St Patrick: A Legend in the Landscape

For the second year in a row, Ireland was without its annual St Patrick’s Day parade, and yesterday lacked the costumes, floats and crowds of Patrick’s Days past. In Irish tradition, however, the celebration of St Patrick is not limited to March 17th, and stories of his many feats, journeys and teachings survive, both in literary and oral tradition. He is also associated with the landscape of Ireland, and many sites bear his name, from Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo to the numerous holy wells around the country that are named in his honour. These sites of pilgrimage preserve the legend of Ireland’s patron saint and celebrate him as a figure of both local and national significance.

On a national level, two older customs have survived as part of the celebration of the saint on March 17th: the wearing of emblems and ‘drowning the shamrock’. The emblem of a cross was often worn in honour of the saint, though this has died out in favour of rosettes and the wearing of the shamrock. The shamrock has gained international fame as a universal symbol of St Patrick and yet there exists no single plant called the ‘shamrock’, as it is a term applied to several kinds of plants that have a three-leafed structure. It seems that the Irish term ‘seamair óg’ describes a young form of clover, and this was anglicised into the word we use today. The trefoil-shaped plant also appears in another custom that is practised on St Patrick’s Day. If the pota Phádraig or St Patrick’s pot was the term used to describe a drink taken on St Patrick’s Day, ‘drowning the shamrock’ was the custom in which the emblem was taken from the coat and put into the last glass of drink for that evening. When the glass was finished, the shamrock would be taken out and thrown over the left shoulder. St Patrick’s day is also a welcome day of celebration and merriment, as the feast day is seen as a day off from the rigours of the Lenten period.

Two famous landmarks of pilgrimage also honour the saint, yet neither of these pilgrimages occur around the month of March but in the summer months of June, July and August. The first of these is Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, which was already an established place of pilgrimage by the 12th century. A text from this time describes how the knight Owain spent the night in a cave on the island for his sins, while Giraldus Cambrensis also describes Lough Derg as a place of pilgrimage around this time. The caves on the island were said to hold the entrance to Purgatory, and pilgrims would endure a night in these caverns as penitence. Lough Derg is also said to have been one of the sites where St Patrick banished a monster into a lake. An account collected in Co. Galway in 1935 describes how St Patrick spent two days in combat with a serpent who would rise up from the lake to kill people passing by. Eventually, St Patrick finds a mole on the serpent’s side and draws blood, killing the monster. The informant explains that half the lake has been red ever since, while the other half is clear. In other accounts, it is the Fianna who banish the monster into the lake.

The second place of pilgrimage is also still popular today, as pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick or ‘The Reek’ in Co. Mayo on the last Sunday of July, or ‘Reek Sunday’. The first known account of St Patrick’s retreat on the mountain is given in Tírechán’s biography of St Patrick, one of the two earliest accounts of the saint’s life, dating from the 7th century. It describes how Patrick stayed on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, and that the birds there were so numerous that they were a nuisance to him. From Bethu Phátraic, another work about the saint’s life, written between 896 and 901, we learn that St Patrick stayed at the top of Croagh Patrick for the duration of Lent, and when he was surrounded by demonic black birds at the end of this period, he banished them by ringing his bell. A text from The Schools’ Collection describes St Patrick pondering over the fact that there was no bell in the nearby area, and therefore he uses pots to make the same sound and banish the devil tormenting him. In Bethu Phátraic, St Patrick refuses to leave the mountain until God agrees to give him the right to judge all the Irish on the Last Day. In an oral version of this story collected in Co. Mayo, St Patrick also asks for this boon in return for leaving the top of Croagh Patrick to go to Ulster.

The annual pilgrimage to the top of Croagh Patrick is one of the many instances of hilltop gatherings that occurred around this time of year. Traditionally, the older festival of Lúnasa was celebrated on the first of August with outdoor excursions to hilltops, lakes and rivers. Rather than staying rigidly attached to the first of the month, as the other quarter-day celebrations have done, the festival of Lúnasa has attached itself to the last Sunday in July, or in some cases, the first Sunday in August. As August brings the busy harvest period, it makes sense for this day of celebration to migrate to a Sunday, so that no time is lost. As a result of this change, the name ‘Lúnasa’ was not commonly used for this festival, but other terms such as Garland Sunday, Bilberry Sunday and Hill Sunday were used to describe the celebration.

The festival is also called Domhnach Chrom Dubh/Crom Dubh’s Sunday in Irish and an account from Carna, Co. Galway, explains that it is a day in celebration of the conversion of the pagan, Crom Dubh. His story tells of how Crom Dubh sent St Patrick a hindquarter of beef and Patrick thanked him, saying ‘Deo gratias’. Crom’s servant didn’t understand this, however, and Crom was surprised to hear that his gesture went without thanks. This happened again twice more before Crom summoned Patrick over the matter. Patrick explained that he had indeed thanked him, and to demonstrate this, he wrote the words ‘Deo gratias’ three times, and put them on a set of scales opposite the three hindquarters of beef. The paper far outweighed the beef, and on seeing this, Crom Dubh asked St Patrick to baptise himself and his family. A story similar to this is described in Muirchú’s Life of Patrick, the other early biography of St Patrick written in the 7th century. Here, the pagan Dáire refused to give Patrick land to build a monastery. Like Crom, Dáire eventually concedes, giving Patrick the land at Droim Saileach, which eventually became Patrick’s famous centre in Armagh.

In folk tradition, St Patrick is not just associated with these large, important sites, but has local significance in many places around the country. Holy wells are named after him, and many accounts attribute their creation to the saint himself, a phenomenon not only told about St Patrick but about many saints in the Irish tradition. One account from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal states that Patrick was angered by people who sent away children who had come to be blessed so he struck the ground with his heel and a well sprang up in that spot. Another account tells of how Patrick created a well as a cure for a blind man. St Patrick also left the print of his foot in Skerries, Co. Dublin, and an account from Kilbannon, Co. Galway explains how the saint stopped there to pray on his way to Croagh Patrick, and left the print of his knees on one of the rocks by the well. As in the case of the blind man, wells attributed to St Patrick can also contain cures, and they become sites of pilgrimage in their own right, as visitors do rounds by walking around the well and saying a certain number of prayers, as in Patrickswell, Grange, Co. Limerick.

As an account from the Schools’ Collection states: ‘On the Kells road there is a bush known as the Rag Bush from the fact that rags are always hung on the bush as the doing of this is supposed to bring luck. This is a Mass bush and under the bush is a flat stone where St Patrick is supposed to have knelt leaving on it the print of his knees and the prints of some of his fingers.’

The celebration of St Patrick in the Irish tradition is one that permeates the landscape and the sites dedicated to him preserve a local connection to the saint and ensure his celebration for years to come. However you spent yesterday’s festival, be it virtually at home or out at a local holy well, guímid beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ort agus ar do mhuintir / we wish you and yours a happy St Patrick’s Day.

  • This post was researched and written by Ailbe van der Heide.

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