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St Patrick. Did he exist? Well that’s all irrelevant nowadays. He’s Irelands Patron Saint and so he is here to stay and probably has the world’s most global celebration after New Year’s Eve and Christmas. So when he was here, where did he go?
Well by all accounts he was British, born in the 5th Century possibly Ravenglass in Cumbria, England. He was captured by Irish pirates and held as a slave for six years here before escaping and eventually returning as a Christen Missionary priest.
This is our first port of call. St Patrick while a slave for Milchu worked as a shepherd on Slemish Mountain in County Antrim. This is about 10km east as the crow flies from Ballymena town. It was on this rocky extinct volcano that he is believed to have found God as prayer was his only outlet for loneliness. The mountain is open all year round and takes about an hour to get to the summit with an annual pilgrimage every March 17th.
Another Hill associated with the Saint is the Hill of Slane. Legend has it that atop this hill the returning missionary lit a bonfire in defiance of the High King of Ireland in 433 AD. Strategically the Hill of Slane can be seen from the former seat of Irish power, the Hill of Tara about 16 kilometres away. Way back when, Ireland was a pagan Island and the High King Laoire decreed that no other fires could be burned while there was a festive fire on Tara. As it happened there was a festive fire on Tara. Impressed with Patrick’s tenacity, the King allowed him to continue his missionary work. The hill of Slane stands at 158m just outside Slane village.
The theme of hills does continue. Out West, West of Westport town is Craogh Patrick. This epic hill formed during the last ice age is one of two St Patrick pilgrims that we shall discuss. Patrick fasted for the 40days and nights of lent here and a church marks this holy spot at the summit. And it is a summit. This pilgrim trail is not for the faint hearted. The conical scree covered peak hits a hefty 764m but rewards the brave of panoramic views of Connemara and Westport harbour on a clear day. The last Sunday in July is a date for your diary, Reek Sunday. This is the annual pilgrimage to the summit in which the hard core will go barefoot. This tradition can be traced back to the pagan festival of Lughnasadh that marked the start of the harvest season.
Converting an entire Island solo however is no mean feat. We know now that he did it but back in the day he struggled to convince everyone. Patrick asked for help from God to prove he was true to his word. God showed him a pit in the ground called Purgatory on Station Island in Lough Derg claiming if the people saw this then the heaven and hell angle would make a little more sense. This pit or cave was supposedly at Lough Derg (The red lake, named so because Patrick killed a snake here before banishing them) which has been an unbroken pilgrimage now for fifthteen hundred years. Yes that’s 1500 years. The pilgrimage involves three days of fasting, Friday to Monday, on Station Island. Note this Lough Derg is in Donegal and not to be mistaken with the one on the County Clare and County Tipperary Border.
Rumour has it that his first church in Ireland was based out of a barn in Saul, County Down. The exact site is long forgotten but it was here that Saint Patrick returned to spend his last days. His funeral was somewhat unconventional and thankfully now an abandoned practice. Bishop Tassach of Raholp placed his body on a cart with two wild oxen pulling it and announced wherever they stopped would be the Saints final resting place and a church was to be built in his honour. After much meandering they stopped in Downpatrick at the site Down Cathedral now stands. Again the exact burial spot is long forgotten but a memorial stone carved from Mourne mountains granite is on display.
No evidence has ever been found that St Patrick at any point held a parade with floats and marching bands….yet.