DOWNPATRICK, 23 miles south of Belfast, is a pleasant enough place of little more than ten thousand people, and its compact size and the proximity of some rich and well-preserved historical sites make for an easy and worthwhile day’s visit. The Hill of Down, at the north of the town, was once a rise of great strategic worth, fought over long before the arrival of St Patrick made it famous. A Celtic fort of mammoth proportions was built here and was called first Arús Cealtchair, then later Dún Cealtchair. Celtchar was one of the Red Branch Knights, a friend of the then King of Ulster, Conor MacNessa, and, according to the Book of the Dun Cow, “an angry terrific hideous man with a long nose, huge ears, apple eyes, and coarse dark-grey hair”. The Dún part of the fort’s name went on to become the name of the county, as well as the town.
By the time the Norman knight John de Courcy made his mark here in the late twelfth century, a settlement was well established. Pushing north out of Leinster, and defeating Rory MacDonlevy, King of Ulster, de Courcy dispossessed the Augustinian canons who occupied the Hill of Down to establish his own Benedictine abbey. He flaunted as much pomp as he could to mark the occasion, and one of his festive tricks was to import what were supposedly the disinterred bodies of St Brigid and St Columba to join St Patrick, who was (allegedly) buried here. One of the earliest accounts of Patrick’s life asserts that he’s buried in a church near the sea; and since a later account admits that “where his bones are, no man knows”, Downpatrick’s claim seems as good as any.