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In Patrick's Footsteps

Touring Ireland With an Early Christian Theme

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Dublin - St Patrick's Cathedral

Dublin - St Patrick's Cathedral

© 2006 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.
Patrick, Ireland's patron saint, is commonly known as the man who in 432 singlehandedly brought Christianity to the Irish and drove the snakes out of the Emerald Isle. While both these claims are suspect, the historical Patrick seems to have been a very successful missionary in the northern part of Ireland. A tour in his footsteps makes an interesting departure from the beaten track.

Dublin

The tour starts in Dublin, at St Patrick's Cathedral - while the current structure owes much of its appearance to the 19th century and has been erected in the 13th. Today's "National Cathedral of Ireland" however replaces a far earlier structure commemorating Patrick. The saint himself is said to have baptized converts at a "holy spring" nearby. Indeed a spring covered with a slab bearing a cross has been found during renovation work. Today it can be seen in the cathedral. Also still on view are the banners of the Knights of St Patrick, an order of chivalry instituted by the British King George III in 1783 but practically defunct since 1922.

The second place to visit in Dublin is the National Museum in Kildare Street. In the collection of medieval artifacts two have a reputed connection to Patrick. A beautiful "bell shrine" dates from around 1100 but was used as a reliquary to commemorate the saint. And a simple iron bell is on view as well. With this bell Patrick called the believers to mass - at least according to tradition, science dates the bell to the 6th or 8th century.

Statues, murals and church windows depicting Saint Patrick, more than often in unhistorical attire, abound in Dublin as they do everywhere in Ireland.

From Dublin a short drive takes you to Slane, a small village with four identical houses at the main crossroads, a castle used for rock concerts and the

Hill of Slane

This quite noticeable landscape feature was already used in prehistoric times as a place of worship or for pageants. There may be a connection to the nearby Hill of Tara, ancient seat of Ireland's High Kings.

Around Easter Patrick chose the Hill of Slane for his spectacular showdown with the heathen King Laoghaire. Just before Laoghaire could light up his traditional royal spring fire on Tara, Patrick lit his paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Two opposing fires, representing opposing belief systems, on opposing hills - if there ever was a spiritual "Mexican stand-off" this was it. Today the Hill of Slane is dominated by ruins and graves. Patrick himself is reputed to have built the first church here, later St Erc founded a monastery next to it. The ruins are of later vintage though, building and renovating works having obscured all traces of early Christianity.

From Slane you will drive right across Ireland into the West, passing Westport with its historically correct statue of Patrick and finally arriving at Clew Bay. High above the bay towers

Croagh Patrick

This is Ireland's "holy mountain" - indeed religious rituals seem to have been celebrated as early as 3000 BC on the small plateau at the top! The impressive mountain next to the sea seems to have attracted devotees at all times, prehistoric sacrifices were enacted here.

Patrick himself climbed the mountain to find peace and solitude. Spending forty days and forty nights fasting on the top, wrestling demons and desires, all for the spiritual welfare of his Irish brethren. So successful that his feat is still remembered and celebrated today. Which in turn means that peace and solitude are harder to find on Croagh Patrick today!

If you want to climb the 2,500 ft high mountain start at Murrisk. You can buy or hire stout walking sticks here (recommended) and check out the requirements for a pilgrimage. Then you'll start the climb on a steep route covered with shingle, slipping and sliding occasionally, pausing frequently to take in the views, to pray or simply to get your breath back. Unless you are on a pilgrimage only attempt the ascent if you are reasonably fit and do take water and food with you. The views from the top are spectacular - the amenities certainly are not. If you happen to visit Croagh Patrick on Garland Sunday (the last Sunday in July) you will encounter thousands of pilgrims, some attempting the climb barefooted! Watch out for stretcher teams from the Order of Malta Ambulance carrying casualties to the nearest first aid station ...

From Croagh Patrick then make your way eastwards and northwards into Donegal, heading for Lough Derg and St Patrick's Purgatory.

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