St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

So today is the feast day of St Patrick, Ireland’s national saint. It is incredible to think that celebrations in the saints name are taking place all over the world today.  This post was written by  Terry O’Hagan  blogger and archaeologist . Terry is near to completing a PhD thesis on St Patrick at the school of Archaeology at UCD and  is one of the country’s experts on the saint.  Many thanks to Terry for taking the time to write this post and share his knowledge of the saint with us.

St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

St. Patrick is a man of many faces: missionary, mascot, legend, figurehead, saint, sinner, superhero and saviour. Over the 1500 years or so since his death; successive generations have chosen to remake and remodel his life according to ever-changing concerns and  climates. Ongoing adaptation, along with the passing of the centuries, has resulted in a gradual obscuring of the historical man beneath the heavy presence of later legend. Such is the level of later additions, some modern audiences are even sometimes surprised to discover that he actually existed at all.

He most certainly did, though. We know this because he left behind two surviving documents (the Confessio; and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus) which together form the basis for all subsequent understanding and appreciation of his life and work. Later medieval and early modern accounts of him are products of their own times; and as interesting as they are, they can tell us practically nothing about the man himself. The only certainties that we have for the historical Patrick are those which can be found within his writings; the earliest documents known to have been written in Ireland.

Patrick (or Patricius, as he called himself) was born into a middle-class family somewhere in western Roman-Britain at the end of the fourth century, or perhaps early fifth century. His says that his father was a deacon and a decurion; while his grandfather was a priest. They owned a villa/estate that was large enough to have slaves. In the earliest surviving copy of his Confessio (within the Book of Armagh) his home town is given as Bannavem Taburniae. Scholarly consensus is that this is a textual corruption; and the original name is more likely to have been rendered as something like Banna Venta Burniae. No solid identification has ever been made of such a location; but most scholars would tend to agree that it was somewhere near the western coast of Britain.

Patrick seems to have led a normal, carefree life (apparently without any firm Christian belief, despite his families occupations) until the age of 16, when he was captured by slavers, transported to Ireland and sold to a man who put him to work tending animals. Contrary to later legend; there is no hint within his writings that this was Slemish, Antrim, or anywhere else in north-eastern Ireland. In fact, it was almost certainly somewhere in Co Mayo. Patrick does not expressly say what kind of animals he worked with, but he does use a term that could equally apply to cattle, or sheep. Given that he says that he was out on mountainsides in all weathers; it is likely that he would have worked with several different animals, depending on the season.

From a Romano-British perspective, Ireland was viewed as lying at the edge of the known world; a wild and dangerous place beyond civilisation. The shock of kidnapping and enslavement seems to have had a profound effect on Patrick. Amidst the extreme hardship and lifestyle, he underwent an intense and personal religious experience which he credits as helping him to survive 6 years as a slave. Towards the end of this period; he tells us that he had several dreams concerning his escape and return to his homeland. Eventually running away from his captors; he says that he travelled across the entire width of Ireland, some 200 miles, in order to reach a port. There he found passage on a ship and following initial refusal, was eventually taken on board.

The next phase of his life is hard to assess; the relevant portions of his texts are obscure in their arrangement and subject matter. When Patrick was writing them, he was doing so with motivations other than simple linear narrative; seeking to frame his movements and events within ecclesiastical and biblical frameworks. What is suggested within though is a gap of a few years following his escape from Ireland, before his eventual return to his parents and home. He may have taken ecclesiastical orders during this time, or perhaps later; there is no definitive indication in his own words. After some years again, within Britain, he tells us of his famous dream; where he received a call from ‘The Voice of the Irish’. In his dream, he reads the start of a letter entitled the same, and hears the voices of people in Ireland who knew him as a slave in his youth. This is the only other occasion where he gives a placename in Ireland: that of Silva Vocluti, the Wood of Foclut (Near Killala, Co. Mayo). Modern scholarship tends to agree that his phrasing of details indicate that this was the location of his earlier captivity.

Despite being very personally affected by the dream; Patrick then alludes to even more years passing. He tells us that he was too afraid to put into action, what had apparently already started within his mind. During this time (at least several decades) he seems to have been ordained and sufficiently advanced to an age where it was possible for him to have been considered a bishop. Again, this period is very poorly rendered in his writings; but he alludes to several travels outside of Britain during this time and elsewhere speaks of peoples and ecclesiastical practices of Christians within Gaul (France). It seems likely that he may have spent a little time in a monastic environment there. Although he doesn’t expressly state it, he insinuates an admiration of monastic type lifestyles within his later Irish converts, something he may have experienced in Gaul.

