Stories about St. Patrick (Naomh Padraic)
When I was a boy in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day was given over to religious parades and novenas. Now, years later and an ocean away from Ireland I still have memories about St. Patrick, some hagiographic and legendary. But one story, considered reliable, was from his “Confessions” which included Patrick being captured by pirates in Roman Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland. After six years as a captive he escaped by walking across the country and found passage on a ship back to his home and then to France where he trained as a priest. He eventually returned to the country of his captivity, having made a vow to “save” the Irish.
His captive days had mostly been spent in Mayo, near the mountain named after him, Croagh Patrick, a 2500 ft conical peak. The mountain is now an important pilgrimage site with tens of thousands of pilgrims ascending it on March 17 as well as on the last Sunday of July, known as Reek Sunday. Some years ago I went on my own pilgrimage up the mountain, a six hour round trip hike in blustery and rain-soaked weather and gained much appreciation for those who undertake such pilgrimages. The pilgrimage is meant to commemorate the 40 days that Patrick was said to have spent on the mountain fasting and meditating and having dialogues with the Divinity.
A legend attributed to Patrick was his visit to the Hill of Slane on Easter Sunday in late March, in order to convert the high king of Ireland, Ui Loegaire (O’Leary). To avoid the Druids who were not kindly disposed toward him, Patrick changed himself and his followers into deer. In this guise they passed by the guards who had been told not to allow Patrick or his attendants to come anywhere near the castle. Here he lit the Paschal fire for Easter and picked up a Shamrock to use as an illustration of the Trinity.
Another legend was the “Colloquy of the Ancients” (Acallam na Senorach), an 8000 word dialogue in which St. Patrick has a discussion with two warriors from the Heroic Age of Ireland, Cailte and Oisin. One of the copies, from a 15th century version, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Their cordial exchange dealt with the Otherworld and the Tuatha De Danann (people of the goddess Dana) and expressed differences between the old ways with its love of nature and the austere practices of Christianity. The original was from the 12th century and was adapted by the poet WB Yeats in his very first book,written in 1889: “The Wanderings of Oisin”.
According to another story, Patrick visited Lough Derg in Donegal in the 5th century and fought a monstrous fish. To do so he had to strip naked and fight only with his crozier (sharp pointed walking stick). After being swallowed whole he was forced to do battle with the giant fish from the inside. Using his crozier he slew the monster and re-emerged unscathed. This story explains why the lake is referred to as Lough Derg (ie red lake). By the 11th century Lough Derg had become pilgrimage site, known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory. It continues to this day to be attractive as a retreat island (Station Island) which can only be reached by way of a boat. This demanding penitential had such a reputation for severity that college students attended as a challenge and a penitential. Seamus Heaney, a Nobel prize winner, while a university student, went on this pilgrimage on several occasions. Patrick Kavanagh, in 1942, wrote a poem exploring human nature, using Lough Derg as a setting for his poems. My father and numerous other relatives went on this retreat as well. So, several years ago, during a three month bicycling tour, I took part in the retreat with my wife and son. We did not have to strip down as St Patrick did, but we had to strip off shoes and socks and were given only bread and water for our meals for the next three days.
In almost all countries, including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Scotland, wherever the Irish Diaspora has taken place, St. Patrick’s Day is associated with celebrations and parties, a departure from the religious strictness of its past. It has also become a day to honor and acknowledge the many contributions of Irish immigrants to the making of America. The first official St. Patrick’s Day was commemorated by General George Washington on March 17, 1780, to honor the many Irish soldiers in his ranks, such as General John Sullivan, born in Berwick, Maine, whose parents were from Cork, Ireland.
Some years later, the American Civil War had an estimated 200,000 Irish soldiers serve. Even during the stress of battle they found interludes to honor St. Patrick’s Day with horse racing contests.
Descendants of the Irish continue to be a significant part of the American population, with an estimated 33 million self-identifying as of Irish ancestry.
Hugh Curran was born in Donegal, Ireland and after living in Canada moved to Surry, Maine. He teaches courses in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine.