Parish of Downpatrick
It’s just not possible to read about the history and culture of Ireland and Northern Ireland without invoking the ghost of Saint Patrick. An easy day trip from Belfast takes you to Downpatrick parish. Here you can visit Down Cathedral (the Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity), the graveyard that is the burial place of Saint Patrick, and the High Cross, the Quoile River, and the Mound of Down.
Surrounded by a graveyard, the atmospheric cathedral has significant stained glass windows a large High Cross in front. This is a replica of the actual High Cross that is 1000 years old and you can see in the museum on your visit.
Who was Saint Patrick?
Saint Patrick was a bishop and is the patron saint of Ireland. He is often called the Apostle of Island and his feast day is on the 17th of March. He was born in Britain as Maewyn Succat. At the age of 16 was abducted by slave traders and taken to Ireland. His next six years were spent as a herdsman in Ireland and during this time his belief in God intensified. Eventually, he was reunited with this family in Britain but decided to return to Ireland as a Catholic missionary.
He preached and built churches through the north and west of Ireland with fervor and was often at risk of being killed for his beliefs. He is credited for spreading Christianity through Ireland. He is thought to have died in the year of 461 AD but by the 7th century he was already a figure of Irish legend, and only two of his letters survive and so it is difficult to know with any certainty, the date of his death.
Saint Patrick and Irish Identity
There any many myths surrounding Saint Patrick that have given people around the world for many centuries a certain view of Ireland that shows the importance of folklore and or religion for this divided island. For example, a major myth is that Saint Patrick drove all of the snakes out of Ireland and into the sea. Another is that he raised from the dead 33 men. The other major myth is that Saint Patrick used the leaves of the Shamrock, a plant that has three leaves on each stalk, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.
These myths have become incorporated into costumes, practices, and festivals in Ireland and around the world and can be most clearly seen on Saint Patrick’s day. This feast day of 17 March is marked around the world with symbols that include the shamrock and snakes.
It’s fair to say that Irish identity has become strongly tied to the figure of Saint Patrick and to the symbols displayed on St Patrick’s day around the world. From the time that Christianity first came to England, to the carousing and feasting on St Patrick’s Day, the Saint became a symbol of all that is Christianity in Ireland. In recent decades these associations have broadened and extended now well beyond Christina references to included symbols that mean “Irish” and “Ireland”. Irish nationhood is now associated with the color green, the shamrock, and Saint Patrick.
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Where is Saint Patrick’s Grave?
St. Patrick’s grave lies in the graveyard of Downpatrick Cathedral, County Down, in the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland. The parish of Downpatrick is located southeast of Belfast in Northern Ireland at the southern end of Strangford Lough. A perfect day trip from Belfast, a Strangford Lough ferry ride makes this an easy day excursion. Alternatively, Downpatrick is a 30-minute drive from Belfast (20 miles or 33 kilometers). It is difficult to think of a more peaceful respite from Belfast that this tranquil site, steeped in history.
The visitor center video will give you a good understanding of the site before you explore it on your own. You won’t be the first – Christian pilgrims have been exploring the site for over 1600 years!
The address is 35 English Street, Downpatrick, Northern Ireland.
St. Patrick’s Grave
The graveyard at Down Cathedral contains old grave markers here that date from the 1500s.
The photo above shows the mammoth ancient granite stone on top of Saint Patrick’s grave. It was placed there in 1900 to deter people from taking a ‘thimble-full’ of soil from his grave before they set off on their journeys of emigration. The stone has the name “Patrick” carved upon it as well as a Celtic cross.
Saint Patrick’s grave is also the gravesite of Saint Brigid and Saint Columcille. Together in one place then are Irish religious history’s three most important saints and this makes it a very special place for religious pilgrims.
I love this drone footage of the grave and the Cathedral.
Sitting atop the Downpatrick mound on Cathedral Hill is the Down Cathedral. The views from across the River Quoile to the Cathedral are impressive. There was once a 12th century Benedictine Monastery here (it was built in 1183). The original church on this site was dedicated to the Holy Trinity.
