No saint gets a party going like Patrick. March 17, 2017, is chilly and damp in Dublin, but up to half a million spectators have shown up for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. The crowd, sprinkled with green wigs and leprechaun hats, are treated to a stream of marching bands and performers, fancifully outfitted floats, and of course, the man himself. Clad in bishop’s robes — and wearing sunglasses — Patrick pauses to jovially greet spectators. Then he strides forward, one hand flung out with dramatic flair.
Being at the center of an international holiday is just part of Patrick’s legacy. Behind the larger-than-life parade figure was a historical person who united much of Ireland in Christianity. A visit to St. Patrick’s Country in the heart of Northern Ireland, where Patrick spent much of his time, offers glimpses into the life of the slave-turned-missionary — and reveals how, centuries later, he’s still a spiritually unifying force.
Sinner and slave
Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, a service is held at Down Cathedral in the town of Downpatrick. At its close, worshippers process to the graveyard and gather around a thick slab of horizontal granite to lay a ceremonial wreath of flowers. The rock bears simply a cross and a name: Patrick.
St. Patrick’s Grave is a reminder that the saint was a real person — albeit an elusive one. We don’t know for sure what his birth name was (he may have taken the name Patrick when he became a priest) or where he was born (likely somewhere in Roman Britain, though Brittany has also been suggested). Many of the tales associated with him are absent from his own account of his life.
“It’s very difficult to drill down to the original version of the story,” says Roddy Hegarty, director of the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library & Archive in the city of Armagh. He gave a talk on Patrick for the Home of Saint Patrick Festival Armagh & Down. “Unless someone invents a time machine to take us back to the time of Patrick, we’re not going to get it.”
The next best thing is Downpatrick’s Saint Patrick Centre, the world’s only permanent exhibition dedicated to the saint. With the help of audio narration by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds (Frozen, Harry Potter), sculptural tableaus, interactive displays and children’s games, videos (including some of actors portraying Patrick’s adventures), and artifacts such as coins from Patrick’s time, visitors explore highlights from the saint’s life and legacy.
They learn about his early years as a rather indifferent Christian in the late fourth century; his capture by pirates as a teenager; and his six years of enslavement in Ireland, during which he developed a deep prayer life while tending livestock for a local chieftain; and his Providence-directed escape from Ireland by boat. They discover how he returned to Ireland as an ordained missionary to support the small Christian population and spread the faith, and how he succeeded in converting pagan chiefs and their people, establishing churches and monasteries throughout the land. They also explore legends connected with the saint and watch interviews with academics commenting on his legacy. An IMAX film offers sweeping views of sites in Ireland associated with Patrick.
The exhibition helps visitors like Dorothy Conlon better understand who Patrick was. “We’ve seen different pieces of his life on TV,” and this visit is “connecting the dots,” says Conlon, who lives in Scotland.
The sky above the Mound of Down at Navan Fort, sacred to the ancient Celts of Ireland, is turning from ebony to blue. Drums beat inside Navan Centre, a living history site and ecology center built at the location: Musicians are performing pre-Christian tunes for a crowd of spectators. Men and women dressed in rough-hewn Celtic garments and bearing blazing torches then lead the crowd out into the night to await the dawn.
The sunrise ceremony at Navan Centre & Fort is part of the Home of Saint Patrick Festival of counties Armagh and Down. Navan gives visitors a glimpse into the pagan culture that Patrick, first as a slave and later as a missionary, came to know. They can discover Celtic legends, visit the site of a former Iron Age temple, and learn from costumed performers how to make finger pottery, cook in a fire pit, and make enemies tremble with their warrior’s roar.
Patrick is believed to have chosen the city of Armagh as his ecclesiastical center because it was close to Navan Fort. Once the home of Irish kings and queens, Navan was inhabited by powerful chieftains in Patrick’s day. If he could convert them, the people would follow.
“Patrick was very skillful in the way he introduced Christianity,” embracing some pre-Christian ceremonies and using Celtic beliefs to help explain Christian ones, says Damien Houlahan, a Navan guide. The legend about Patrick using the shamrock to teach the Trinity is an example, he says: some of the Celtic deities were worshipped as three-in-one.
Crows caw above the Quoile River in Downpatrick. Along its banks, gray stone ruins sprawl, an impressive gothic sight against the cloudy sky. Outdoor displays help visitors understand what life was like at Inch Abbey when it was a thriving 12th-century Cistercian monastery. The site is also where one of the best-known stories about Patrick — in which he casts out snakes from Ireland — may have been written.