At some stage in his middle years, he decided to come back to Ireland. His subsequent mission seems to have been viewed with some suspicion by fellow British Christians; and he spends a lot of his writings defending his actions. It must be remembered that at this stage of early Christianity; large-scale efforts to convert pagans was almost unheard of within Romanised provinces of Europe. The very idea of attempting to do so in Ireland, outside the frontiers and untouched by Roman administration, would have been considered highly dangerous and illogical to a fifth century Christian mindset. Many would have no doubt imagined that his efforts would have been short-lived and his life expectancy even shorter. Patrick’s survival and relative success seems to have surprised many; and his actions and methodology appears to have been questioned by some.

Patrick of course was a perfect candidate for attempting such a mission. His years in captivity left him more knowledgeable than most concerning insular Irish society. He spoke the language and had first-hand experience of the cultural habits and makeup; as well as an awareness of the workings of the hierarchical social structure of Ireland. Although he doesn’t give much details concerning his methods; he does hint at certain aspects; such as protection payments and hiring the sons of chieftains as royal bodyguards. He stresses the need to appear ‘above board’ when dealing with pagans at all times; for fear of retribution on his mission and converts.

The people he focused on were both high and low status. He mentions a daughter of a noble as well as female slave and children raised from an early age; implying that he worked at many different levels of society. Clerics ordained by him are referenced several times, illustrating the likelihood that his converts included men of similar varied classes. Taken altogether, it appears as if Patrick was focusing on establishing small communities of converts, along with a native clergy to tend them.

Patrick seems to have been active in extremely remote regions. He states that he had gone where nobody had ever brought the gospel to before.  Scholars have seen this as reflecting an awareness of other missionaries or Christian activity elsewhere in the Island; but he makes no further references to any such people. He was certainly in touch with a wider network of Christians both in Ireland and in Britain. The surviving documents testify to this; being open encyclical type letters intended for multiple recipients on each island.

Contrary to later legend, he makes no claim to have converted the entire country. Indeed, at the end of his documents, he appears to hold a rather pessimistic view on the future success of his converts. He considered their situation within Irish society as being precariously balanced to say the least; so much so that he was afraid to leave them for long periods. This fear was horribly realised when a group of recent converts were attacked by slavers. Many were killed and many more enslaved and sold on. Patrick’s second document, the Letter to Coroticus is a passionate plea to both free them and gain recognition from fellow British converts. We have no indication if it was ever successful. The last we hear of the historical Patrick (in his second document) is a man in his later years who expects to be killed at any moment; despairing for the safety and souls of his fledgling converts.

Within three-to-four generations of his death; Christianity had made serious inroads into Irish society. Latin literacy and the earliest strata of Irish monasteries were already established and in full flow. Within another generation after that, Irish Christianity was producing people of the calibre of Columbanus who went to Europe. Famously popular for his learning and piety in Merovingian Gaul; Columbanus was a man who would write to the Pope of the day (using floral Latin, with some choice Greek thrown in for good measure) in order to (politely) suggest that he was wrong on certain ecclesiastical matters!

I’d like to think that Patrick would have approved.

If you want to read more of Terry’s writings check out his blog

Further Reading:

De Paor, L (1993) (Ed. and trans.) Saint Patrick’s World. Blackrock and Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Patricks Confession (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:

Patricks Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Trans: Padraig McCarthy); available at:


An unfortunate pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick on St Patrick’s day in 1113

Today is the eve of the feast of St Patrick. As the country gets ready to celebrate our national saint with street parades, parties,  turning buildings green and the odd pilgrimage, people are carrying on  a tradition of  venerating St Patrick that dates back to  the 6th-7th century, if not before.  Although many modern celebration of the saint are  secular in nature the  relics of medieval  devotion  to Patrick are to be found  across the Irish  countryside, where  rocks, stones, holy wells, mountains,  islands and roads are dedicated to the saint.  Many of these holy places  are still visited today on the saints feast day  and at other times during the year.

Pl. 9 The Casán Phádgaig as it approaches the summit of Croagh Patrick (13)

Cone of Croagh Patrick

One of the earliest medieval accounts of pilgrimage in honor of  St Patrick  concerns pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick,  in Co Mayo. Legend had it the saint fasted here for 40 days and nights and  banished all the snakes and demons from Ireland.  We are told that in 1113  a  group of unfortunate  pilgrims  suffered a terrible misfortune, when they were struck by lightning while praying on the summit.

