A ST Patrick’s Day visit to Ireland may conjure up images of groups dressed as leprechauns rolling around Temple Bar drinking pints of Guinness from plastic tumblers and making an exhibition of themselves, but if you want to visit Ireland and remember our iconic patron saint there is another way.
By a happy coincidence—or perhaps by design, if St Patrick’s himself was a fan of Ireland’s famed scenic beauty—the major sites associated with the life and death of St Patrick are also among some of Ireland’s most enchanting.
The story of St Patrick in Ireland begins in the hills of Antrim, at Slemish Mountain. It was to here St Patrick was brought in slavery following his capture and put to work tending sheep on the exposed slopes. In the wind and the rain he turned to God and following his escape to Europe after six years as a shepherd, he later returned to convert his former master.
From Slemish you can look out on the view St Patrick would have seen, the Antrim Hills, the Bann Valley, the Irish coast and in the distance the shores of Scotland. Many make the steep walk to the summit each St Patrick’s Day, but there are climbers throughout the year taking this trail in the footsteps of St Patrick and you could do worse than take in the striking vista, which is your reward for the taxing—but mercifully short—climb to the summit.
The saint’s final escape from slavery saw him turn his back on Sleamish, but called back to Ireland in a dream he quickly set about converting the pagans—winning many thousands of converts. One in particular was so enamoured by Patrick that he offered him the use of a barn for preaching and services, and some 1500 years later, in 1932, another church—Saul Church—was built on this site.
It may take a powerful imagination to conjure up an image of the original 432AD structure, but nevertheless history flows through this site and— as the site where St Patrick lived until his death—it is an important part of any tour of the sites associated with St Patrick. The County Down church features a replica round tower, with a large statue of St Patrick stands on nearby Slieve Patrick.
Dip into Donegal
Also in Ulster lies Lough Derg, which hosts St Patrick’s Purgatory—which has stood the test of time as the last of Europe’s medieval purgatories, a site of pilgrimage for many centuries. Here the legend of St Patrick continues. It was at Lough Derg that the entrance of Hell was said to be revealed to St Patrick inside a cave, while the lough was turned red with the blood of the last snake in Ireland after it was hunted to Donegal by St Patrick.
The trip to Donegal doesn’t only take you to the heart of St Patrick’s life story, it also leads you into the famous hills of Donegal and displays Ireland’s natural beauty.
Make tracks for Meath
Heading south you set your sights on the Hill of Tara in Meath, where St Patrick found some resistance to his preaching. The pagans in this part of Ireland were not so welcoming, but during a pagan feast being celebrated by the druids St Patrick chose to defy the High King of Ireland—who, legend says, was convinced by the unquenchable paschal fire lit by Patrick on the neighbouring Hill of Slane in opposition to the Bealtaine Fire burning at Tara.
This act of insubordination was sufficient to grab the attention of the pagans and it was here that St Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the teaching of the Holy Trinity, winning yet more faithful followers.
Take a turn off to Tipperary
Like the Hill of Slane, another important Irish heritage site associated with St Patrick is The Rock of Cashel, and a trip into Munster on the track of Ireland’s patron takes you to the grassy hill where Patrick baptised King Aenghus. It may not all have gone smoothly—Patrick accidentally stabbed the king in the foot with his crozier as he baptised him—but it nevertheless marked the end of paganism and brought in the Christian age of Ireland. In the crumbling ruins of the Cathedral you can see the 12th century St Patrick’s Cross and the image of a bishop said to be St Patrick himself.
In this corner of Ireland there is another miraculous legend of St Patrick. The nearby St Patrick’s Well in Clonmel was where Patrick baptised locals, and is said never to freeze in winter. How true this one is we will leave to the weathermen, but the enduring story is yet another sign of the impact St Patrick had on the people here.
Map a course for Mayo
Similar to the Rock of Cashel, there have been many churches built which are linked to St Patrick, like Down Cathedral and the two St Patrick’s Cathedrals in Armagh—one Catholic, one Anglican.
The most common location for those seeking out the saint, however, surely remains Croagh Patrick in County Mayo (above). Thousands climb the Reek—as it is known—each July on the last Sunday of the month, hoping to attain the summit where St Patrick fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Many still do so barefooted, scrambling over the scree on what is a gruelling climb for those who remain well-shod.
In this corner of Mayo, clinging to Ireland’s western shores, you can test yourself in pursuit of Patrick, but in case it all stops feeling like a holiday, fear not. Campbell’s Bar at the foot of the Reek is always there for the pilgrim for the post-climb ritual pint of Guinness and seat at the fire.
St Patrick might not have nipped in there to give it his saintly seal of approval, but many thousands of those tracing his footsteps have since. You wouldn’t be the first person to come for the saint but stay for the stout.