Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint
The story of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, has captured the imagination of Irish around the world for many centuries. Considered the founder of Christianity in Ireland, he is credited with many miraculous feats, such as expelling Ireland’s snakes and banishing its pagan gods.
Saint Patrick’s story is a captivating blend of history and legend, tales and myths of the beloved saint are scattered throughout the Irish countryside. In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, we wanted to trace the steps of Ireland’s patron saint and explore his legacy across Ireland.
Who was Saint Patrick?
Patrick was born in the 5th century on the western fringes of the Roman Empire in either present-day Scotland or Wales. He was born into a wealthy family and experienced the comforts and freedoms of a privileged upbringing.
However, at the age of 16, Patrick’s life was irrevocably changed when he was kidnapped by pirates and sold into a life of slavery in Ireland. Though only across the Irish Sea, Ireland was seen as a perilous land inhabited by hostile pagans. Beyond the limits of the Roman world, the young Patrick would have found himself at the ends of the earth.
A Chieftain, named Milchu, bought Patrick and sent the young man to tend sheep on the slopes of Mount Slemish. Alone in the wilds of Antrim with only his flock for company, Patrick spent six years in isolation. In his youth, Patrick had not been a devout adherent of Christianity; yet, it was during this time of loneliness and seclusion that Patrick became reacquainted with God.
One day, Patrick heard a voice encouraging him to escape from Ireland. To escape captivity meant punishment of death, but when Patrick heard the voice say “behold your ship awaits you”, he left the mountainside, making the treacherous journey to the coast.
Miraculously, Patrick found a ship willing to take him across the Irish Sea. Patrick returned to Britain and was reunited with his family who, after six years, believed him to be dead. His time in Ireland, however, had left a mark on him and Patrick was deeply affected by his newfound spirituality.
Patrick joined the priesthood and after years of hard work and dedication, he was elevated to the rank of Bishop. Though Ireland had been the place of his captivity, the land and its people were never far from his thoughts. He petitioned his superiors to be sent to Ireland as a missionary and he returned there in 432 AD.
Return To Ireland
Returning to a pagan land hostile to outsiders was a dangerous undertaking, but six years of captivity had imbued Patrick with knowledge of Ireland’s customs and language and he was able to succeed where other missionaries had failed before.
Patrick devoted the rest of his life to his Irish mission; baptising thousands of converts, he succeeded in establishing the Christian Church in Ireland. Wherever he travelled, Patrick left his mark on the landscape, leaving a legacy of stories and legends associated with his wanderings. Join us as we trace St. Patrick’s footsteps throughout the Irish countryside.
Tracing The Steps Of St. Patrick
Slemish Mountain, County Antrim
As mentioned above, Slemish Mountain was Patrick’s home for six years while he was enslaved in Ireland. The plug of an extinct volcano, the mountain rises 437 metres above the surrounding landscape. Isolated on the mountainside with only his flocks of sheep for company, it is said that Patrick found God and was encouraged to escape from his captors.
Today, the mountain is strongly associated with Saint Patrick. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, large crowds of pilgrims honour the Saint by making the ambitious walk to the top of the mountain.
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Tipperary’s Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most iconic sites.
Perched dramatically atop a limestone outcrop, this medieval collection of ecclesiastical buildings has a rich and ancient history. Originally the royal site of the Kings of Munster, it was given to the church in the 12th century and became an important Christian centre in medieval Ireland.
Today, the Rock has retained much of its ancient splendour and its breathtaking medieval architecture will transport you back in time.
The Rock of Cashel is also known as Saint Patrick’s Rock, and legends of Patrick have been woven into Cashel’s lore. According to legend, Patrick expelled the devil from a mountain called The Devil’s Bit. Angered by this, the devil took a bite from the mountain. Breaking his tooth, the devil spat the rock out and it landed 20 miles away, forming the Rock of Cashel.
Cashel is also reputed to be the site of Patrick’s conversion of Aengus, the King of Munster. Aengus was Ireland’s first Christian ruler marking the end of paganism in Munster.
Saint Patrick Centre, County Down
The Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, is the world’s only permanent exhibit devoted to Saint Patrick. With interactive displays and an Imax Cinema, the exhibit takes visitors through the life of Patrick, and illustrates the collection of myths and legends associated with the Saint.
A short walk from the Saint Patrick Centre is Down Cathedral. Down Cathedral is thought to be the final resting place of Saint Patrick; visitors can visit Patrick’s gravesite and memorial stone.
Croagh Patrick, County Mayo
Croagh Patrick is thought to be the most famous site associated with Saint Patrick. Rising 756 metres above Clew Bay, the mountain is an impressive sight.
During the Lenten Season, Patrick climbed the mountain to fast and pray for 40 days and 40 nights. Legend tells us that during this time, he was visited by demons and visions of pagan gods, all of whom he banished with prayer and the ringing of a bell.
Today, the mountain is known as a place of pilgrimage and every year in July, thousands of pilgrims make the 3.5-hour climb to the mountain’s summit.
Saul Church, County Down
Saul Church is the site of Patrick’s first church, established in 432 AD. The original church was a small barn given to Patrick by a local chieftain and recent Christian convert. After decades of devoting his life to his Irish Mission, it is said that Patrick died here in 461 on the day of March 17th.
The present Saul Church (also known as St. Patrick’s Memorial Church) was erected in 1933 to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of Patrick’s arrival. The stone chapel is reputedly built on the spot where Patrick gave his first sermon in Ireland.
How To Get There
Rock of Cashel Directions:
167 km (103 miles) from Dublin.
- From Dublin take M50 in South Dublin from R148 (10.5 km).
- Continue on M50 to R110.
- Take exit 9 from M50 (4.1 km).
- Continue to Kildare (20.8 km).
- Follow M7 and M8 to South Tipperary.
- Take exit 7 from M8 (127 km). Take R639 (3.8 km).
Saint Patrick Centre Directions:
35km (22 miles) from Belfast.
- From Belfast City Centre take Chichester St, Montgomery St and Hamilton St to Cromac St/A24 (0.4 mi).
- Take East Bridge St to B506 (0.5 mi). Turn right onto B506 (1.7 mi).
- Take A7 to New Bridge St in Downpatrick (19.0 mi).
- Take Church St to Market St/A25
Saul Church Directions:
37km (23 miles) from Belfast.
- From Belfast take Chichester St, Montgomery St and Hamilton St to Cromac St/A24 (0.4 mi).
- Take East Bridge St to B506 (0.5 mi). Turn right onto B506 (1.7 mi).
- Take A7 to Finnebrogue Rd in County Down (17.4 mi). Follow Finnebrogue Rd, Quoile Rd and Mearne Rd to Saul Rd (2.8 mi).