THE STORY OF ST. PATRICK

Patrick was almost certainly born before the end of the Roman rule in Britain (400AD), probably in the southwest of England (though the north, Wales and Scotland have all made claims!). Various biographers suggest his given name was Sochet but all that is known for sure is that he refers to himself as Patricius, a Roman name of which Patrick is the Anglicized version.

Calpornious, Patrick’s father, was a deacon who was involved in tax raising so Patrick’s childhood, growing up in a large Roman Villa, would have been very comfortable. In his confession, Patrick wrote ‘according to the World’s reckoning, I was a gentleman’.

Disaster struck at the age of 15. With the roman influence fading, raiders from Ireland were able to develop a thriving slave trade. Such a raiding group took Patrick back to Ireland where he was forced to work as a shepherd. It is believed he lived and worked on he slopes of the imposing Slemish Mountain in County Antrim.

After six years, Patrick dreamed of a message from an angel called Victoricus, who urged him to escape his master. Patrick traveled nearly 200 miles – probably to Waterford – where he completed his escape back to England. Back home, he trained as a priest and within a decade had become a Bishop.

Then he had another vision of Victoricus - this time carrying letters. One of these, titled ‘the voice of the Irish’ begged him to come to Ireland (although whether he went of his own accord or was sent by the church is unclear).

Patrick probably landed in Ireland in 432AD. It was at the spot where the Slaney River flows into Strangford Lough in County Down. Patrick was politically astute and charismatic and knew the importance of having influential friends. His first conversion was Dichu, the local chieftain and brother of the High King of Ulster. In a barn donated by Dichu, Patrick preached his first sermon in Ireland. Today, on this site at Saul (Sabhal, pronounced Saul, is the Irish for barn) stands a much-visited stone replica (built in 1936) of an early church with a round tower.

How far Patrick traveled in Ireland and how many souls he converted can only be guessed at. In his confession, he claims to have baptized many thousands. But Ulster was the real base of his work. Especially the area around Downpatrick and Armagh.

It is difficult to be precise about the exact year of his death although March 17 is given as the date. It was most probably between 460AD and 490AD. The legend of Saint Patrick grew quickly after his death. In 688AD the Book of Armagh placed that city at the center of the growing cult of Patrick and he was elevated to the status of national apostle, interceding in heaven on behalf of the Irish. The Book of Armagh directed all monasteries and churches in Ireland to honor his memory on March 17. 1607 marked the day marked on the Irish legal calendar. Now it is officially Saint Patrick’s Day.

St Patrick Historical Sites

Nowhere is more closely associated with the Apostle of Ireland than Downpatrick, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Lecale. Here in the leafy graveyard of Down Cathedral, with the Mountains of Mourne as a backdrop, lie the mortal remains of St Patrick.

A large simple granite slab marks the grave where he takes his eternal rest alongside Ireland’s other two patron saints, Brigid and Colmcille, reputedly buried here as well. It would be fair to say that rival claims for St Patrick’s last resting place do exist - bones of contention as it were. Apart from claiming Patrick’s grave, Down Cathedral has had a history for which the word ‘chequered’ barely does justice. Destroyed by an earthquake, pillaged by the Danes, burnt by the Scots, destroyed again by the English, it then lay in ruins for the best part of 200 years.

Today it is hard to imagine a more peaceful place, with its views across the river Quoile to the ancient Cistercian Abbey of Inch. About a mile northeast of Downpatrick, at the mouth of the Slaney River (now called Fiddler’s Burn), is the village of Saul where St. Patrick began his mission to Ireland circa AD 432, and where he died.

The word “Saul” has no biblical connotations - it derives from the Irish word “sabhal” meaning barn. The barn in question was St. Patrick’s first church, and put at his disposal by the local chieftain Dichu, one of Patrick’s earliest converts. A small church was built on the site, but like the cathedral up the road the building did not have a happy history. It was burned by the Danes, rebuilt by St. Malachy, sacked by Magnus O’Eochadha, King of Ulster, and burnt to the ground again in 1316 by Edward Bruce. St. Patrick’s funeral procession was said to have begun from the church. According to legend two white oxen pulled his coffin n to his last resting place in Downpatrick.

A short distance along from Saul, near the village of Raholph, is St. Patrick’s hill (415 feet) atop of which stands an impressive statue of the saint. The views from the summit are superb, on a clear day extending to the north over Strangford Lough, and across to the heights of Slieve Donard. Just beyond Raholp is the ruin of a church associated with St. Tassach who is thought to have ministered the last communion to the dying St. Patrick on March 17, sometime between 460 and 490 AD. The Struell Wells, also within easy reach of Downpatrick, have a traditional association with Patrick too - he is said to have bathed here and sang psalms as he did so! A place of pilgrimage since the Middle Ages, its clear waters are supposed to cure a range of afflictions. They certainly taste fresh.

When St. Patrick arrived in Armagh in approximately 445 AD a king known as Daire was local ruler. He allowed Patrick to make his Cathedral on the hill of Rath Daire, and soon Armagh established itself as the ecclesiastical center of Ireland, with scholars arriving from all over the country, and from as far afield as England and Scotland, to its famous school of learning. Mount Slemish in the center of County Antrim is some 50 miles north of Downpatrick, and it was here that the captive Patrick herded sheep and pigs for Milchu, a local chieftain.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg in County Donegal, derives its name from a vision Patrick is supposed to have had, accounts of which are said to have influenced Dante as he composed The Divine Comedy. It’s been a pilgrimage site for centuries, famed throughout Europe in medieval times. An original monastic settlement here was attributed to St. Patrick. The original Purgatory was destroyed in 1497 on the orders of Pope Alexander VI. To this day pilgrims come to do penance and find spiritual renewal. Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, as the name suggests, also has associations with Ireland’s patron saint. Even in pre-Christian times it was a sacred place, the site of an annual festival in honor of the Celtic pagan god Lug. St. Patrick is said to have spent 40 days and nights here communing with God. The Christian Church certainly found it an advantage to convert it into a place of pilgrimage. On the last Sunday in July, known locally as Garland Sunday, pilgrims even today climb “The Reek”. They are rewarded with exhaustion, a spiritual uplift and some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth.