On the 17th of March each year Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is celebrated in Ireland and many other countries around the world. In fact, Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival globally. The day originally was a commemoration of Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, but it has grown into a celebration of all things Irish, particularly Ireland’s heritage, culture and the millions of Irish diasporas who are scattered around the globe.
You may be surprised to hear that Saint Patrick was born in Britain. When he was young, he was captured by Irish pirates and was sold as a slave in Ireland. While in captivity in Ireland, he was put to work as a shepherd. During this time, he grew to know the Irish people and learned the Irish language. After six years, he escaped and returned home. Years later, Patrick travelled to Paris where he studied and became a cleric. He then returned to Ireland and set about converting the Irish people to Christianity. As part of his teachings, he used the shamrock to explain the concept of the holy trinity, each leaf representing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This tradition was handed down through Irish generations and the shamrock is now synonymous with Irish identity. People wear it every year on Saint Patrick’s Day.
There are multiple locations across the island of Ireland that are associated with Saint Patrick. Here is a small selection of some of these places.
Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo
Croagh Patrick Mountain is located about 5 miles outside Westport. The mountain has a distinctive conical shape and scree covered slopes that sparkle under the sun which allows it to dominate the skyline of the Clew Bay area. Here, Patrick climbed to the summit of the mountain where he fasted for the forty days of Lent. This gave rise to the name of the mountain – Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Each year in July thousands of pilgrims’ flock to the mountain and climb it honour the Saint. Some even climb the mountain barefoot.
You can feel the energy of the place when you stand beneath the mountain. Our 8-Day Explorer Tour visits here on the route into Westport, and our guests get the opportunity to experience the place first-hand.
Lough Derg, Co. Donegal
Lough Derg is a lake in Co Donegal. On the lake there is a small island where Saint Patrick went to pray and reflect during his time in Ireland. Because of this, it is known as Saint Patrick’s Purgatory and it has been a site of uninterrupted pilgrimage for over 1500 years. The pilgrimage takes place over three days on the Island. It is a programme of prayer, fasting, walking bare-footed and undertaking a 24-hour Vigil.
“Without shoes and sleep and with little food, pilgrims are confronted with the essential aspects of life, an experience which can enable them to discover their hidden strengths and rediscover what really matters in life. Many people find that their pilgrimage to Lough Derg helps them to deal better with life’s ordinary struggles”.
My father has completed the pilgrimage many times, and I have completed it myself on a few occasions. Each time I completed the pilgrimage was a different experience. It was always worth-while, but some were more challenging than others. You are given a ‘Lough Derg’ cup when you join the pilgrimage, which you use to enjoy the Lough Derg soup (hot water with a dash of pepper!) When I hiked the Appalachian trail in 2013, I took my Lough Derg cup with me. Perhaps as a little inspiration to help me through the challenging times on the trail.
The priest who oversees the island on Lough Derg completed the pilgrimage in 2020 to continue the 1500 years of uninterrupted ritual.
Downpatrick Head, Co. Mayo
Downpatrick Head is a spectacular headland in county Mayo with fantastic views out onto the Atlantic. Here, Saint Patrick founded a church. The ruins of which you can still see today alongside a statue of Saint Patrick. Translated as the broken fort, Dun Briste is a sea stack close to the edge of the cliffs, which is 63 metres by 23 metres wide, 45 metres high and 228 metres from shore. In 1393, it was separated from the coast as a result of high seas and violent stormy weather. Old annals say people who lived there were taken off using ships ropes. ‘Dun Briste’ is best viewed from Downpatrick Head.
Dun Briste is associated with the conflict between Saint Patrick and the pagan chieftain or pagan God named Crom Dubh, who refused to convert to Christianity and attempted to throw Patrick into his everlasting fire. Patrick picked up a stone from the ground and scratched a cross on it, then he threw the stone into the fire. The fire collapsed into the sea forming a blowhole known as Poll a Sean Tine, meaning ‘the hole of the ancient fire’ Crom Dubh retreated into his fortress on the top of the cliff, but Patrick struck the ground with his crozier, the stack and his fort were separated from the mainland, leaving Crom Dubh isolated on the stack and devoured by midges.
Folklore & Legends of Ireland
Like many other cultures, the legends and folklore tales of ancient Ireland have been passed down through the generations through story telling. This has been a great way to keep traditions alive. In the centuries after Saint Patrick, Monasteries flourished and Ireland became the stronghold of Christianity in Europe. After the decline of Christianity in Europe, missionaries from Ireland helped bring Christianity back to the people. It was also in these monasteries that many of the old folklore tales and legends were first written down. The endings of the tales were sometimes changed, by the Monks who wrote them down, to have the hero of the tale meet Saint Patrick, where Patrick converted them to Christianity. One of my favourites of these tales is the tale of Oisín, his love for Niamh and their journey together to the land of Tír na nÓg, a magical land of eternal youth. It goes something like this.
Many years ago, in Ireland, there lived a great noble warrior of untold strength named Oisín, son of the epic hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill. One day while out hunting with his father’s tribe the Fianna, Oisín came across the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The woman introduced herself as Niamh, the daughter of the King of Tír na nÓg. As their eyes met they instantly fell in love, but Niamh was bound to return to Tír na nÓg.
Unable to bear leaving her beloved Oisín, she invited him to come back with her. Oisín pleaded with his father to allow him go with Niamh. Fionn granted him permission under the condition he never forgot his own people and that he would return. He left his family and fellow warriors behind, and crossed over the sea with Niamh to the realm of Tír na nÓg. In Tír na nÓg he received all of the gifts it was famous for, everlasting beauty, health, and of course, the ultimate happiness with his new love.
As time passed, he began to miss the family he left behind. Overtime he couldn’t bear the loneliness for his homeland, for his friends and for his family any longer. Niamh gave him her horse so he could travel back to Ireland to see them. She warned him that he could not touch the ground, or he would become mortal again, and would never be able to return to Tír na nÓg.
Oisín travelled across the water to his former home. As he travelled through the land, he discovered that everyone he had once known was gone and the land had changed beyond recognition. Riding through the countryside, he came across three men who were trying to move a large boulder. As Oisín was of unmeasurable strength he knew he could help them. Knowing that he could not touch the ground he leaned to the side gripping the horses reins tightly and pushed the boulder. The three men looked on in amazement as this lone man moved the boulder that the three of them could not. As he did this, the straps securing the saddle of the horse couldn’t take the pressure and snapped. Oisín fell to the ground and he instantly transformed into an old man.
The three men took Oisín to a cave to rest. They brought a holy man to pray over him. This holy man was Saint Patrick. Oisín told Saint Patrick all of the old stories and legends while Saint Patrick told Oisín of Christianity. Through Oisíns and Patricks conversation they discovered that 300 years had passed since Oisin had left Ireland; although to Oisín it seemed only like 30 years. Oisín, grew weaker and weaker. Before he passed, Saint Patrick baptised Oisín.
Should you visit Ireland today and travel along the world-famous Ring of Kerry, you will come to a small seaside village called Glenbeigh. An ocean break out to sea causes waves to crash, these waves are known as Oisín and Niamh. Inland from here in a remote and rugged area, through it runs a scenic road, called Ballach Oisín, which translates as ‘the way of Oisín’. Eventhough the tale may sound fanciful, the couple still live in the landscape and memory of Ireland. Should you wish to walk in the footsteps of Oisín, both my 5-Day Hiker Tour and the 6-Day Adventurer Tour travel through this area.