The Church has weathered the turbulent historical times of Northern Ireland, surviving several waves of destroyers, as well as fire and earthquakes. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1541 by King Henry VIII led to its abandonment and it became a ruin. The fifteenth-century chancel is largely intact and there have been major restorations occurring of this lovely Cathedral since the late 1700s.
The inside of the church is worth seeing, particularly the pipe organ and organ case, the boxed pews and especially, the Mayer of Munich stained glass windows. One set of stained glass windows show the life of St. Patrick in 39 images.
The church is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30 am to 4 pm and Sundays from 1 pm to 4 pm and. Everything you could ever wish to know about the site can be learned from the lady who runs the gift shop and is always keen to be of service!
Download the official Visit Downpatrick brochure for Down Cathedral, the Saint Patrick Centre, and the County Gaol and Museum here
The Saint Patrick Centre
At the foot of the hill on Saint Patrick’s Square in Market Street is the only permanent exhibition dedicated to Saint Patrick, at the Saint Patrick Centre. Here you can learn much about St Patrick’s history and the legends that have grown up about him. It has a gift shop, an IMAX theatre, an Art Gallery and much more. It is a good first stop before you climb the hill to reach the Cathedral church and St. Patrick’s grave.
Saint Patrick’s Centre is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5 pm and in July and August, it opens on Sundays from 1 pm to 5 pm.
Down County Museum
Only 100 meters from Saint Patrick’s Grave is Down County Museum, located in the 18th century County Gaol. It is the most recent resting place of the Down High Cross, a large granite Standing Cross that was made in the 10th or 11th century and stood in the center of Downpatrick. In Irish they are called cross ard and their construction is considered a unique medieval tradition that existed in Ireland and Britain. They are often intricately decorated with religious figures and knotwork.
High Crosses are the main form of surviving insular art and the Down Cross is a fine example. It was moved from the center of Downpatrick to the Cathedral in 1897 but in the last few years, it has been housed in the Down Museum. A replica of the High Cross now stands in the Cathedral graveyard.
Frequently Asked Questions about Saint Patrick
When is St Patrick’s day?
St Patrick’s day is the 17th of March.
What other St Patrick sites in Ireland are there?
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh City
Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
Croagh Patrick, Westport
Slemish Mountain, Antrim
What are the relics of St Patrick?
St Patrick’s body at Down Cathedral
St Patrick’s tooth
St Patrick’s Bell
The Hand and Arm Shrine of St Patrick
The Chairs of St Patrick
The Boheh Stone
Altadavin Glen (St Patrick’s Chair)
Coney Island (St Patrick’s Well and St Patrick’s Wishing Chair)
The St Patrick Mountain Shrines
Máum Éan (the Pass of Birds)
The Miracles of St Patrick
Who is buried beside St Patrick?
Saint Brigid and Saint Columcille
How did St Patrick die?
The actual cause of St Patrick’s death is unknown although it is possible he lived to 76 and died of old age.
What year did St Patrick die?
St Patrick died in 471 AD, and whilst this is the most likely date, it is not certain.
Where was St Patrick born and where is the Saint Patrick birthplace?
St Patrick was born in Brittania, Roman Britain, but the exact location is uncertain.
How did Saint Patrick become a saint?
Although Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, he was never canonized by the Catholic Church and so he is not formally a saint at all!
Airbnb Stays in Downpatrick
It’s always more fun to stay local, so if you’ve already done some of the great things to do in Belfast, then consider staying in one of these wonderful little Airbnb’s and explore all of the local parts of Down County.
Links and Further Information
There are so many things to do in Ireland. See all of the best things to do in Ireland, from Get Your Guide here
For other great Northern Ireland landmarks to see on your next trip, see 10 Best Northern Ireland Landmarks for History and Culture.
Planning a trip to the UK? For the best 12 sites to discover England’s history and culture, see the 12 Best Cultural and Historical Places in England to Visit and for Scotland, see Best Scotland Landmarks for History and Culture.
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