St. Patrick’s Trail

18 April 2016 Monday morning

Downpatrick (from the Irish Dún Pádraig which means Patrick’s stronghold or fort) is a town about 20 miles south of Belfast located in County Down, Northern Ireland and it is here that we began today’s journey, following in the footsteps of St. Patrick.  Downpatrick is located in the Lecale area on the northeast coast, nearly surrounded by water—Strangford Lough on the north side and the Irish Sea on the south side. Our goal today was to experience as much as we could of St. Patrick’s Trail, a 92-mile driving route that connects landmarks associated with Ireland’s patron saint. The trail begins in Armagh (which we visited Saturday) and ends in Bangor (which we did not visit), but most St. Patrick-related attractions can be found within a small geographic area in Downpatrick, so that is where we headed after breakfast this morning.


When St. Patrick arrived in Ireland, the Celts had already been on the Island for nearly a millennium. Ireland at that time consisted of a number of small kingdoms or clans, each with its own king. A single “high” king, located north of what is now Dublin, would nominally have been in charge, but there really wasn’t a centralized government at that time. The Celts were sun-worshipers and conducted elaborate solar rituals. In 55 AD, the Romans invaded England, but they left Ireland (which they called Hiburnia, or Land of Winter) alone, figuring that it wasn’t worth the trouble of conquering. This meant that Ireland was largely unaffected by the fall of the Roman empire and didn’t suffer through the Dark Ages. Quite the opposite in fact, because it was around this time that the monks began to establish monasteries that would serve as centers of education and culture such as Clonmacnoise described in an earlier post.

St. Patrick was part of this so-called age of saints and scholars, and to learn all about it, we stopped at the St. Patrick Centre in Downpatrick and met our guide, Dr. Tim Campbell.  We first viewed a video describing St. Patrick’s life before venturing out into the countryside to see the landmarks for ourselves.

St. Patrick was born around 400 AD in Britain, the son of a cleric who owned a large estate. (Yes, you read that correctly—St. Patrick was English, not Irish!) At the age of 16, he was kidnapped, brought to Ireland, and served as a shepherd’s slave. He managed to escape at the age of 22 and made his way to the coast where he was taken in by a group of sailors who took him to France. There, he studied to become a cleric, eventually becoming a bishop. In 432, he felt called to return to Ireland “the land of my childhood nightmares” to convert the Celts to Christianity.

With that brief history lesson as the backdrop for the morning’s short pilgrimage, we welcomed Dr. Campbell onto the coach and headed a few miles out of town to Saul Church. It was here that St. Patrick landed upon his return to Ireland, where he met a local chieftan named Dichu, converting him to Christianity. Dichu gave St. Patrick his barn and some land to build his first church (the name Saul comes from the word sabhall which means barn). The view from the top of Saul Church was rolling countryside and farmland, and the sea was just visible on the horizon.  Entering the church provided a brief respite from the cold and wind (but it was partly sunny and not raining!) to receive a greeting from the priest who was the church’s caretaker. The church where we were sitting was a newer church built on the site of St. Patrick’s 5th century church. From the church grounds we could see the top of Slieve Mountain and we could just barely see the large statue of St. Patrick that was erected there in the 1930’s to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s return to Ireland. It was a beautiful, peaceful setting and we spent some time snapping photographs, trying to capture the atmosphere before getting back on the coach and heading back to town.

Our next stop was the highlight of today’s tour—the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, or Down Cathedral. It is built on the Hill of Down, on the site of the ancient fort from which the town gets its name, just a few flights of steep stairs through the grove to St. Patrick’s Centre. A high cross replica (the original is in the Down Museum to protect it from the elements) stands at the front of the cathedral.  The church would have begun as a monastery that was founded after St. Patrick’s death (on 17 March), but is now a Church of Ireland church. We entered the church and sat down near the box pews and were introduced to our guide Joy, who regaled us with informative history and amusing anecdotes. We then braved the cold and the increasingly blustery winds to view St. Patrick’s grave.  Dr. Campbell told us that there were three saints buried at this site—St Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columban.  A large slab of stone covers the grave, with the word “Patric” and a cross carved into the stone (unfortunately not visible in my photo below).  Dr. Campbell told us that people emigrating from Ireland had the habit of collecting handfuls of soil from the site before they left, to remind them of home. The stone was placed on top of the resting place to discourage this practice and preserve the grave site. Joy told us a hilarious story of members of a tour group from Albany who, upon hearing this story, stopped in the gift shop to buy thimbles which they then filled with soil! Joy discovered what they were up to when they asked her for sellotape to secure the soil in the thimble!

We returned to St. Patrick’s Centre and split up into small groups, with some electing to eat at the centre’s café while Steve, Chris, Barb and I headed to Murphy’s pub. While the three of them lingered after lunch to savour their Guinness (and lament that lunchtime Guinness was a habit they would miss when they returned to the States), I took the opportunity to do a little exploring on my own.  I walked down several streets and saw the clergy widow’s houses (now private residences), Denvir’s coaching inn, and the Down arts centre. But my favorite spot was the grove, a small wooded area that occupies the hillside between St. Patrick’s Centre and Down Cathedral. Despite its small size and its proximity to the bustling town, it is surprisingly tranquil and a nice place for some quiet reflection.  I found a plaque which commemorated an occasion when John Wesley preached here. The photo below shows the view of Down cathedral from the grove.


The town of Armagh is also on the St. Patrick Trail, and we visited this site on Saturday. Referred to as the “ecclesiastical capital of Ireland since the 5th century” in one of my sources, the town of Armagh features Georgian architecture, a public library which houses a first edition copy of Gullivar’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and two cathedrals—both of them named St. Patrick’s Cathedral, one new, one old.  The older of the two, situated on Sally Hill, is a Church of Ireland cathedral with a crypt that dates to the mid-13th century. St. Patrick came to Armagh during his travels and reportedly engaged in some serious negotiations with the local chieftan to all him to build a church on this site. The church’s crypt is the final resting place of Brian Boru (whose harp is displayed in the Long Room at Trinity College as described in an earlier post), the high king who defeated the Vikings in a battle in 1014 that cost him his life. We were unfortunately unable to visit this church because the narrow drive up to the top of the hill could not accommodate our coach.

The second St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a Catholic Church and is perched on an opposite hill at the top of an enormous seven-flight staircase and offers a nice view of the city. Since the Catholics would have lost the older church during the Reformation, they built this cathedral post-emancipation in 1906. But it was built in the medieval style, so it looks much older, and it is a beautiful church.

Before we said goodbye, Jennifer thanked Dr. Campbell and expressed appreciation for his teaching and his message for teaching about the life of St. Patrick as a vehicle to “bring people together.” It was a message that he repeated several times during his presentation.  As an example, he told us that the centre’s café was staffed by adults with developmental disabilities.  Irish history is one of conflict—of culture, religion, and nation-building.  The idea that the patron saint of Ireland, who preached in this very area so many years ago could provide a message of healing and unity was inspirational.  And with these thoughts and others, we boarded the coach and headed for Dublin.


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