Jerpoint Abbey is located in the south of County Kilkenny, alongside the Little Arrigal River and contains a true wealth of wonderful medieval sculpture. The abbey is believed to have been founded by a donation by the King of Ossory Dónal Mac Gilla Pátraic in c. 1160, and was perhaps originally a Benedictine foundation but it was taken over by the Cistercian order by the late 12th century as a ‘daughter house’ to the abbey at Baltinglass. The abbey was well located, being close to the medieval settlement at Newtown Jerpoint with its important crossing point over the River Nore. By 1228, there were 36 monks and 50 lay brothers, with landholdings of approximately 20,000 acres of land. As well as the core monastic buildings, there were once fishponds, workshops, mills and farmsteads, as well as a brewery, infirmaries, gardens, orchards and guest quarters.
The abbey is laid out in the traditional Cistercian way, with a cruciform church with cloisters to the south. The abbey was adapted and changed throughout its history, particularly in the 15th century, when a papal indulgence was granted to raise funds for the renovation and repair of many of the buildings.
The Cistercians first came to Ireland in c. 1142, and established their first foundation at Mellifont in County Louth. By this time, the Cistercians were one of the most powerful religious orders in Europe. The life of a Cistercian monk was strictly apportioned between religious study and manual labour, with all tasks scheduled to fit around regular communal prayers. Every night the monks arose for Matins at about 2 am, then Lauds at 5 am, Prime at 6 am, Terce at 9 am, Sext at noon, Nones at 3 pm, Vespers around 5 pm and finally Compline at 6 pm. It was a life of almost unvarying routine and absolute discipline. Monks performed their tasks in silence, their meals were plain and largely vegetarian and their habits were made of coarse, undyed wool. A Cistercian monk in England, Ailred of Rievaulx, described the daily experience, ‘Our food is scanty, our garments rough; our drink is from the stream and our sleep often upon our book. Under our tired limbs there is but a hard mat; when sleep is sweetest, we must rise at bell’s bidding. Self-will has no place; there is no moment for idleness or dissipation.’
The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the end of Jerpoint in 1540. The last abbot, Oliver Grace, along with the remaining five monks, left without their possessions. The abbey and its holdings were leased to the powerful Butlers of Ormond.
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