Templemartin graveyard & St. Martin of Tours

Text and photos by Pat Shortall

If a history teacher in any county in Ireland other than Kilkenny were to ask, “Where is Templemartin Graveyard?”, how many pupils might raise their hands to respond with the correct answer? The natural conclusion would be to suggest that the percentage would be extremely low. But, should the same question be put to pupils within Kilkenny, a more positive show of hands would surely be expected, perhaps there may even be one or two who would click fingers in eagerness to proclaim publicly whatever knowledge they had accumulated.

Templemartin is approximately three miles from Kilkenny city. The graveyard adjoins the ruins of the ancient monastic church on a site a little over a quarter of an acre in size. Its most prominent feature is the arched Romanesque Doorway, which is still in relatively good condition. Gravestones are scattered haphazardly and randomly throughout. It is impossible to estimate the number of burials that actually took place there, as often, just a wooden cross was the only symbol afforded to mark a grave. These would erode with the passing of time, thus, over the centuries, it is easy to understand how a little burial space would be forgotten. The remains of a 13th century baptismal font can still seen at the old church The holy well of St. Martin is reputed to lie in what is locally known as Mrs. Quirke’s bog a short distance north of the old church. The last burial took place there in 1991; it was that of local lady, Helena (Lena) Lennon. The first headstone mention of her deceased relatives dates to 1929. Representatives from the local community, with the assistance of Kilkenny Co. Council, regularly complete the necessary tasks for the upkeep of the site.

The patron Saint of Templemartin (Thomple – Waurthan) was St. Martin of Tours, the Roman army officer who became the third Bishop of Tours. St. Martin is famously associated with at least one very generous deed. One day on his journey to battle, he saw a poor man dressed in rags during a period of freezing temperatures. He drew his sword to cut the cloak he was wearing in two and gave one-half to the suffering man. The following night he had a vision of Jesus, who appeared to him, dressed in the half cloak he had given to the poor man he had encountered the previous day. The feast of St. Martin of Tours occurs on 11th November. Recognising the importance of the Saint and his feast day, fairs and other business transactions took place at Templemartin crossroads on the 10th and the 23rd of November each year until about 1860.

Leafing through the pages of Volume 3 of Canon William Carrigan’s, History and Antiquities of Ossory is probably the best place to commence research on the area. Here the Canon informs the reader that, “The parish of Templemartin, or as it is called on the Ordnance Map, St. Martin’s. It comprises the townlands of Highrath, Lavistown, Lyrath (part of) Rathbourne and Templemartin, in all 782 statute acres. The church can scarcely be later than the 13th century. It consisted of nave and chancel; within the nave there are two uninscribed coffin-shaped slabs, with incised crosses, also a fragment of a baptismal or holy water font.”

There is evidence to suggest that the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell, during his conquest of Ireland was responsible for an attack on Templemartin church. As a result, all that remains is the sad scarred spectacle of what once was a quaint country church and monastic burial ground. That onslaught most likely occurred during the late spring of 1650. Kilkenny being the Confederate capital at the time, it was a prime objective for Cromwell’s campaign of slaughter and terror, but the city as we know from history, was not his only target. However, the local inhabitants from then to the present day did not forget the sacredness of the church grounds. Tombs and burial plots were erected and constructed after the devastation, within and between the original walls of the church building.

In November 1970, Mrs. Madge Buggy on behalf of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, carried out an extensive survey of the tombstones and their inscriptions. Many well-known Kilkenny family names were included in her findings. Representatives of families such as Walton, Ryan, Nolan, Long, Kavanagh, Phelan and Loughman. Indeed, on a recent visit, I learned of many more familiar city and county names, which are still in existence today.

The well-respected Wheeler Cuffe family boasts a very fine preserved memorial set in the wall in the chancel. It can be clearly seen over another ornate monument. This concerns the memory of the Shortall family, who had connections with Clara Castle. As with other stone uprights, it survived Cromwell’s rampage, as it is dated 23rd December 1562. There is also the following heart rendering inscription on a tablet set into the wall on the right side body of the church. “In loving memory of Mrs. Mary Long (nee Nolan) who died on the 20th May 1920 aged 51 years, also five children who died young”.

On 13th August 2019, the first mass for at least 300 years was celebrated with appropriate sincerity beside the dominant yew tree opposite the church ruin. People from neighbouring parishes and the local community gathered to honour in prayer, the memory of those who constructed the church on the holy grounds and those who attended mass and the sacraments on the site for so many years. An order of devout monks from Tours, France, in the 11th century, are understood to be the first religious to inhabit the area. They too, were mentioned in a special blessing by Fr Willie Purcell, parish priest at Clara. During this special mass, he paid tribute to all who preserved the faith during the by-gone age. He recognised the difficulties presented to them at the time and this celebration was also held in their memory.

Part of the celebration on that damp August evening, was the promise that the holy sacrament of the mass would join the list of graveyard masses in the parish each year. Unfortunately, covid 19 and its corona virus arrived as a serious health risk soon after, thus, shelving all immediate plans for gatherings in 2020. However, in a small way, the pre-pandemic vow of 2019 was not ignored. As once again, on 11th November 2021, parish priest of Clara, Fr. Willie Purcell performed a sacred blessing at Templemartin’s church and graveyard, to honour once more the feast of St. Martin of Tours.

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