St. Patrick in Ireland's Ancient East

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On March 17, people the world over pay tribute to Saint Patrick and celebrate Irishness. While far-flung destinations add their own twist, there’s no better place to be on the day than Ireland – even more so, in Ireland’s Ancient East – the land the great man himself traversed.

A carved sword sculpture in Waterford's Viking Triangle
Right: Reginald's Tower in Waterford's Viking Triangle
Left: A carved sword sculpture in Waterford's Viking Triangle | Right: Reginald's Tower, a Waterford landmark

Waterford 

Marking his significant impact on the country, the feast of Saint Patrick has been celebrated since medieval times. But it was only in the mid-17th century that Waterford-born Franciscan friar Luke Wadding, tasked with re-organising the calendar of saints, included Saint Patrick for the first time – making the 17th of March the official day of Ireland's national patron.

Fr Wadding's hometown of Waterford – an ancient place founded by Vikings – was the first city to mark St Patrick's Day as a national holiday in 1903, when the Waterford Corporation declared a general celebration citywide.

Aerial shot of the Hill of Tara
St Patrick statue on the Hill of Tara
Left: Aerial shot of the Hill of Tara | Right: The statue of St Patrick commemorating his defiance of pagan High King Laoire

Meath

Tales tell of Saint Patrick travelling first to the Hill of Tara in County Meath – the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and the political and religious centre of the country – in order to confront the ancient pagan religion at its most powerful site.


Every spring equinox, a great blaze on the Hill of Tara was the first fire lit – by royal decree, it was forbidden for any other fires to be burning while this festival fire was aglow. The legend goes that in 433, Saint Patrick defied pagan High King Laoire's ban, and lit a Paschal fire on the neighbouring Hill of Slane. It's said that Laoire was so impressed by Patrick's courage that he allowed him to continue his missionary work in Ireland.

The Rock of Cashel
An evening visit to the Rock of Cashel
Left: The Rock of Cashel | Right: An evening visit to St Patrick's Rock

Tipperary

Follow in Saint Patrick's footsteps in Tipperary and stand atop the iconic Rock of Cashel, often called St Patrick’s Rock – where the saint reputedly converted King Aonghus to Christianity. Legend has it that during the ceremony, Saint Patrick accidentally thrust his crozier (a staff with a sharp pointed end) through the foot of King Aonghus – who didn’t even flinch. When Patrick later took the king aside to find out why he had stayed silent, poor Aonghus admitted that he thought the stabbing was part of the baptismal ritual!

Alternatively, visit peaceful St Patrick’s Well in Clonmel, one of the largest holy wells in all of Ireland; or wander along the Track of Saint Patrick’s Cow (Rian Bó Phádraig) – an old countryside path pilgrims and traders followed for centuries, stretching from Cashel in Tipperary over the mountains to Lismore in County Waterford. 

Patrick's travels took a less tranquil turn in Lorrha when an attempt was made on his life. To save Saint Patrick, his charioteer Odran sacrificed himself – suffering a fatal blow intended for Patrick, and becoming Ireland's first Christian martyr in the process.

Sunlight through the trees at a cemetery in Glendalough
Two visitors sitting atop a hill and enjoying the view of the lake below at Glendalough
Left: Sunlight through the trees at a Glendalough cemetery | Right: Enjoying the view at Glendalough

Wicklow

You might say that the disciple who Saint Patrick sent to Wicklow to convert the locals initially met with some resistance – he had his teeth knocked out by them, and became known as Mantan or Manntach, "the toothless one". Undeterred, the intrepid missionary went on to found a church in Wicklow, and this is thought to be the origin of the Irish name for the county, Cill Mhantáin – “church of the toothless one”.

These days you can encounter much friendlier locals! And at places like Glendalough – one of the country's most important monastic sites – it's easy to see how the natural beauty of the surroundings inspired devotion.

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