Updated on January 8, 2016
On the trail of Saint Patrick in Northern Ireland
Where I go in search of Ireland’s patron saint in the ancient city of Downpatrick……
As it turns out, he’s really not that hard to find, standing as he does on the top of Slieve Saul in County Down, surveying all below him in sweeping vistas across the Mourne mountains, Strangford Lough and out into the Irish Sea.
“What’s at Saul?” I idly ask no one in particular as we pass a road sign I somehow had not noticed before.
“The giant Saint Patrick statue.” Replied someone, I am guessing my husband as I appear to be laying the blame at his door for keeping this local attraction from me for so long.
He knows how much I love a statue. Especially a giant one, and as it turns out, this is the biggest statue of the patron saint of Ireland in the world.
My annoyance is tempered by the fact we don’t have any plans for the day, so it is agreed we will climb up to see him, something I am surprised to discover neither my husband or either of his parents, who have lived locally all their lives, have ever done before.
Quite how, as a regular visitor to this locality for almost 20 years, I didn’t know he was here, or had never spotted him perched atop his hill is a matter for postmorterm some other time, and says a little about the understated way this part of the country acknowledges a man who is celebrated internationally with much noise, colour, pageantry and alcohol, once a year, at least.
Standing here on the rarest of things – a warm, dry, blue-skied Northern Irish afternoon, I contemplate instead the joy of finding something new, somewhere you thought there were no fresh discoveries to be made. Especially one with a 360 degree panorama like as this.
This particular representation of Patrick, erected in 1932 to commemorate 1500 years since his return to Ireland, is a physical amalgamation of the characteristics of the then catholic and protestant bishops – a symbol of unity in recognition of the man that bought Christianity to all of Ireland, centuries before the divisions that followed.
Sitting below him on the hillside set against the vivid green of the Irish countryside is a stark white stone depiction of the crucifixion, an arresting sight as you commence the steep final few steps to the crest of the hill where Patrick stands.
My unscheduled encounter with ‘Paddy’ has inspired me to delve a little deeper into his story, and there is a lot of delving to be done in these parts. Dedicated Paddy-hunters can now follow the 92 mile St Patricks Trail which takes on 15 key sites related to his time on the island, but in the short time I have, I focus on the keys sites in and around the ancient city of Downpatrick where he lived and died – all of which can be easily navigated in a day.
The obvious place to start, for background, is the St Patrick’s Visitors Centre in the centre of Downpatrick. Built as a millennium project, this multimedia mix of text, film, art and artefacts gives a broad summary of Patricks journey from his childhood in England, his enslavement in Ireland, his escape back to the mainland and subsequent return to Ireland to spread his faith, all set against the cultural context of Ireland at the time. It includes plenty of one of my favourite features of the provincial museum – the low budget historical reenactment film – so I come away generally satisfied.
From the front of the centre, steps curve up hill taking you up to Down Cathedral, where in the small graveyard, his resting place is marked fairly unceremoniously with a simple stone bearing the word ‘Patrick’.
A short drive away in Saul, where the giant granite St Patrick keeps watch, sits the pretty and immaculately kept Saul church. It was on this site in 432, in a barn gifted by the recently converted brother of the then king, that Patrick founded the first church in Ireland. This unassuming, but atmospheric, stone church built in 1933 to commemorate the 1500 anniversary of Patrick’s arrival, replacing a simple structure that existed on the site, continues to be used as a local parish church.
There are a number of other sites nearby with connections to Patrick’s story, including the holy wells and bath houses at Struell, and St Patrick’s Roman Catholic church, but for my final stop I head to Inch Abbey.
This often photographed monastic ruin nestled in beautiful Irish countryside boasts an excellent uninterrupted view across the Quoile river back to Downpatrick where the spires of Down cathedral and St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church can both be seen.
It was here at Inch Abbey, in medieval times, that many of the myths of St Patrick were first committed to paper, including, it is said, the legend of the the banishing of the snakes from Ireland.
It is fitting then, that my journey for today, ends looking across the river at the town that bears his name, on the site where the stories of St Patrick began.