Ireland’s Hidden Gems: Jerpoint Abbey and Kilfane Church

Kilfane Church is undoubtedly a hidden gem, but Jerpoint Abbey? It doesn’t shock and awe like the Rock of Cashel, but still, I’m surprised it remains a lesser-visited heritage site. Of course that means no crowded masses to contend with, so that’s a plus! If you’re itching for some quiet meandering and outstanding medieval sculpture - one of many highlights - take a quick drive to these lovely treasures just 20 minutes south of Kilkenny city.

Jerpoint Abbey

I fell in love with Jerpoint in 2012 and was eager to bring family for a visit, but when we pulled up the buildings looked unfamiliar. Uh-oh. Was this the place with the cool stone carvings or did I mess up?? I breathed a sigh of relief about 10 minutes into the free tour. We had the right spot and Jerpoint is as impressive as ever.

Jerpoint Abbey. Beautiful, even without the lovely cloister (it's off to the left, just out of sight) and stone carvings.

So what sets this abbey apart?

  • Medieval sculpture: Prepare to be amazed! Knights, ladies, saints, creatures big and small, and whimsical figures open to interpretation (does that sweet lad have a tummy ache?); there seems to be a new wonder around every corner.  Want to know more before you go?  Neil Jackman provides illuminating photos and narrative in this "Hidden Heritage" article.

Stone carvings at Jerpoint Abbey

  • Cloister architecture: Jerpoint was founded in the 12th century but incredibly, two walls of the cloister still stand. Graceful arches and unique stone carvings dot the entire length; my mind’s eye pictures silent monks passing through, hearts lifted by the simple beauty.

The magnificent cloister with stone carvings at Jerpoint Abbey

  • Cistertian monks: To quote this article about Jerpoint, “There are no rich tapestries here, no priceless antiques and no portraits of in-bred toffs with long noses but here you can touch history and appreciate the lifestyle of those who lived and died here.” Indeed. The austere routines of the Cistercian monks are fascinating: strict discipline (up at 2am each day!); unique diet (no 4-legged animals but 8 pints of beer each day); regular blood-letting (16 pints a year - it’s good for you!)…. What a life. Maybe the beer took the edge off?

Our captivating guide, Dr. Breda Lynch.

  • Free tour: I’ve been blessed with excellent OPW guides throughout Ireland, but Breda was a cut above. She was so impressive, I stopped into the office afterwards to ask about tour guide training requirements. The staffer informed me that while there are no set guidelines (many are simply very well-read on their subject), we happened to get particularly lucky. Our guide was none other than Dr. Breda Lynch, who literally wrote the book on Cistercian monks in medieval Ireland. What a treat!

Chris holding the book Dr. Lynch wrote - available for sale on site at Jerpoint Abbey

A stop at Jerpoint is sure-fire win: learn about Cistercian monks, ogle the fine stonework, and climb up a flight to gain a bird’s eye view of the abbey and surrounding grounds. Delightful.

Location: South of Kilkenny city, County Kilkenny; GPS: 52.5104, -7.15808
Hours: Visit OPW’s Heritage Ireland site for seasonal hours
Cost: €4 per adult; free with OPW Heritage Card

Kilfane Church

Kilfane Church is lesser known but we thought it would be an easy find. Not so fast. The church comes up readily in Google maps, and yet we pulled up to an intact ~19th century church, not the 14th century ruin we were expecting. What’s the deal?

The Kilfane Church sign is misleading; it points to the more modern church. To find the church ruin and The Long Man, go through the gate to Chris's left and walk just 50 feet or so.

Thank goodness for mobile wifi; a bit of hunting revealed we were in the right place, but we were looking in the wrong direction. Silly us! To find the ruin, we had to walk exactly opposite the signpost, through the black gate and along a wooded path. Within a few short steps, the ruin appeared.

I was of course enthralled to see the impressive 8-foot statue of a medieval knight, dubbed The Long Man; this 14th century Cantwell effigy is the reason we came and he did not disappoint.  Once again, Ireland bewilders. This statue has been described as the finest of its type in Ireland and yet he stands unprotected in a quiet copse of trees by the side of the road.  The fact that he still stands unmolested seems a powerful testament of respect for the past, afforded by natives and visitors alike.  Each time I visit an ancient site like this I am humbled and touched to have such a personal encounter with history.

The Long Man in Kilfane Church. Note the opening beside him; that's how you get to the climbing tower!

As with most church ruins, there are plenty of interesting grave stones and unique architectural points to explore. Chris and I were wandering quietly, each in our own little world, when I realized that Chris had disappeared. He finally called to me…from about 40 feet up!! Woo-hooo! None of the articles I read pointed out that you can climb the attached castellated tower. Bonus!

Chris in the tower stairwell at Kilfane Church. Note that the stairs spiral the wrong way!

View from the top of the Kilfane Church tower

This is exactly why I love hunting for off-the-beaten-track piles of old rocks. You never know know what you’ll stumble across.

The Kilfane Church information placard, provided on-site by OPW

Location: South of Kilkenny city, County Kilkenny; GPS: 52.55506, -7.1185
Hours: Access is not controlled; visit whenever you like
Cost: Free

Have more time to explore the area?  Pop over to Kells to see Mullins Mill, Kells Priory, and the Kilree monastic site.