Downpatrick – the home of St Patrick
As St Patrick’s Day approaches, it’s a moment to remember the beautiful and historic area in County Down where St Patrick arrived as a missionary to the Irish. It is thought that he arrived in about 432, and he lived out the rest of his long life converting thousands of people to Christianity.
Although the details of Patrick’s life are patchy, his own writings and late 7th century sources tell us that Patrick was a Romano-British boy of 16 taken to be a slave in Ireland. He later escaped, perhaps to Gaul, became a deacon and responded to his calling to return to convert the Irish.
Upon returning to Ireland he was brought before the local leader, Díchu, who he rapidly won over. Díchu gave him a barn, a sabhall, as his first church – this place is now known as Saul, where Patrick probably died. The date commonly thought to be the date of his death, 17 March, is the day we now celebrate as St Patrick’s Day.
Today it is still possible to explore the magical places associated with Patrick and learn all about the man and his legacy in and around the town of Downpatrick. Although Patrick’s barn does not survive at Saul, it is possible to find an early cross slab, a wall of the medieval abbey, a small building pointed out to pilgrims as St Patrick’s house in the 17th century, and a delightful little church built in 1933 to celebrate Patrick’s arrival there 1500 years ago.
Only a mile away are the famous Struell Wells, known from the 8th century as the place where Patrick prayed, and where he may have baptised as well. This unique and picturesque set of wells and bathhouses, fed by subterranean streams, includes medieval and 17th century buildings and an unfinished 18th century church, and was frequented by thousands of pilgrims and people seeking cures.
The story goes that Patrick died at Saul, after seeing an angel in a burning bush. His body was placed on a cart pulled by oxen, and where the oxen stopped, Patrick was buried. They stopped on the summit of Dún Lethglaise, the ancient fort on the Hill of Down in Downpatrick. Today you can see the traditional site of Patrick’s grave there, marked in 1900 with a large granite boulder inscribed with a cross and the name ‘Patric’.
Close by is Down Cathedral, a medieval abbey church restored from the 1790s and now welcoming visitors from all over the world. Although the round tower of the early medieval monastery has gone, the early 10th century high cross has been conserved and moved to the nearby Down County Museum on the Mall, a treasure house of local archaeology and history, located in the old Georgian gaol buildings of 1796. After the high cross was removed to a purpose-built Museum extension in 2013 from its position outside the east end of the Cathedral since 1897, an exact replica made from the same type of Mourne granite, from the slopes of Slieve Donard – the highest mountain in Ulster – was put in its place at Easter 2014.
The Museum also displays 3000-year-old gold bracelets found on the Hill of Down, on loan from National Museums Northern Ireland, and the 17th century silver shrine of St Patrick’s Jaw, on loan from the Diocese of Down and Connor, in addition to discoveries from all the digs on the Hill of Down. From the windows of the new Cathedral View Tearoom, you can see Down Cathedral, Inch Abbey and the ancient Mound of Down fort.
Below the Cathedral is the St Patrick Centre – the only Centre in the world dedicated to the story of the Patron Saint of Ireland. Here you can find out more about St Patrick through a special exhibition and films, enjoy the café and find out more about places to go at the Visitor Information Centre. On special days you can take a train to Inch Abbey from the nearby Downpatrick and County Down Railway and visit the new Carriage Gallery as well.
For anyone with an interest in St Patrick and Irish history, what better place to visit than Downpatrick, the place that became the home of our patron saint.
Find Down County Museum on Facebook and www.downcountymuseum.com for forthcoming events