It goes without saying that St. Patrick is one of the most beloved and revered of all the saints. As one of the first and most important missionaries to Ireland, he bravely traveled throughout the violent and deeply superstitious country to preach the words of the Gospel. As the patron saint of Ireland, there are churches, chapels and dedicated sites in his honor worldwide that are almost too numerous to count.
But in March, around the time of his feast, on March 17, it feels natural to conjure up thoughts of this holy figure — or better yet, to visit his adopted country. Such a trip is an opportunity to pay homage to him, while enjoying a comforting dose of Irish cossetting.
In His Own Words
Although tales abound about his life in the fifth century, most are ambiguous and shrouded in mystery as thick as the swirling mists along the rock-strewn West-Irish coast.
However, The Confession of Saint Patrick, a series of writings by the saint himself, reveals events that he documented. At the beginning, he writes: “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon who lived at Bannavem Taburnial. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time.
“At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity along with thousands of others. We deserved this because we had gone away from God and did not keep his commandments.”
This remarkable document goes on to describe the circumstances of Patrick’s life and his subsequent commitment to Ireland and the Irish people. It seems that, after his kidnapping from Roman Britain, Patrick became a slave who was assigned to tend flocks of sheep. During the time he was a lonely shepherd, he was converted to the Lord.
After six long years of confinement, he describes God appearing to him in a dream, directing him to leave Ireland immediately and telling him that his “ship awaits.” The young man then traveled 200 miles to where God told him the ship was anchored, and he was able to sail back to England and rejoin his joyful family.
Following God’s Call
However, his time in England would be short-lived, as God subsequently appeared to him and directed him to return to Ireland as an emissary of the Lord, not as a slave. After two years of preparation for this missionary task, Patrick became a priest and returned to the place of his childhood captivity. As he wrote: “Thanks be to God — after many years, the Lord gave (to the Irish people) according to their cry.”
Throughout his life in Ireland, Patrick traveled “even to the farthest districts, beyond which there lived nobody and where nobody had ever come to baptize or to ordain clergy or to confirm the people.”
He built his first church in a valley called Sesenan, and there it is said he baptized “a certain good man” and his son, Benignus. After that, the boy was so enthralled with Patrick he begged to join him in his ministry and actually clung to his foot as Patrick climbed into his chariot. According to the account, he shouted: “Suffer me to go with Patrick, my real father.”
Later, Patrick proclaimed the boy would be “Benignus, the bishop, successor of Patrick in the Church of Mach.”
Further accounts describe the trickery of Patrick’s denouncers and enemies, inevitably foiled by the power of God; and in the ensuing years of his ministry, Patrick built Christian churches in every city, where heathen kings and nobles clamored to be baptized and were often ordained. Details describe the baptism of 1,000 converts in a day, including many women. In Tirechan’s Collections Concerning St. Patrick, his faithful disciple sums up Patrick’s ministry as converting “the whole island, with its inhabitants, by the angel of the Lord — and baptized them with the baptism of God and pointed out the cross of Christ and related his resurrection.”
Visiting Holy Places
While stories abound, one of the most popular is the illustrative parable of the shamrock, which has become the national symbol of the country. Patrick cleverly used the clover to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, three Persons in one God, to nonbelievers. Today, Irishmen and women, and devotees of St. Patrick everywhere, sport shamrocks all year long, especially on March 17.
Patrick is said to be buried in Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside Sts. Brigid and Columba.
The Saint Patrick Centre (SaintPatrickCentre.com) is a modern exhibition complex located in Downpatrick, two hours north of Dublin and 40 minutes south of Belfast, in Northern Ireland. The interpretive center, featuring displays on the life of St. Patrick, is the only permanent exhibition space in the world devoted to St. Patrick and is well worth a visit.
Although St. Patrick traveled to every corner of the island, contemporary pilgrims often concentrate on a few select areas, such as Donegal in the north and the wildly beautiful west coast, where there are special pilgrimage sites dedicated to St. Patrick. Among them, Lough Derg, the sacred Sanctuary of St. Patrick, situated about four miles north of the village of Pettigo in County Donegal, has beckoned to pilgrims for more than 1,000 years.
Set on an island on a calm lake, Lough Derg (LoughDerg.org) is a peaceful and insular place dedicated to prayer and reflection. It is claimed that Patrick killed a large serpent here, and its blood turned the water red.
Visits here, including one-day retreats, begin when the weather is warmer and more stable, from May 2. Three-day pilgrimages begin on May 29 and extend until Aug. 15.
Then there is Croagh Patrick (Croagh-Patrick.com), known as the holiest mountain in Ireland (shown in Shutterstock photo), which rises more than 2,500 feet to overlook Clew Bay in County Mayo. Here, around 441, St. Patrick fasted for 40 days, and that practice has been faithfully repeated in different ways by generations of Catholics. Patrician pilgrimages in honor of St. Patrick have attracted more than 1 million pilgrims a year to Murrisk, near the charming town of Westport on the west coast. Visitors generally drive to the center to begin the two-hour climb to the summit, where Masses are celebrated in a chapel. The descent takes about one and a half hours; afterward, pilgrims can dine in a restaurant and visit a gift shop in the center.
Of Castles and Lakes
A highlight of visiting the west coast is an enjoyable stay at Dromoland Castle, the massive neo-Gothic ancestral home of the O’Brien family.
Dating from the 19th century, the gray pile of soaring towers rises above a mirror lake. Inside, its freshly renovated interiors boast deeply carved oak paneling, enormous wood-burning fireplaces, ancestral portraits, crystal chandeliers and Irish-Georgian antiques. Spacious bedrooms and suites in the main building are lovely, especially those with lake views, while accommodations in the newer wings feel more hotel-like.
No matter when you visit Ireland, the spirit of St. Patrick seems to be everywhere, from the tiniest chapel to the grandest church. Whether you worship within holy places or take a daylong walk with a storyteller over the rolling hills and heaths, through bogs and streams, you will come to know the gentle, windswept land that he loved.
St. Patrick, pray for us!
Marion Fox writes from
Planning Your Stay
Where to stay in Ireland is as varied as the landscape itself, ranging from legendary hotels like Dromoland Castle to simple B&Bs.
For information on Catholic pilgrimage sites in Ireland, see CatholicIreland.net.
If you prefer group travel, there are countless choices. Destinations-Ireland.com is a good place to start. UniTours.com offers 10-day itineraries, from July through October, and DiscoveringIreland.com offers 10-day trips to a variety of holy sites.