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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Ireland features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

12 dreamy pictures of Ireland

12 dreamy pictures of Ireland

With its remote beauty, rugged landscapes and windswept coastlines, Ireland is a photographer's dream. Here, Philip Joyce shares some of his best pictures of…

23 Aug 2016 • Philip Joyce insert_drive_file Article
8 great alternative UK city breaks

8 great alternative UK city breaks

London, Edinburgh, Cardiff… These are the usual suspects when visitors are thinking about UK city breaks. But there are actually 66 other cities to be explore…

15 Aug 2016 • Greg Dickinson insert_drive_file Article
6 of the best road trips in the UK

6 of the best road trips in the UK

There is something about a road trip that creates an endless state of heightened excitement. It comes with a heart-in-mouth, funfair-like thrill. And no matter …

21 Jun 2016 • Mike MacEacheran insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month