Our Christian Community Through the Ages

One does not have to look too deeply into our past to appreciate the fact that the parish of Thomastown has had a flourishing Christian community practically from the time of the early Celtic Church. We find evidence in the names of townlands – Columcille, Kilmurry, Dysart, to name but some. Similarly, our parish is dotted with the physical remains of our early Christian community. The ‘Thomple’ in Grennan townland, while it served as the earliest manor church in Norman Thomastown, is clearly from an earlier era, proven by the fact that it is dedicated to St Teghán, a Celtic saint and a native of Ogenti, the name of the local tuath. While the arrival of the Normans and the establishment of Thomas FitzAnthony as the pre-eminent lord of the area must have had serious implications for the Celtic chiefs of Ogenti, the fact that both ethnic groups shared a common religion undoubtedly helped in the process of assimilation. The placing of a wheel-headed cross, more typical of a type of Celtic cross found in Cornwall, in the grounds of the earliest Norman established church, St Mary’s, would suggest that these new arrivals were not totally lacking in empathy with the religious outlook of the natives of the locality. While St Mary’s, situated at the top of Market Street and containing many monuments to our foremost citizens down through the generations, still attracts the eye of the visitor, its ruins and all others within the parish must cede pride of place to that of Jerpoint Abbey, for a period of almost four hundred years the hub of a thriving Cistercian community, and now an historic feature of international importance.

But communities cannot stand still. The Church has to respond to the needs of its people. This has resulted in the building in the modern era of out-chapels at Mong and Chapel Hill dating from the late eighteenth century, and culminating in the construction of the present Church of the Assumption in the mid-nineteenth century, it replacing the parish church of Penal times of which just the Belfry now remains. Even in this phase of expansion links with earlier times were treasured. The present baptismal font, bearing the coats of arms of the Butler and Fitzgerald families, is thought to have come from Jerpoint Abbey. ‘Our Lady of Thomastown’ statue is known to have been donated to the parish by Mary Lincoln, wife of Patrick Lincoln, wine merchant, who brought it back from Spain in the seventeenth. Both these items had occupied pride of place in the earlier ‘Belfry’ church.

For those interested in our Christian heritage, these are not the only features of interest. There is the little-known deserted late-medieval settlement of Newtown-Jerpoint, with its church dedicated to St Nicholas; the castle at Dysart, associated the family of George Berkeley which replaced an earlier ecclesiastic settlement dedicated to St Colman; the dozen or so places of Christian burial in the parish, where many of the older headstones provide us with the only documentary information of parishioners of previous generations; and much much more!