We have just a few facts about the life of St Patrick, which come from his own writings. He was born in Roman Britain, where his father was a deacon. When he was about 16, he was captured and taken as a slave to Ireland. He went back to Britain, but summoned by a vision, he returned as a missionary.
The rest is legend, mostly written down between AD 600 and 900. Patrick is said to have returned to Ireland in AD 432. Stories link him to many parts of the island, including a cluster of sites on the southern shore of Strangford Lough, Co Down.
In those days, it was easier to travel by boat than overland. Patrick is said to have sailed into Strangford Lough, landing at the mouth of a small river, the Slaney. Today, it is accessible via a footpath signposted as ‘Saint Patrick’s Way’.
Here, Patrick met the chieftain, Dichu, who became his first convert. Dichu gave Patrick a barn two miles away at Saul, sabhall meaning ‘barn’ in Irish. This became Patrick’s first church.
The hill above the village of Saul is an ancient religious site. Its early Christian monastery was burnt by the Vikings. It was later replaced by a medieval abbey, but plundered by Edward Bruce. A Church of Ireland church was built in 1932 to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of Patrick’s arrival.
The church’s design echoes its early Christian heritage. Its interior is barn-like, with rough granite walls and a dark wooden roof, while its spire is shaped like a round tower. It contains a display of St Patrick’s links to the area.
The church is surrounded by hillocky grass with small white gravestones. Early Christian carved slabs from the graveyard are now in Down County Museum in Downpatrick. The graveyard also contains a tiny church-shaped building, which archaeologists describe as a ‘mortuary house’ for a revered burial, possibly dating from the eleventh or twelfth century. The founders of Ireland’s early churches were often proclaimed as saints, and their bones exhumed and placed in such buildings. Patrick may have died at Saul, and one archaeologist speculates that the mortuary house was constructed to hold his bones.
As Patrick neared death, he received the sacrament from Bishop Tassach, whose church was at Raholp, two miles east of Saul. Raholp is near two raths, or defended farmsteads, and its Irish name, Ráth Cholpa, means ‘fort of the steer or heifer’. The ruins of a small church still stand in a field. It probably dates from the tenth or eleventh century and was restored in 1915 by the antiquarian, Francis Joseph Bigger.
Despite some claims that St Patrick is buried at Saul, tradition puts his grave beside Downpatrick Cathedral. In 1900, Bigger placed a granite boulder here, inscribed with a cross and the name PATRIC.
Between Saul and Raholp is Slieve Patrick. Sliabh means ‘mountain’ in Irish and it was previously known as Slievewilliam. Its owner presented the mountain to the Catholic Church on the 1932 anniversary of Patrick’s arrival. An ornamental gate leads to a broad uphill path. A large procession takes place here on ‘Saul Sunday’, the second Sunday of every June. Near the top is a grotto and calvary, whilst a statue of Patrick gazes across Downpatrick and the lough from the summit.
In a secluded valley south of Saul is Struell Wells, from the Irish An tSruthail, meaning ‘the stream’. A ruined church stands enclosed by a stone wall. Two holy wells are protected by stone huts, filled by an underground stream called the Slán, meaning ‘health’. The stream then gushes out into two bathhouses, one for men and one for women.
The wells were believed to have healing properties, and were almost certainly venerated in Celtic times. Patrick is said to have blessed the wells, and a rock above is known as his chair. The wells became a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages. The Eye Well is said to cure eye problems, and the Drinking Well was once known as the Tub. St Patrick was believed to have spent a night in this well, naked and singing psalms and spiritual songs.
Nendrum and Inch Abbey
The beautiful monastic site of Nendrum, near Comber, is an island reached by causeways. It is associated with Patrick through its founder, St Mochaoi. According to legend, Patrick saw Mochaoi, ‘a tender youth herding swine’, and baptised him.
Beside the River Quoile, west of Downpatrick, are the ruins of Inch Abbey. John de Courcy founded this Cistercian abbey, on the site of an earlier monastery, around 1180. A monk named Jocelin was commissioned by de Courcy to write a new version of Patrick’s life, suitable for readers of Norman French.
The most picturesque route to Downpatrick from Belfast is the A22 via Comber. At Downpatrick, take the A25, then follow the signs to Saul and Raholp. Struell Wells is east of Downpatrick, signposted from the Ardglass road. Alternatively, take the scenic route from Saul. Nendrum is southeast of Comber, signposted off the A22. Inch Abbey is signposted off the A7, close to Downpatrick.
St Patrick’s Memorial Church, Saul, is open daily with Sunday service.
Raholp Church, Struell Wells, Nendrum Monastery and Inch Abbey are cared for by the Environment and Heritage Service.
The St Patrick Centre, Downpatrick, has an interactive exhibition about St Patrick, restaurant and other facilities. Tel +44 (0) 28 4461 9000.
Delamont Country Park, Killyleagh, runs boat trips on Strangford Lough. Tel +44 (0) 28 4482 8333.
The National Trust also runs occasional historical boat trips on Strangford Lough. Contact Strangford Wildlife Centre on Tel +44 (0) 28 4488 1411 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names (1999) by Patrick McKay; Patrick: The Archaeology of a Saint (1993) by Cormac Bourke; The Living Legend of Saint Patrick (1989) by Alannah Hopkin; ‘St Patrick in County Down’ (1987) by Ann Hamlin, leaflet published by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland.
© Liz Curtis 2004.