the
history of the site.” He
“At the moment, its a
lovely walk, you would
just lose hours there.
It needs investment in
securing the Church, and
it needs somewhere to
interprete the site,” said
Mr Doyle.
The Heritage Council,
apart from the production of the Conservation
Plan, have secured a wall
of the medieval tower
church. There was an project, ensuring that done. We’d love to help
in the heart of the town, screen.’
“It was basically to added tower and to see the site is available to him (Joe O’Connell) with
and have also cut back
the ivy from St Nicholas separate the priest from a church in this setting the community for the the mills and of course
The site of the dig with the ruins Jerpoint Abbey in the background.
Church to help keep it
One of the fascinating aspects of St Nicholas Church is the ‘rood
the congregation. There
a re n o t t o o m a n y o f
them surviving today.
And the Church overall
is quite big for a parish
in a formal town is quite
rare,” he said.
Mr Doyle said they
were happy to work with
the O’Connells on the
Picture: Michael Brophy
next few centuries and
the history of Newtown
is preserved.
“There’s a lot of exploration of the site to be
there is the remains of
the bridge in the water.
The whole site requires
significant further studies,” he said.