Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Saint Patrick, Downpatrick and Glastonbury

(It's an entanglement of faith, religion, legend, opportunism, church and state collaboration, tradition and tourism... it's hard to separate the truth from the not-so-true... . Patrick's proven writings are terrific, showing that he was highly educated on Biblical texts, his grasp of theology is crystal clear. I have also gathered up a huge amount of the Scottish traditions about him, stored away and waiting to be written up some time when I get the headspace).

I've been in Downpatrick a few times recently, it's not far from me as the crow flies but there's a ferry ride in between and so I don't head down that way as often as I otherwise might. Around 100 years ago back in the time of the old Rural District Councils in Northern Ireland, the bottom part of the Ards Peninsula was administered from Downpatrick (see the boundary in the map below, running across Strangford Lough and then skirting below Kircubbin and Portavogie).

It's one of the towns which has that culturally meaningful triple-confluence of English Street, Irish Street and Scotch Street. A place where three cultural traditions met, long before two-tribes politics became our predominant framework – now endlessly, unhealthily, reinforced.

Downpatrick also has a terrific museum that I really need to re-visit.

• The Lovely Bones
Driving into Downpatrick, I remembered something I have posted about here before – the amazing coincidence which befell Ireland's new Anglo-Norman overlords. They had arrived in / invaded Ireland in 1169, and under John de Courcy marched north in 1177 and took the town of Dún Dá Leathghlas, establishing their Earldom of Ulster.

Just seven years later, in 1184, their 'rule' benefitted from the remarkable good fortune of discovering the long-lost grave of the island's national icon and patron saint St Patrick – and as a double icing on the cake, also the graves of St Brigid and St Columba. The three were reportedly found buried together, with Patrick in the middle.

Back in England, the French-born (and later French-buried) King Henry II was delighted by the discovery – his son John made his first expedition to Ireland the following year, from April to December 1185 (Wikipedia here).  De Courcy had 'the relics translated' to a new burial location nearby, commissioned by Pope Urban III, overseen by Cardinal Vivian, all with great pomp and ceremony, the Archbishop of Armagh and about 40 bishops.

It must have been around this time that Dún Dá Leathghlas was renamed Downpatrick. The Anglo-Normans may also have given the surrounding district of County Down its name - Lecale - on old maps and documents it is sometimes spelled 'Le Cayle' or 'Le Caile'.

The Glastonbury Dimension - King Arthur, Queen Guinevere... and Patrick too?!
I visited the famous, mystical, historic English town of Glastonbury about 10 years ago - not for the music festival, just as a sightseer. When there, I learned that also in 1184, the very same year of the Downpatrick discoveries, Glastonbury Abbey was destroyed by fire. Lo and behold just five years later, the reputed graves of English national icons King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were found there, as a result of archaeological excavations guided by a story that the late King Henry II had conveniently heard from an elderly bard. The pilgrims flocked back to Glastonbury and the abbey's coffers rang once again.

There's even a tradition that Patrick had himself actually been to Glastonbury in the year 430, as claimed by the document The Charter of St Patrick, but which is said to have first appeared in 1220 (link here). That linked article brilliantly refers to stories 'which have come down to modern readers through the industry of Glastonbury's twelfth-century press agent William of Malmesbury'. Patrick's name appears here and there around Glastonbury still today.

• 1874 article in the Downpatrick Recorder
Thanks to the wonder of the online British Newspaper Archive, I've found that the Downpatrick Recorder of 21 November 1874 (page 2, right hand column) published a long article about the then dire condition of the reputed burial site of St Patrick, and of the locally-popular traditions and superstitions.

The article is pretty detailed and recounts the traditions of the reputed finding of the three remains, noting that the chronicler Gerald of Wales was the first to write down this discovery, in his Topographia Hibernia in 1188 (Wikipedia link here), describing it as 'this threefold treasure discovered by Divine revelation'.

But was the site of the re-interment later somehow forgotten? Because the Recorder article said that some time in the 1770s Samuel Hall (sexton of the Cathedral) and John Neill relocated an old stone cross from elsewhere in the town into the Cathedral graveyard and then –

'in a fit of pleasurable excitement, asserted that this was St Patrick's grave, and, as Hall was the sexton or keeper of the graveyard, he repeated the same to all visitors, and thus the story was spread and established until it acquired a species of sanctity'.

Renewed tradition took hold through repetition. The 1874 article was published following a visit to Downpatrick by Mr Mulholland MP (Lord Dunleath) who assured concerned locals that a suitable monument - 'national and non-sectarian' - should be erected at the reputed, neglected, burial site.

• 1900: Francis Joseph Bigger's memorial stone installed
It was 26 years later in 1900 when the antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger (1863–1926) had the large inscribed boulder that we see today installed at the site, in time for St Patrick's Day on 17th March. That's it pictured at the top of this post. For all of the great scholarly work that Bigger did to preserve Ulster's heritage, he also had a theatrical imagination and a gift for the memorable. To his credit, he, and private subscriptions, achieved something at the dawn of the new century which has stood the test of time.

• 1900: Queen Victoria and the Shamrock
It was that same year when Queen Victoria approved soldiers from Ireland serving in the British army to wear a sprig of shamrock on St Patrick's Day. An unnamed woman from Downpatrick sent a spray of shamrock, said to have been gathered near the grave site, and sent it to London for the Queen to wear.


Patrick's life, mission and writings are enormously important, and should be remembered and honoured. None of the above takes away from his core purpose – but it's interesting to unpick the industry that has developed around him, many centuries after his time.

PS - Bassett's County Down Guide and Directory (1886; page 193) includes some information about the grave site, which was then 'the object of incessant care' by Robert Henry Bell, the verger and sexton, who had been appointed in 1862.