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Further in Patrick's Footsteps

Touring Ireland With an Early Christian Theme


Ulster Museum (Belfast) - Shrine of St Patrick's Hand

Ulster Museum (Belfast) - Shrine of St Patrick's Hand

© 2006 Bernd Biege licensed to About.com, Inc.

Coming from Croagh Patrick you have made your way eastwards and northwards into Donegal, there arriving at

Lough Derg and St Patrick's Purgatory

The Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, written in 1184, tells us about this place. Here Patrick supposedly entered purgatory and lived to tell the (harrowing) tale. While the historical background is vague at the best, the small island in Lough Derg became a pilgrimage site in the middle ages. In 1497 the pope officially declared these pilgrimages as undesirable and Cromwell's soldiers destroyed the site. But in the 19th century interest in St Patrick's Purgatory was revived and today it is one of the most popular pilgrims sites in Ireland.

During the main season (between June and August) thousands are visiting Station Island on organized retreats. Some are only guests for a day while others undertake three days of prayer and fasting, standing in ice-cold water and sleeping only short periods. The pilgrimage is variously described as an "inspirational recharge of faith" or a "penance for sin". It certainly is not a tourist attraction per se. Visitors just curious about the history of Lough Derg will find the Lough Derg Centre in Pettigo more to their liking.

From Pettigo you'll then drive past Lower Lough Erne to the

City of Armagh - the "Cathedral City"

No other city in Ireland seems to be more dominated by religion than Armagh - one cannot throw a stone without destroying a church window! And both the Catholic Church as well as the (Anglican) Church of Ireland see Armagh as the center of Christian Ireland. Both denominations have massive cathedrals on opposing hills!

The Cathedral Church of St. Patrick (Church of Ireland) is the older and more historic of them. Legend tells us that in 445 Patrick himself built a church and founded a monastery here, elevating Armagh to "prime church of Ireland" in 447. A bishop has been resident in Armagh since Patrick's time, in 1106 the title was elevated to archbishop. High King Brian Boru is said to be buried in the cathedral grounds. Patrick's church however survived neither the Viking raiders nor the turbulent middle ages. The present cathedral was built between 1834 and 1837 - officially "restored". Built of red sandstone it incorporates older elements and has other artifacts on display inside. The visually striking stained glass windows are worth the steep climb alone.

Definitely more modern is the Cathedral Church of St. Patrick (Catholic), built on a hill a few hundred yards away and much more imposing with its ornate facade and twin towers. Begun on St Patrick's Day 1840 it was built in unconnected stages, the plans were revised halfway through and only in 1904 was the cathedral finally finished. While the exterior is splendid, the interior is simply stupefying - Italian marble, grandiose mosaics, detailed paintings and stained glass imported from Germany combined make this the most spectacular church in Ireland. Readers of "The da Vinci Code" might be thrilled as well - both the window showing the Last Supper and the statues of the Apostles above the entrance show a definitely feminine figure ...

The St Patrick's Trian, a group of museums in the city center can take you back to Patrick's story as told in his Confessio. The other parts of the Museum are well worth a visit as well, giving you a potted history of Armagh itself and a recreation of Gulliver's travels into Lilliput. The basic but good restaurant will refresh you ...

Your journey then continues to Northern Ireland's capital, the

City of Belfast

Make a point to visit the Ulster Museum next to the Botanical Gardens and the imposing Queen's University. Apart from gold salvaged from the Spanish Armada and an eclectic collection of art and artifacts, the bunker-like museum contains a shrine in the form of a lower arm and hand. This richly decorated gold case is reputed to house the actual arm and hand of Patrick. The fingers a displayed in a gesture of blessing. Maybe not a true relic but certainly impressive.

Spend some time sightseeing and shopping in Belfast and then head southeast, following the roads along Strangford Lough to Downpatrick.

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