In Saint Patricks's Footsteps - Ireland Travels and the Blarney Stone

by Patrick Whitehurst

That there were tourists to the Emerald Isle thousands of years before Saint Patrick began his trek there is no doubt. The fact is irrefutably established by the passage tombs of the Boyne Valley north of Dublin, notably those of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth that predate the pyramids of Egypt about five hundred years.Considering the extent of his travels we marvel at his stamina.

Considering the extent of his travels we marvel at his stamina. When one pictures St. Patrick it invariably conjures the image of the saint walking, flowing robes billowing behind him, when in actuality he traveled mostly by chariot and boat.

From almost the moment he set foot on Irish soil he began making converts who traveled with him and looked after the holy man's needs.

Not everyone enjoys kissing the Blarney Stone, which is located in Blarney Castle, Cork City, as you have to lie on your back and wiggle over to the cold stone.


It is believed that St. Patrick's pilgrimage covered most of the whole island but many of his journeys are undocumented and exist primarily in myth and legend and folklore. Perhaps true, perhaps not. But we do know something about his first tour to bring Christianity to Ireland because two of his writings survive.

Then in about 680 a bishop named Tírechán wrote a kind of guidebook and retraced the roads that Patrick traveled and chronicled his sojourn through one of the most beautiful and tourist neglected sections of this land of mist and mystery.

I first discovered this land through my friend Fr. Crowley. "Bring your Wellingtons and your fishing pole." It was not a suggestion, it was an order and I complied because the section we were to travel is renowned for its great trout fishing in a labyrinth of limestone lakes, salmon fishing in the rivers, and coarse angling in the waters of the Grand Royal Canal.

It is, of course, impossible to trace the Saint's passage exactly, for roads today replace the trails of Patrick's time. But from Patrick's writings and the later work of Tírechán we were able to tie together the place names mentioned in these works and thereby chart his progress, and ours.

We chose to travel the back roads as often as possible and experience an Ireland that most visitors miss . . . "the nursery of early Irish civilization" historians call it.

It is a land of hills and mountains, of quiet farm lands and bogs, of lakes and streams and rivers that beckon the angler to tarry awhile.

We begin our Saint Patrick's tour at the Skerries just off the east coast of Ireland north of Dublin on a tiny island that bears his name, "St. Patrick's Island."

Patrick probably came ashore near the present-day village of Balbriggan because we know that in a small house by the mouth of a little stream called the Delving he baptized a man and his son.

The son insisted on following the saint on his journeys and later became the bishop of the church of Kilbennan in county Galway. The Delving river, about three miles north of Balbriggan runs to the sea on that low and sandy coast.

From there St. Patrick traveled westward to Dunleek, into the rich valley of the Boyne and passed the prehistoric passage-tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Here the traveler must pause to explore this group of tombs. It is hardly a side trip because Saint Patrick's tour crossed the River Boyne at this point on his way to the Hill of Slane where Patrick lit the Easter bonfire that so enraged the high king of Tara that the King actually sent a party out to kill him.

In that time it was forbidden to kindle any other fire in Ireland until the high king's blazed from the royal ramparts of Tara. Legend has it that Patrick and his followers eluded the war party in the guise of a herd of deer.

To this day St. Patrick's fire of faith is rekindled on the Hill of Slane in the shadow of the ruins that stand there now.

One wonders how the king of Tara knew anything about Easter when it was supposedly Patrick that bought Christianity to this pagan island of the fifth century, but a footnote to history indicates that Patrick's odyssey was predated one year by a bishop Palladius sent by Pope Celestine in 431 to minister to the "Irish Christians."

This note helps us to better date St. Patrick's tour but also tends to add to the mystery. Why "Irish Christians," and why celebrate Easter at all when we know that the Druid priests of the time were in full control of the Irish mind and heart?

Let's not dwell on the imponderable. Let's just accept the fact that St. Patrick came to be honored as the chief apostle of the country and acknowledged down the centuries as the Island's patron saint. Perhaps Patrick had a better press: Tírechán and a contemporary of his name Murichú, both wrote extensively about Patrick's career and travels. We now follow St. Patrick's traditionally blue robed figure along the north bank of the river Boyne to Donaghpatrick on the Blackwater River then to Donaghmore where he established another church.

(Blue? Did he say blue? Green, after all, is not only the overwhelming color of the Irish countryside, it is the national color of the Irish Republic! Sacrilege! But, in fact, St. Patrick's blue didn't turn green until many centuries later when they mixed it with the Protestant orange of the north.)

