A Lenten fast and time of prayer was at the centre of St Patrick’s life – and we can walk in his footsteps today, and learn from his example. Faith Today reports.
If Lent has a physical presence in our corner of Europe, a mountain in County Mayo in western Ireland would surely be that place. Croagh Patrick, which overlooks the Atlantic, is the mountain scaled by St Patrick in 441 AD, and legend has it that Ireland’s patron saint spent the 40 days of Lent there, deep in meditation, fasting and praying.
He survived, so the story goes, on faith alone: and it’s a faith that’s indelibly written in the paths up the mountain to this day, paths worn smooth by the centuries of people who have followed in his footsteps. Each year as many as one million pilgrims and visitors make the trek to pray at the stations of the cross at the top of the mountain; some of them even climb as St Patrick is believed to have done – barefoot.
But Patrick wasn’t responsible for making this place a sacred site: that happened even earlier in history. Before the first Christians arrived here, the Celts regarded the mountain as the dwelling place of the deity Crom Dubh. It was also the focus of the harvest festival of Lughnasa, and was also an important place for women hoping to become mothers – they would sleep on the summit during Lughnasa, which took place in August, to encourage their fertility.
Croagh Patrick is the epicentre of Ireland’s homage to its most renowned religious figure, but long before he was a saint praying on an inhospitable mountain, he was a slave boy. His tale begins properly on another hilltop, the Slemish Mountain in County Antrim. Today the area is cloaked in a soft veil of russet and green, picturesque to the hilt; but it was a very different place to Patrick when he began his odyssey here at the age of 16. Whisked away from his family and home – experts differ as to whether he was originally from Scotland or Wales – he was taken to Ireland and bonded into slavery as a shepherd for a man named Milchu.
Alone and afraid on that mountainside, Patrick often turned to prayer. He also dreamed of an angel called Victoricus who urged him to escape back to Britain. And six years after he arrived, he did just that: he left his master, walked to the sea, and got a boat to England where he was able to rejoin his family and become first a priest and then a bishop.
What happened next is completely surprising, because you’d think the last thing he’d ever have done would have been to return to Ireland. Yet in the year 432 that’s exactly what he did, going back to the place where he had been enslaved and had known such great hardship. He had heard the voice of Victoricus again, and this time it had urged him to go to Ireland to preach the gospel: and that is what he did. As a result, the country was converted to Christianity: and what was remarkable about Patrick, and remains modern to this day, is that he respected the native Celtic traditions of the country. So it was precisely because Croagh Patrick was already a sacred place that Patrick climbed it; and in doing so, he Christianised it.
St Patrick toured Ireland for 30 years, telling everyone he met the story of Jesus. When he died in 461, the Irish mourned him as one of their own. The date of his death was the date of his feast day, March 17; according to legend, his body was placed on a cart and where the donkey and cart stopped would be his final resting place. Today that place is Down Cathedral, and a massive granite stone marks the saint’s supposed grave. It’s hard not to feel the rush of history as you stand amid the lush County Down countryside, looking at the same green fields and trees he once surveyed, and where he left his mark forever.
Where to find St Patrick
The city of Downpatrick, whose name pays homage to the saint, is a perfect place to find out more about him, and the best place to start is the Saint Patrick Centre, a museum dedicated to his story. Visitors enter via a ‘time bridge’ that takes them back to the world of fifth century Ireland, with all its unpredictability and dangers.
The main exhibit at the museum centres on Patrick’s Confession, an autobiography written in about 450. The book was fundamental to Patrick’s mission, and was widely read.
The rest of the museum explores Patrick’s legacy through the centuries, detailing how he helped inspire missionaries and found monasteries, and how his influence and faith-filled story spread across the world.
Outside Downpatrick lies the village of Saul which contains many memories of Patrick including an exquisite church standing on the church where the saint preached at his first Mass. Standing on a neighbouring hill is a massive statue of the saint – from its vantage point there’s a wonderful view of the rolling countryside of County Down.
One more place well worth a visit is Struell Wells, a set of holy wells located in a serene valley two miles east of Downpatrick. The holy springs, which are sheltered by picturesque stone houses, have been associated with Patrick for centuries. According to legend, they were the first springs to be blessed by the saint, and the waters are thought to have the ability to heal both body and spirit.
St Patrick’s Day round the world
For a small country, Ireland reaches its way across the globe with the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations on March 17. This year, the saint will be remembered as far afield as Sydney, Tokyo and Japan.
*New York is the setting for the world’s biggest St Patrick’s Day parade, with more than 150,000 people expected to join the march along Fifth Avenue on March 15, the Sunday before the big day.
*Boston, original home of the Kennedys and a thousand other Irish emigrant families like them, has a proud Irish heritage and events planned for St Pat’s Day include a huge flower and garden show and festival.
*Chicago goes green at this time of the year in recognition of its Irish links: the city’s river is dyed green in honour of St Patrick. There’s also a parade and the St Patrick’s Day Queen is chosen from unmarried girls of Irish ancestry aged between 17 and 27.
*Buenos Aires has a huge parade and festival centred on the aptly-named Plaza Irlanda, which is dotted with partygoers dressed in green.
*Munich has had an annual parade for St Patrick’s Day since 1996, complete with Irish music and dance and a ‘Paddy’s Night Out’.
*London celebrates St Patrick’s Day with a huge festival in Trafalgar Square, a parade and the now-traditional sight of the London Eye lit up in green.
*Sydney has marked St Patrick’s Day since 1810, and this year will be no exception: the usual form is entertainment, music and dancing on George Street followed by a parade and Irish bands and musicians.
*Tokyo has had a St Patrick’s Day parade for 22 years, with a parade, green-clad citizens and Irish music and dance.