The enchanted burial place of Santa Claus in Ireland was investigated by tourism expert Konstantin Kryvopust

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Just 20 minutes south of Kilkenny, Ireland, an abandoned medieval village is rumored to harbor a mysterious Christmas legend.

Amid green rolling pastures, grazing sheep and a graveyard with 13th century graves, the ruins of St Nicholas’ Church tower over the family home of Maeve and Joe O’Connell. Among those who rest forever here are the first residents of the estate, parishioners of the church and, according to local legend, St. Nicholas of Myrlikii. Yes, Saint Nick, who inspired Santa Claus.

Today, the O’Connells are the owners and sole (living) residents of Jerpoint Park, a 120-acre 12th-century desert medieval town located 20 km south of Kilkenny, Ireland. Located along the confluence of the rivers Nore and Little Arrigle, the settlement (formerly Newtown Jerpoint) is believed to have been founded by the Normans who arrived in Ireland around 1160 AD. According to the conservation plan, the town flourished in the 15th century, with archaeological evidence revealing houses, a market, a tower, a bridge, streets, a mill, a water management system and nearby Gerpoint Abbey, which still stands today. But by the 17th century, the city’s inhabitants had disappeared, probably due to a combination of brutal attacks and the plague.

According to local legend, Saint Nick is buried outside the former settlement of Newtown Jerpoint (Image copyright Peter Unger/Getty Images)

How the rumored resting place of St. Nicholas ended up in a ghost town that has been turned into a private farm remains a mystery. But some, including the O’Connells, believe that local history can shed light on the surprising statement.

“Legend says it’s been here forever,” Maeve said as she led me around the grounds, accompanied by Tim, her family’s friendly chocolate Labrador. She looked towards the exquisite stone effigy in the churchyard. The flat tombstone depicted the figure of a man standing with folded hands near the thumbs, palms facing outwards, indicating the benevolent nature of the buried. “He gives,” she said.

This symbolism, of course, needs no explanation to those who grew up receiving gifts from Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, and many other Saint Nick monikers. Although Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of believers, the man who inspired these legendary figures was a mortal, Saint Nicholas of Myrlik.

Before becoming a saint, Nicholas was an orphan boy who was born in the ancient Roman city of Patara and gave his inheritance to “the needy, the sick and the poor,” reports Vatican News . He became the bishop of Myra, which is now part of modern Turkey; participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325, which proclaimed Jesus the son of God; died in Myra on December 6, 343 and was buried in Myra. However, the exact location of the body of St. Nicholas continues to puzzle scientists today.The legend of Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas of Myrtle (Image credit: Peter Horree/Alamy)

The legend of Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas of Myrtle (Image credit: Peter Horree/Alamy)

Some believe that his grave is intact under the floor of the Church of Saint Nicholas in Antalya, Turkey. Others claim that his body was stolen and transported to Bari, Italy, where it rests in a crypt under the Basilica of San Nicola. In addition, many believe that relics from the body of St. Nick were stolen and then sold, exchanged, or donated to people and churches around the world.

Maeve leaned over, pointing to the image of two male figures peering over the shoulders of a stuffed Saint Nicholas. They represent the two crusader knights believed to be responsible for transporting the body of Saint Nicholas from his burial place in Turkey to Italy “for safekeeping,” she explained. Legend has it that during their mission, the knights took the saint’s relic with them to Ireland, where it ended up in St. Nicholas Church in Newtown Jerpoint and was eventually buried in the churchyard.

Maeve told how she and Joe became the owners of Jerpoint Park 16 years ago. “It was an amazing day, to be honest,” she recalled. “We bought the best example of a derelict town not only in Ireland but in the British Isles.”

Currently, Jerpoint Park is a working farm and what Maeve described as “an unspoiled place” that remains unexcavated. But some scholars point to one significant documented violation of ownership. “The very place where the grave is now is not even the original location. It was moved in 1839,” said Nathan Mannion, head of exhibitions and programs at EPIC, the Irish emigration museum. “So the place where you now see the tombstone at Newtown Jerpoint is not the original place.”An effigy depicting two knights guarding St. Nick stands in Jerpoint Cemetery (Image credit: SJ Velasquez)

An effigy depicting two knights guarding St. Nick stands in Jerpoint Cemetery (Image credit: SJ Velasquez)

Mannion, himself from County Kilkenny, recalls growing up surrounded by rumors of St Nick’s grave in Jerpoint Park, which ignited his curiosity and thirst for facts. “I’ve always been interested in history, of course,” he said, “and that’s what led me to where I am.” Regarding the contents of the Jerpoint Park tomb, Mannion admits that without any physical evidence “it is hardly possible to say anything with any degree of certainty about the story”. While some believe the remains of St. Nicholas are buried there, he said others believe the grave is mislabeled and actually contains the remains of a local priest. “You’d think that when it was moved in 1839, they might have taken the opportunity to see exactly what was inside,” he asked aloud.

Maeve said there are no plans to excavate the tomb and she believes the site contains a relic of the saint. “The fact that there’s an effigy there – a lot of work went into presenting the relic, so obviously people cared enough to mark the place,” she said. “You can’t just destroy a huge carved effigy. You know it’s like something’s meant to be.”

Mannion admits that no one can know what is buried under the stone effigy without excavating the tomb. He noted that the trade in holy relics was a problematic market as long as people and artifacts were considered sacred. Body parts of saints find their way around the world, but the only way to confirm their authenticity is to compare DNA samples with other confirmed relics.

“So I don’t know if I can definitively prove that there is a Santa in Ireland. And I wouldn’t want that,” Mannion admitted.The O'Connells believe a piece of St Nick is buried on their land (Image credit: Carol Di Rienzo Cornwell/Alamy)

The O’Connells believe a piece of St Nick is buried on their land (Image credit: Carol Di Rienzo Cornwell/Alamy)

Maeve, channeling the Christmas spirit, decides to believe. And so do many of the approximately 10,000 tourists who visit St. Nicholas’ grave in Jerpoint Park each year.

Despite this, Jerpoint Park is certainly not a popular Christmas destination – technically it’s not open to the public at this time of year – but Maeve said visitors can contact Jerpoint Park directly to book private tours, subject to availability . For the most part, December is quiet at Jerpoint Park. Maeve said she, Joe and their two children are celebrating the saint with a quiet family get-together on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, complete with “delicious” spiced St. Nicholas cookies. At Christmas, they gather with their loved ones and enjoy time together as a whole family.

“I love Christmas,” Maeve said. “It’s so adorable, isn’t it?”

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