All along our route we find the ruins of abbeys and churches and towers, but these were constructed long after St. Patrick's visits, on sites where Patrick was known to teach and "give the Gospel." In Patrick's time stone buildings, except for tombs and covered earthworks were uncommon. The original buildings were, as at Tara, built of timbers and replaced by stone structures at a much later time. Tara has never been rebuilt. We reached the Hill of Tara where Patrick defeated the royal Druids in some adroit miracle-working contest involving books and water. Patrick's book survived the test and Christianity triumphed.

At first Tara is a disappointment to many who visit the site. It seems to have little more to offer than a few corrugated mounds of earth that local carrot-topped youngsters use as a kind of sacrilegious roller-coaster ride for their dirt bikes. But armed with a little historical information the site can be brought to life . . . once the rain begins and the kids disappear it becomes a place for solitude and imaginings.

As we follow in the footstep of the Saint our route turns westward through the villages now called Trim and Mullingar, over the plains of Meath and Westmeathand to "The stone of Divisions" on the hill of Usnagh. A point where the boundaries of the provinces were thought to meet. It is farmland here and your trek across the pastures to view this great stone of history will probably be accompanied by cows. View your surroundings. This is supposedly the navel of the country . . . the exact enter of Ireland.

From this point on Tírechán's itinerary leads us northward, and we are on the back roads once again and cross the Inny River at Abbeyshrule and proceed on to Ardagh where Patrick founded another church among the green fields of County Longford in the beautiful little village that is situated there. The ruin of a tiny accent oratory still stands on the grounds where the original wooden church of St. Mell (consecrated by Patrick as a bishop) was built fifteen hundred years ago.

According to the ancient records Patrick crossed the river Shannon at a place called "The Swimming Place of Two Birds," probably Carrick-On-Shannon of today.

Patrick's route turns abruptly south through Elphin where he established another church, and proceeded south to the well of Clebach (now Ogulla near Tulsk) and meanders westward along a route that was later marked as a Pilgrims' road to the well of Stringell at Ballintober in County Mayo, where the Augustinian abbey church has been beautifully and faithfully restored.

From here, on a day of ferocious storm I looked westward and could see the great conical mass of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain. We followed Patrick's route through Aghagower, now marked by one of the "pilgrim churches" and a Round Tower and proceeded to Murrisk, at the foot of the Holy mountain where the ruins of an abbey mark the spot where Patrick's charioteer died and was buried. The mountain was forbidding that day as tattered wisps of cloud and rain truncated its peek. It was a theatrical vision, but we were uninspired to climb to its 2,500 foot peak and stand in a lashing rain looking down on nothing but swirling cloud surface.

We retreated to the nearest source of sustenance and comfort in the outskirts of Westport, consoling ourselves that had it been a fine day we would have joyously tackled the pilgrim's climb to the mountain's peak.

We retraced our steps and turned north through Castlebar to the well of Slane and followed Patrick's route still northward to Pontoon Bridge where Lough Conn and Lough Cullin are divided by a spit of land and the "fish fairly jump into your pocket." We paused here for two days and invited the fish to jump. It's a good place to pause.

Pampered and sated we returned to Patrick's tour and continued northward to cross the River Moy, as did Patrick, near the present-day village of Ballina and journeyed northeastward where Patrick discovered the "giant's grave," a neolithic tomb at Ballyglass.

The rest of Patrick's route is in some dispute from this point, but it is thought he traveled first north to the high headlands of Downpatrick Head, then returning south along that coast, crossed Killala Bay by boat near Ross Point and proceeded eastward along the shores of what Patrick in his chronicles called "the western sea" . . . the end of the known world of his time.

We modern pilgrims might well conclude our quest of St. Patrick's progress here, the first of his many journeys to bring Christianity to pagan Ireland, because Patrick's writings and those of Tírechán begin to run out of detail.

Our trip has included many of the places where Patrick served, and many places that are a delight to visit.

If you had to, you could probably tear through this journey in one long day. But what a shame that would be. You would miss the quiet walks, the fishing, the sense of history that pervades this country. You would miss the simple pleasures that can be found in back-road country B & B's and in farmhouse accommodations. You would miss the "crack," that joyous conversation that fills the parlors and the pubs. You would miss the legends and the ghost stories that follow in the St. Patrick's wake. Or you would miss the grand extravagances of fine old manors and ancient castle hotels. No. If you haven't the time for a leisurely three or four day tour . . . don't take it.

The Irish say, "When God made time he made plenty of it." So take the time. It will be an experience you will never forget.