Dig finds medieval monk was living it up in Kilkenny 'pad'

Tue, Feb 16, 2010, 00:00

ARCHAEOLOGISTS IN Kilkenny have discovered new evidence of the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by a medieval Irish monk.

This was unearthed recently during ongoing excavations that prove at least some senior clergy feasted on roast swan, T-bone steaks and imported fine French wines. This, despite their public image as men who professed poverty and who were supposed to be devoted to “the simple life”.

A 14th-century toilet, known as a “garderobe”, was also excavated.

The archaeological dig is taking place in the grounds of Rothe House, an early 17th-century Irish merchant’s town residence and garden situated in the centre of Kilkenny city. But the excavations have uncovered evidence of a previous “town house” there which belonged to Cistercian monks.

Róisín McQuillan, manager of Rothe House, said the original dwelling was the “city pad” of the Abbot of Duiske Abbey – an important Cistercian monastery located by the river Barrow at Graiguenamanagh, some 30km (20 miles) away. The dig has confirmed that successive abbots “enjoyed the high life in the city while the rest of the monks lived a simple, ascetic existence at the abbey”.

Archaeologist Cóilín Ó Drisceoil, who led the team, said “the garderobe was the medieval equivalent of a luxury jacks” and the significance of the “quite rare discovery” was that “it provides an important insight into how a medieval abbot lived”.

Bones discovered showed the abbot would have “eaten roast swan and the best cuts of beef – including T-bone steaks”. The senior monk would have drunk French wine – then a symbol of real wealth – imported from Bordeaux through New Ross port.

A garderobe was a small room built on to the outside wall of the upper floor of a medieval house. The toilet mechanism consisted of a hole in the ground surrounded by a wooden seat. Waste travelled down through a chute into a stone-built cess-pit in the garden.

Kitchen waste would also have been disposed of via the chute.

Among the finds made by the team were bones from swans and various choice cuts of beef; fragments of pottery wine jugs imported from Bordeaux; and “an intact stool” in which a fruit stone – possibly apricot – is embedded.

But the most startling discovery was a rusting belt buckle. Mr Ó Drisceoil said: “You can just imagine that moment six centuries ago – now frozen in time – when the abbot’s belt slipped into the loo and vanished”. Although the leather belt has long since rotted way, the buckle is still intact.

He explained that “the abbot’s ‘good times’ came to an end when he was booted out” and both his town house and the abbey were confiscated by the state when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in Ireland under legislation introduced in 1537.

The Kilkenny site was then acquired by the wealthy Rothe family who built a lavish residence consisting of three Elizabethan-style cut-stone houses. Rothe House has been restored and is today a major tourist heritage attraction.