But little did the Co Kilkenny farmer know just how unique when he bought the 115-acre Jerpoint Park property and its old manor, Belmore House, just outside Thomastown.
Unbeknownst to him, beneath the dense vegetation of his new property lay the 12th-century ruins of the Church of St Nicholas and the grave of the saint himself.
Joe also discovered the remnants of the medieval lost town of Newtown Jerpoint, close to the supposedly haunted Jerpoint Cistercian Abbey.
“I got the greatest fright when I discovered what I’d just purchased, hidden beneath decades of thick, deep brush and forests filled with oak, chestnut, lime, and beech trees,” said Joe. “But Maeve and I, along with our children, Nicholas and Annabelle, accepted the challenge of being special custodians.”
The O’Connell family are planning to watch with “great interest” recent news that researchers are considering using DNA genetic testing to determine if the legendary Irish grave of St Nicholas is directly linked to relics of the saint that are kept in Italy and the US.
The proposal came as Oxford University confirmed that a bone supposed to be from the fourth-century saint, and owned by a US-based priest, does, in fact, date from the correct period.
“There has never been a dig here, but nobody, so far, can prove or disprove the bones that are buried are those of St Nicholas. The ordnance survey map of 1839, of this area, highlights the tomb of the saint being here,” added Joe.
“Nowhere in the world has a history like this, I believe. This place is the best-kept secret in Ireland. Since moving here, there have been so many coincidences occurring, too. Our wedding anniversary is December 6, which, ironically, is St Nicholas Day, and our son, who was born before we moved here, is called Nicholas, who is called after his grandfather and great-grandfather.
“They say that coincidences are God’s way of staying anonymous, so I firmly believe that his remains are here.”
It is reputed that St Nicholas was born in 260AD, in Patara, a coastal town in what is now Turkey. The poor knew him throughout the land for his generosity, his love for children, and for being associated with ships, the sea and sailors.
He was eventually consecrated Bishop of Myra, just miles from his hometown. The beloved bishop died in 343AD.
Kilkenny folklore tells that the earthly remains of St Nicholas were secretly removed from Bari by returning crusader knights, who brought them back to Newtown Jerpoint for safe-keeping.
They buried those remains, with all due reverence, in the church that to this day bears the saint’s name.
The grave of St Nicholas is marked by beautifully carved grave slab, just outside the church. The tall figure of the saint dominates the carving, and flanking him on both sides are the heads of the two crusader knights who brought his remains here.
Since purchasing the property, the family have welcomed hundreds of visitors to the working farm.
“Our busiest time with visitors is from March to November, but it does get quiet around this time of the year, which is kind of ironic, but we would never turn anyone away, not even if they turned up here on Christmas Day,” added Maeve O’Connell.