This week’s dream: Touring St. Patrick’s Ireland
Though the Republic of Ireland attracts many more tourists, said Jay Jones in the Chicago Tribune, it’s Northern Ireland that “justifiably lays claim to St. Patrick.” The 5th-century missionary who brought Christianity to the Emerald Isle lived for 35 years in Antrim, Armagh, and Down, counties where, I recently discovered, his steps are easily retraced. Patricius, as he called himself, was a British Roman, and he first set foot in Ireland when he was kidnapped by pirates at 15 and made a slave. For six years, he tended sheep on Slemish, a 1,500-foot mountain north of Belfast. According to his writings, he first drew close to God on Slemish, praying almost ceaselessly, including, as he put it, “in snow and frost and rain.”
A visitor comes upon Slemish along a narrow road that cuts through farmers’ fields. The mountain rises alone from the surrounding plain, and the one-hour hike to the top, where Patrick once watched over his flock, rewards climbers with a stunning view that stretches to the North Channel and beyond. Patrick eventually escaped his captors and fled home, probably to what today is Wales. Later, a vision compelled him to return to the region to try to convert its pagans. Landing farther south, near Saul, Patrick began his work, and was given a thatched-roof barn where he held Ireland’s first Christian services. Today, a modest 85-year-old church stands at the site, alone amid fields that are ever emerald green, “even on a dull winter’s day.” Patrick returned often to this place, and died here on March 17, 461.
The Saint Patrick Centre, in nearby Downpatrick, offers a 21st-century tribute that includes an IMAX documentary and compelling displays that make use of Patrick’s own words, as read by actor Ciarán Hinds. From the center, a path leads uphill to Down Cathedral. There are other important religious sites in the region: Fifty miles to the west, Armagh is home to two archbishops, and its St. Patrick Cathedral stands where Patrick built a church in 445. Down Cathedral attracts March 17 pilgrims, though, because of a grave site in its yard. A large stone that marks the spot was long ago engraved with one word: “Patrick.”
Visit the website of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (discovernorthernireland.com) for further information on “St. Patrick’s Trail.”