The truth about Patrick blurred with legend, or took on symbolic meaning, in the centuries after his death. The snake story is a good example. There is no fossil record of snakes having existed in the country; scholars think the creatures (which in Christianity symbolize pagan practices and evil) are representative of the non-Christian influences Patrick drove out. Miracle tales also helped Patrick compete with Celtic heroes like Cú Chulainn, a half-god who could fight armies single-handedly.
“The hagiographers of the time were competing with all these [pagan] myths and legends, so they had to spice it up a bit,” says Marian Dixon, a guide at the Saint Patrick Centre.
Whether Patrick really did heal a king with the Sign of the Cross or best a Druid in working miracles isn’t that important. His critical success was uniting Ireland in Christianity — an achievement that’s still relevant today.
Agent of peace
On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, the cathedrals of Armagh, located about 50 miles from Downpatrick, are lit in green in honor of the saint. On this night they celebrate the St. Patrick’s Vigil, symbolizing both the harmony between their churches and Patrick’s journey to unite the Irish through Christianity.
The city is known for its cider, 18th- century architecture, and an annual Georgian festival, but it’s also Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital. The Church of Ireland Cathedral is built on the site of St. Patrick’s first stone church, and its Roman Catholic counterpart commands a hill where, according to legend, St. Patrick predicted that a great church would one day stand.
During the vigil, after the archbishop of the Church of Ireland offers the closing prayer in his cathedral, the faithful walk to the Catholic cathedral. They carry small lanterns, golden blooms of light in the darkness. After being greeted by the Roman Catholic archbishop, the Catholic and Protestant crowd mingles over refreshments.
Such demonstrations of unity are needed as Ireland heals from the Troubles, which pitted Catholics and Protestants against each other in a violent struggle over whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom. Patrick is a “cross-community figure, a figure of reconciliation,” says Dixon. Events like the vigil also give Christians a chance to celebrate their faith in an increasingly secular world. Nearly 1 in 10 residents of the Republic of Ireland identify as having no religion, while weekly Mass attendance in Dublin’s archdiocese is projected to drop by one-third by 2030.
Even the parade-and-party culture, while hardly encompassing St. Patrick’s legacy, can have a “gelling effect” on people who might otherwise be divided, says Hegarty. “All of that, I think, is part of the evolution of St. Patrick. He was an ordinary person, but look what he created.”
CELEBRATING ST. PATRICK’S DAY IN IRELAND
St. Patrick’s Day festivals are held all over the Emerald Isle. These two are among the best-known:
St. Patrick’s Festival (March 15–19, 2018): Dublin’s annual celebration is packed with funfairs, Irish dancing, a St. Patrick’s-themed walking tour (WalkingTours.ie), and, of course, the parade (StPatricksFestival.ie).
Local sites of religious interest to explore include the National Museum of Ireland-Archaeology, whose treasures — aside from remarkably preserved bodies found in Ireland’s bogs — include reliquaries associated with St. Patrick and St. Brigid (Museum.ie/archaeology); the Chester Beatty Library, which houses some of the earliest copies of the Gospels (CBL.ie); and Trinity College Dublin, with its Hogwarts-worthy library and its exhibition on the Book of Kells, a ninth-century copy of the Gospels decorated in jaw-dropping detail (TCD.ie/library/old-library).
Home of Saint Patrick Festival: In 2017 this festival involved three weeks of events across counties Armagh and Down, including a reenactment of the return of St. Patrick to Ireland by boat, a manuscript illumination workshop, a tour of the countryside exploring legends associated with St. Patrick, and a carnival procession (VisitArmagh.com/festivals/st-patricks).
While in the area, explore sites connected with Patrick found on Saint Patrick’s Trail (DiscoverNorthernIreland.com/about-northern-ireland/saint-patrick/saint-patricks-trail) and Saint Patrick’s Way, along which you can collect stamps for a special pilgrim’s passport (search “Saint Patrick’s Way” at DiscoverNorthernIreland.com). Treat yourself to Irish country hospitality at the five-star Blackwell House in Scarva (BlackwellHouse.co.uk). Between the delectable homemade food and the relaxing ambiance, you won’t want to leave.
Discover more festivals at Ireland.com (search “St. Patrick’s Day”).
Editor’s Note: Julie Butters traveled to Ireland courtesy of Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland.
The following videos give you a sense of the beauty of Ireland:
A dramatic sunrise ceremony at Navan Fort is one of the opening events of the Home of Saint Patrick Festival Armagh & Down. Video by the Home of Saint Patrick Festival Armagh & Down
Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland worshippers join in the St. Patrick’s Vigil in Armagh. Video by the Home of Saint Patrick Festival Armagh & Down
Performers re-enacted the return of St. Patrick to Ireland as part of the Home of Saint Patrick Festival Armagh & Down in 2017. Accompanying activities included boat trips on the Quoile River, living-history demonstrations, and crafts for children.