Ireland // Down and Armagh //

On the trail of St Patrick

About four miles west of Inch Abbey (take the B2 to Annacloy and then the first turning on the left), Loughinisland is probably the most worthwhile of all the sites in the area associated with St Patrick, and indeed one of the most idyllic spots in County Down. It comprises a reed-fringed lake contained by ten or so little drumlin hills, one of which forms an island in the lake. Here, across a short causeway, are the ruins of three small churches, set next door to each other. The smallest one, MacCartan’s Chapel (1636), has an entrance door no taller than four or five feet. The larger northern church was used by both Catholics and Protestants until they quarrelled on a wet Sunday around 1720 over which camp should remain outside during the service. The Protestants left and built their church at Seaforde instead.

The next St Patrick landmark is at Saul, a couple of miles northeast of Downpatrick off the Strangford road. St Patrick is said to have landed nearby, sailing up the tiny River Slaney, and it was here that he first preached, immediately converting Dichu, the lord of this territory. Dichu gave Patrick a barn as his first base and the saint frequently returned here to rest from his travelling missions – legend has it that he died here in 461. Today a memorial chapel and round tower in the Celtic Revival style, built of pristine silver-grey granite in 1932 to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the saint’s arrival, is open to visitors (9am–5pm daily). Two cross-carved stones from between the eighth and twelfth centuries still stand in the graveyard, though there’s not a trace of the medieval monastery built here by St Malachy in the twelfth century.

A short distance further south, between Saul and Raholp, St Patrick’s Shrine sits atop Slieve Patrick, a tract of hillside much like a slalom ski-slope, with the Stations of the Cross marking a pathway up. This huge Mourne-granite statue, clad at the base with bronze panels depicting Patrick’s life, was erected in the same year as Saul church. The summit is no more than a twenty-minute climb and offers a commanding view of the county, a vista of the endless little bumps of this drumlin-filled territory.

At Raholp is the ruined church of St Tassach, named after the bishop from whom the dying Patrick received the sacrament. Patrick gave Raholp to Tassach as a reward for crafting a case for Christ’s crozier, the Bachall Isú, one of Ireland’s chief relics until its destruction in 1538. The ruins here were mainly restored in 1915 from the rubble that lay around, but their material is thought to date from the eleventh century. If you’re eager for the complete St Patrick experience, it’s a mile from the car park of the Slaney Inn (which serves superb bar meals) in Raholp to the spot on the lough shore where he is believed to have first landed: head towards Strangford, then left down Myra Road; cross the main Strangford road and turn left at the first fork; at the bottom of the hill, take the track on the right to the shore.

The easiest way to find the last St Patrick site, Struell Wells, is to return to Downpatrick. Take the Ardglass road southeast, turn left just past the hospital, then right down a narrow track into a secluded rock-faced valley and you’ll come to the wells. The waters here, believed to be the wells referred to in early accounts of Patrick’s mission, have been attributed with healing powers for centuries. In 1744 Walter Harris described the scene: “Vast throngs of rich and poor resort on Midsummer Eve and the Friday before Lammas, some in the hopes of obtaining health, and others to perform penance.” The site contains a couple of wells, one for drinking and another known as the eye well whose waters are supposed to have curative powers, and men’s and women’s bathhouses. Mass is still said here on midsummer night, and people bring containers to carry the water home with them.

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