Down Cathedral and St Patrick's gravesite, Northern Ireland

Ireland's Christianity and St Patrick

This story begins about 432 AD, the year St Patrick is believed to have returned to Ireland to begin his missionary work of converting the pagan Irish to Christianity. Over the next few centuries, monasteries and monastic cities were built throughout Ireland for monks who wanted permanent communion with God.

Across the Emerald Isle, you'll find monasteries and abbeys (places of teaching & worship that were like small villages usually enclosed by stone walls), high or Celtic crosses (these 9th century crosses
depict stories from the Old and New Testament that would have been used to educate early Christians), round towers (built to be seen from afar or even to see afar, these were beacons for those seeking refuge, safety and prayer; over 70 remain standing today), holy wells, cathedrals and churches.

Below are some of the most important Christian sites to visit today.
Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael

Built on a steep-sided, double-peaked rock seven miles off the coast, the monastery on Skellig Michael illustrates the extremes of early Christian devotion and discipline. Monks occupied the island from possibly the 6th century through the 13th century, building narrow stone terraces some 500 feet above the sea for their beehive huts, oratories and gardens with channels and cisterns to capture rainwater

......In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey is seen climbing the steps toward the top where she finally tracks down the exiled Luke Skywalker

......landing here is probably Ireland's "hottest ticket"

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael

Glendalough

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Glendalough
Glendalough
Glendalough
Glendalough

Glendalough is home to one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland. This early Christian settlement was founded by St Kevin in the 6th century and from this developed the "Monastic City". St Kevin lived there as a hermit in isolation; however, his fame and holiness attracted so many followers that it was necessary to construct a monastic city to house them.

Set in a glaciated valley with two lakes, the monastic remains include a superb round tower, stone churches and decorated crosses. Most of the buildings that survive today date from the 10th through 12th centuries.

The Glendalough monastic city, framed by the beautiful Wicklow Mountains, is a must stop on any Ireland itinerary. 

Clonmacnoise

Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise
Clonmacnoise

This great monastery was founded on the banks of the River Shannon in 544 by St Ciarán (supposedly born Ciarán Mac an tSaeir) who studied under St Finian at the famous Clonard Abbey. Clonmacnoise (which means Meadow of the Sons of Nós) is home to three high crosses, a cathedral, seven churches and two round towers. By the 9th century, it was Ireland's most famous monastery along with Clonard, and visited by scholars from all over Europe. Clonmacnoise's early wooden structures from the 9th century began to be replaced with more durable stone buildings. Alongside the ruined churches and round towers are three ancient high crosses - the most famous is the four-meter Cross of the Scriptures whose sandstone is skillfully carved with intricate figures on all four sides.

Clonmacnoise

Other Christian sites

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Gallarus Oratory (left photo) is the most perfect example of the boat-shaped oratories (another word for a small church) associated with the Dingle Peninsula and is the best preserved early Christian church in Ireland. These structures are shaped like an upturned boat and were built using the ancient corbeling technique (first developed by Neolithic tomb makers) where one stone is placed on top of another, always with a slight internal overlap so eventually just one stone (or in this case a line of them) finally completes the roof.

 

The actual construction timing of the Gallarus Oratory is unknown. Many archaeologists believe it to originate between the 9th and 12th centuries; however, some believe the 6th to 9th century is realistic.

The Book of Kells (right photo) is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book, written in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was most likely created, around the year 800 AD, in a Columban monastery on Iona (an island off the coast of Scotland) or one in the town of Kells, Ireland. It is widely regarded as Ireland's finest national treasure. The Book of Kells is on display most of the year in Dublin's Trinity College. Two other books of significance at the college are the Book of Armagh (a 9th century Irish illuminated manuscript written mainly in Latin) and the Book of Durrow (a medieval illuminated manuscript gospel book created between 650 and 700 AD. These two books are not on display; however, they can be found on Trinity College's website.

Book of Kells
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The Ardagh Chalice (left photo) dates from the 8th century and is one of the greatest treasures of the early Irish church. It's part of a hoard of objects found in the 19th century by a young man digging for potatoes near Ardagh, County Limerick. It was used for dispensing Eucharistic wine during the celebration of Mass. The form of the chalice recalls late Roman tableware but the method of construction is Irish.

