On March 17, Guinness will flow from Malin to Moscow, the Chicago River will run green and parades will be held worldwide to celebrate the fifth-century preacher and patron saint of Ireland.
“St. Patrick’s legacy is pretty impressive,” says historian Brian Lacey, “especially considering he wasn’t even Irish.”
Patrick was British, captured at the age of 16 by a band of raiders and brought as a slave to Ireland. For six years he tended sheep on a remote mountain in County Antrim and wrestled with visions from God. After escaping, he went on to become a bishop who traveled throughout Ireland building churches, baptizing converts and performing countless miracles along the way.
In recent years there have been calls to rein in the revelry and reclaim the religious aspects of the national holiday. Some are even attempting to boost the name recognition of other saints (early Irish records list as many as 1,700) and bring their stories to the attention of the world.
Glendalough, County Wicklow: St. Kevin
At Glendalough (valley of two lakes) in County Wicklow, visitors can wander through the remains of a monastic settlement that for 500 years was one of Ireland’s greatest centers of learning. Founded by Kevin in the sixth century, the soaring round tower, churches and gravestones, as well as “St. Kevin’s Bed” — a man-made cave carved into the rock high over one of the lakes — creates a strikingly evocative scene and almost mystical sense of the past.
Tour guides offer tales of how Kevin cast a monster into the upper lake, rebuked an ardent woman suitor (one unlikely legend has him hurling her from his cave into the depths below) and once, while fasting, allowed a blackbird to build a nest on his outstretched hand. The story goes that he kept his arm outstretched until the chicks hatched.
There are endless such yarns woven around the saints. At the time Ireland was dubbed “the Island of Saints and Scholars” and monastic settlements had to compete for pilgrims and patrons — causing in-house scribes to pen ever more dramatic tales of saintly powers.
Kildare, County Kildare: St. Brigid
Brigid, for example, is said to have turned water into ale, diverted rivers from their courses and conjured up extra bacon for unexpected guests. When she decided to build a monastery in Kildare in the fifth century, she needed land from a local chieftain. He grudgingly agreed to give her as much as her cloak would cover. Miraculously, the cloak kept spreading for as many acres as she wanted.
Today, a round tower and cathedral mark the spot in Kildare where Brigid’s abbey once stood. On the outskirts of the town is a tranquil park with an ancient well, said to have healing powers, next to a tall bronze statue of the saint wearing a cross and holding a flame.
Clonmacnoise, County Offaly: St. Ciaran
In neighboring County Offaly, visitors can explore the magnificent remains of the sixth-century monastic site founded by Ciaran in Clonmacnoise. It includes the ruins of a cathedral, two round towers, three Celtic crosses and the largest collection of early Christian gravestones in Western Europe.
Ciaran’s path to sainthood was launched as a young man, when he supposedly restored life to a dead horse — just one example of his way with animals. Legend has it that a fox carried his psalter (psalm book) and a stag held his books on its antlers while he studied.
After performing the usual round of miracles, Ciaran decided to build a monastery at Clonmacnoise, smitten, he said, by the beauty of the lush green plains and sweeping views of the river Shannon. First though, he had to settle a boundary dispute with a neighbor who offered him land as far as he could throw his cap. After uttering a prayer, a gust of wind swept Ciaran’s hat across the fields. To this day, a sudden squall in the midlands is sometimes called “Ciaran’s wind.” The neighbor was eventually made a saint as well — St. Manchan.
Ardmore, County Waterford: St. Declan
Farther south, at the picturesque seaside village of Ardmore, visitors can learn about St. Declan and how he crossed the sea on a huge flagstone which ran aground on a local beach. High on a hill above the village are the spectacular remains of his fifth-century settlement, including an ancient church decorated with intricate stone carvings, one of the tallest round towers in Ireland, and the remains of an oratory where Declan is buried.
The saint still has a cult following in County Waterford, which he christianized before St. Patrick. The waters of St. Declan’s well are said to possess healing powers, especially for aching joints and backs. And every year pilgrims flock to Ardmore to celebrate his feast day on July 24 and throw a weeklong party in his name.
St. Patrick and many more
There are hundreds of other saints and saintly shrines. At Fenit harbor in County Kerry in southwest Ireland, a large bronze statue depicts St. Brendan, the sixth-century navigator who set off on an epic voyage across the Atlantic in a wooden boat covered with ox hides. Brendan is said to have landed in Newfoundland, and to this day his followers claim the saint was the first to discover America.
Relics of saints also abound. The preserved head of St. Oliver Plunkett — who was hanged, drawn and quartered in Britain in 1681 for his Catholic faith — is housed in an elaborate shrine at St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda, a port town north of Dublin.
For centuries St. Laurence O’Toole’s 900-year-old heart was on display at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin until, shockingly, it was stolen in 2012 and has not been recovered.
And, though he wasn’t Irish, St. Valentine’s third-century remains also ended up in Dublin, preserved in an elaborate reliquary at the Carmelite church on Whitefriar Street.
Still, Patrick remains the star. This year Dublin will host a four-day extravaganza including beer fests, ceilis (Irish folk dancing), street performances and a lavish parade in honor of “La Fheile Padraig” (St. Patrick’s feast day). Downpatrick in Northern Ireland, where the saint is reputedly buried (and which has a huge visitor center dedicated to all things Patrick) is throwing a nine-day program of events.
All this for a man who famously described himself as “a sinner, the most unlearned of men, the lowliest of all the faithful, utterly worthless in the eyes of many.”