Pl.3 Modern church on summit of Croagh Patrick

Modern Church on Summit of Croagh Patrick Taken by Helen Duff

The  annals for the year AD 1113 (AU, AFM, ALC) recount

A ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Cruchain Aighle (Croagh Patrick), and destroyed thirty of those fasting (AU). (see Pilgrims being stuck by lightning at Croagh Patrick by Sarah MacDowell)

Unfortunately we are told no more details and we can only imagine  how the events unfolded.  Croagh Patrick is a 764 meters (2,507 ft) above sea level and its very exposed spot.  It is a very dangerous place in  bad weather. Each year  people fall and injure themselves.  There are also recorded incidents of people getting hypothermia.

According to the annals the pilgrims were fasting and performing a night vigil on the summit of the mountain. Archaeological evidence suggest there was  a small church similar to Gallarus on the summit as early as the 8th century ( to small to hold a large number of people). Most of the pilgrims were probably outside praying when a lightning storm came upon them. Humans or animals struck by lighting may be killed or suffer sever injury due to electrical burns.We do not know how many people were present that night but  the weather conditions must have been extreme  to result in the death of 30 people (although it is possible these figures are exaggerated).   There may also have been many more injured. To get help  those who were not injured would have had to climb down the mountain a good 2 hours walk from the summit of the mountain to the base.


Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick on a wet day in Summer

This tragic event did not deter further pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick  and  Jocelyn’s twelfth century Life of St Patrick which records ‘That many are accustomed to spend the night awake and fasting on the mount’.

In the centuries that follow there was a marked shift in recorded dates of  pilgrimages away from St Patrick’s day to the summer months when the weather was better. Today  very few people  climb the holy Mountain on St Patrick’s day  and modern pilgrimage to the Mountain focuses on the summer months, last Friday of July, last Sunday of July, the 15th of August when the weather conditions are more favorable.

© Louise Nugent 2013

Two stones dedicated to St Patrick, in South Co. Tipperary

Over the course of my research on pilgrimage in south County Tipperary, I came across two curious stones associated with St Patrick.

Map showing the location of St Patrick stones and Cahir town in Co. Tipperary, taken from Google maps


The first, St Patrick’s stone at Grangemore  is located in the middle of a T-junction of a small by-road leading the Cahir Equestrian centre, a short distance from the town of Cahir. The stone is embedded in a diamond-shaped island in the middle of the junction, probably not the safest place for such an ancient monument. I could see traces of green paint on the stone, suggesting it was painted green to make it more visible.

St Patrick’s stone in diamond-shaped island

The stone is a what archaeologist call a ‘bullaun stone’. Bullaun stones are artificial basins or hollows/depressions in rocks, boulders and stone and are held to be of early medieval date. The majority are found at early medieval ecclesiastical sites but some like this stone are found in isolation. There is some question over the original use and function of bullaun stones in early medieval times. Some scholars believe that they are medieval pilgrimage stations/ monument pestles to ritual or devotional use of turning stones within the hollows. Others advocate a more practical use such as grinding metal ores or herbs. Whatever their original use many of these stones over time developed associations with saints. St Patrick’s stone has two,  circular depression, the largest (diam. 0.19m x 0.2m; depth c. 0.1m) and the smaller (diam. 0.17m x 0.15m; depth c. 0.7m).

St Patrick’s stone, a bullaun stone with two hollows


As its name suggest the stone is associated with St Patrick the national saint. According to Power in 1908,  the stone was held with veneration  as it was believed to have been  used  as a cushion by St Patrick and the depressions were made by his knees.

St Patrick’s stone, Killaidamee townland

A few miles away close the ruin medieval church of Ballybacon, is another stone known as St Patrick’s stone located in the townland of Killaidamee. It is located opposite the junction of the Ardfinnan to Goatenbridge road and the Ballybacon road, it is not a bullaun stone but a natural shaped limestone e boulder  c.  .40m in height and  .70m in length.  It has a natural shallow curved groove in the upper surface on top of the stone.

The upper surface of St Patrick’s stone Killaidamee


It was formerly located in the ground in a roadside location and an OS bench mark is located on the side. It was moved to its present location, a concrete slab  when the road was widened in the 1980s. There is no tradition of local veneration of the stone.


Both stones are located in isolation and there is no  tradition of  modern pilgrimage to either stone, although we know the Grangemore stone was held in some regard in the early 1900’s  however the  stones do represent the spread of the cult of St Patrick in South Tipperary.