You can view the chalice in the National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology on Kildare Street in Dublin. The museum has FREE admission.

Following St Patrick .........

Overall, a lot is unknown about Saint Patrick such as dates of birth, death, missionary work in Ireland and his whereabouts. Most of what is known about Patrick comes from two writings that are attributed to him - the Declaration (Confessio in Latin) and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Epistola in Latin). It is believed he was born somewhere on the west coast of Britain. At the age of 16, Patrick was taken captive by pagan raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. Later, he escaped, got on a boat and eventually returned to Britain. He returned to Ireland many years later (around 432 AD) with companions as a missionary. He spoke in Irish as he preached, baptized and ordained extensively. Saint Patrick was instrumental in turning mostly pagan Ireland into a Christian-believing land.

A great starting point for following St Patrick is the Saint Patrick Centre located in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. This is the only permanent exhibition in the world about Ireland's Patron Saint. Explore Patrick's life and legacy in the award-winning interactive galleries and IMAX experience. Nearby is the 82 km-long St Patrick's Way - a sign-posted walk that connects key sites relating to Saint Patrick and Christian Heritage that start at the Navan Centre in Armagh and takes you through some of Northern Ireland's most spectacular scenic landscapes before ending at Saint Patrick's final resting place in the grounds of Down Cathedral.

Where to find St Patrick 

Croagh Patrick

Saul Church - it is claimed that Patrick founded his first church in a barn at Saul which was donated to him by a local chieftain called Dichu. It's also claimed that Patrick died at Saul or was brought there between his death and burial. Two miles outside Downpatrick, the church in the photo was built in 1932 to commemorate Saint Patrick's first church in Ireland. Close by, on the crest of Slieve Patrick is a huge statue of the saint. Pay a visit to Struell Wells, blessed by Saint Patrick when he first arrived in Downpatrick. These wells are said to have healing powers and thousands of visitors come every year.

Saul Church (Downpatrick)

Saul Church near Downpatrick, Northern Ireland

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The Rock of Cashel originated, according to local legend, in the Devil's Bit (a mountain 20 miles north of Cashel) when Saint Patrick banished satan from a cave resulting in the rock's landing in Cashel.

This location is reputed to be where Saint Patrick baptized Aenghus, the King of Munster accidentally stabbing him in the foot with a crozier in the process. The baptism signified the end of paganism bringing with it an acceptance of Christianity across the land.

Rock of Cashel

Croagh Patrick is known as the holiest mountain in Ireland. It is claimed that Patrick climbed this mountain and fasted on its summit for the forty days of Lent. Croagh Patrick draws thousands of pilgrims who make the trek to the top on the last Sunday of July. Many make the trek barefooted in order to show their devotion. When reaching the top, hikers are rewarded with unbelievable views of the heather-covered landscape of the west of Ireland and the waters and islands of Clew Bay.

Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick

Down Cathedral
Slemish Mountain
Hill of Slane

Before Patrick's arrival, Ireland was largely a pagan land. During Bealtaine, the pagan feast celebrating the summer solstice, the high king lit a fire at his seat on the Hill of Tara. In defiance, and to celebrate Easter, Saint Patrick lit his own fire nearby on the Hill of Slane. The king's guards were immediately ordered to investigate who had started the blaze. Patrick performed one of his many miracles and cast an illusion over him and his followers to appear as a herd of deer. Making his way to the king's seat, he made his case to the king explaining the Holy Trinity using a shamrock.

Slemish Mountain is where everything began for the teenage Patrick. Brought over as a slave from Wales, Patrick spent six years tending sheep here. It was on these slopes that Patrick found consolation in prayer. You can walk the 2 km trail up to the summit of Slemish and enjoy some of the views that Patrick would have gazed on.

Hill of Slane

Slemish Mountain

Down Cathedral - it is claimed that Patrick was brought here after his death and buried in the grounds of Down Cathedral. The large rock in the foreground of the photo marks Saint Patrick's alleged grave.

Down Cathedral and St Patrick's gravesite