Road Trip: Ireland

In County Mayo, on St. Patrick’s Day

Dun Briste, where St. Patrick reputedly defeated Crom Dubh

March 17th is that one day of the year when we all are Irish!

But while much of the world celebrates St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green and raising a glass of green beer, Ireland takes the celebration of its patron saint very seriously, with much of the land tied to major events in his life.

It’s been commonly held that St. Patrick evangelized Ireland, and his life has been the stuff of legend for thousands of years. In his own book, Confessio, St. Patrick tells how as a teenager, he was captured by pirates from his home in Brittania and taken as a slave to Ireland; there he herded animals for six years before escaping and returning to his family. Recently, however, scholars have called that story a fiction. They say St. Patrick was a slave trader himself–that he used the original story to cover up his true identity. Alas, little evidence supports this theory.  

But don’t let a bit of controversy keep you from visiting the many fascinating places that relate to his life on the rugged western coast of County Mayo, along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Just outside Ballycastle, in the northernmost part of the county, is a windswept, isolated outcropping known as Downpatrick Head, where St. Patrick founded a church. Today its ruins, as well as a stone cross and holy well, still stand. And if you look out to sea, you’ll see a small collection of islands called the Stags of Broadhaven, with a lone sea stack known as the Dún Briste, or ‘broken fort.’ Legend has it that when a pagan chieftain named Crom Dubh refused to convert to Christianity, St. Patrick struck the ground with his staff, splitting a chunk of the headland off into the ocean. While there are many conflicting accounts about what happened next, Crom Dubh did not survive the encounter.

The St. Patrick statue, erected in 1928, with the backdrops of Mt. Croagh Patrick.
The St. Patrick Statue, erected in 1928, against the backdrop of Mt. Croagh Patrick
A pub that features live music popular with locals and visitors during this time of the year.
A pub that features live music popular with locals and visitors during this time of the year

About an hour and a half from Downpatrick Head is Mount Croagh Patrick, reputedly the site where St. Patrick completed a 40-day Lenten fast. This mountain was an important pilgrimage site. The full pilgrimage walking route starts in the village of Murrisk, just outside of Westport. At the trail’s start is a statue of St. Patrick erected in 1928. At the mountain’s summit, on a rock outcropping known as “St. Patrick’s Chair,” you can see Neolithic art as well as a Celtic hill fort and a stone oratory that dates back to between 430 and 890 A.D. Every year during St. Patrick’s Day week, town residents and visitors alike embark on a 6 a.m. “Dawn Climb of Croagh Patrick” to pay their respects.

If you make the climb, you may build up quite an appetite. Why not stop at M.J. Hoban’s pub at the Octagon, in Westport, for a beer and a bite to the sound of live music? While listening, you may contemplate the enigma of St. Patrick–and the reality of his enduring influence on Irish culture. Then stay to enjoy the parade downtown at 1:30 p.m.!