An overview of the history of pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

Today is Reek Sunday the main pilgrimage day to Craogh Patrick. Croagh Patrick is located on the western coast of Mayo on the southern shores of Clew Bay. Its pyramid-shaped summit is known locally as the “The Reek”, and the  mountain has a long  association with St Patrick. Pilgrimage can be undertaken at any time during the year but the main pilgrim days are the last  Friday of July, last Sunday of July or Reek Sunday and the 15thof August. In the coming months I hope to expand on this post and explore the prehistoric,  medieval, early modern and modern pilgrimages in much more detail. What follows is really just an overview of the history of the pilgimage here.

Croagh Patrick

View of Croagh Patrick, taken by Helen Duffy

The mountain has been a focus of pilgrimage from medieval if not pre-historic times  and has an unbroken tradition for pilgrimage through the medieval period  to the present. Little is known about the early medieval history of Croagh Patrick. By the seventh century the mountain was associated with St Patrick. The earliest written record of this association is the Brevarium by  Tírechan which recalls that, during his mission in the west of Ireland, St Patrick  (Mons Aigli)  fasted there for forty days and nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick ( Bieler 2000, 153). Excavations carried out on the summit in 1994 revealed the presence of  a small oratory on the summit dating to between between AD 430 and 890 built in the style of Gallarus oratory Dingle, Co. Kerry (Hughes 2005).

The earliest and most interesting reference to  pilgrimage at the mountain comes from the annals for the year AD 1113 (AU). We are told

A ball of fire came on the night of the feast of Patrick 17 March on Cru chain Aighle, and destroyed thirty of those fasting (AU).

The pilgrims were fasting and performing a night vigil  when this  horrific event occured .  Jocelyn’s twelfth century Life of St Patrick also records pilgrims fasting and performing a vigil ‘That many are accustomed to spend the night awake and fasting on the mount’ (Hughes 1991, 16). In 1432 Pope Eugene IV issued an indulgence of two years and two quarantines  ‘of enjoined penance to penitents who visit and give alms for the repair of the below mentioned chapel’ on the summit of Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday of July (CPL). Croagh Patrick continued to attract pilgrims in the aftermath of the reformation and there are  detailed  ninteenth century accounts of the pilgrim rituals at the mountain. These rituals consisted of performing prayers known as stations, ritual prayers around devotional points in the landscape of the pilgrim site. The stations performed by modern pilgrims are very similar and the core traditions have not changed drastically, with the exception of the relaxing of some of the more penitential aspects of the prayer such as performing the entire pilgrimage barefoot or the stations on bare knees. Following the famine pilgrimage seems to have gone into decline but due to the efforts of the clergy it was revived, and a new church was built on the summit in 1905 (Hughes 2005, 15-22). The  popularity of the pilgrimage has continued to grow and today  pilgrim numbers on the main pilgrim day can reach  tens of thousands.

Modern Pilgrims climbing Croagh Patrick, image from The Guardian 2009


Bieler, L. 2000. (reprint 1979). The Patrician Texts In The Book Of Armagh.  Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

 CLP -Calendar of the Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland. Papal Letters. Vols. I to XIV, London, HMSO, 1893-1960; Vols. XV-XX, Dublin, Irish Manuscripts Commission, 1978-2005 and in progress.

Hughes, H. 1991. Croagh Patrick: (Cruach Phádraig-The Reek) An Ancient Mountain Pilgrimage. Westport: Berry’s of Westport.

Hughes, H. 2005. Croagh Patrick. Ireland’s Holy Mountain. Westport: The Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee.

Mac Airt, S. & MacNiocaill, G. (eds.) 1983. The Annals of Ulster (to AD 1131). Dublin.

Ogulla Holy Well

I recently visited a holy well at Ogulla near Tulsk, Co. Roscommon. The well is believed to be the location where St Patrick baptised Ethne and Fidelm, the daughters of the High King of Ireland.

St Patrick's well, Ogulla.

St Patrick’s well, Ogulla.

The well is still a site of devotion and  people leave votive offerings at statue of St Patrick. People also perform stations of the cross around the site.

St Patrick

Statue of St Patrick


Beside the holy well is a small modern oratory.

Modern Oratory at Ogulla

Modern Oratory at Ogulla

According to locals mass is held here on last Sunday of June

Statue of the Blessed Virgin beside holy well

Statue of the Blessed Virgin beside holy well

The well is associated with healing and a number of cures have been recorded here.