As the 17th of March rolls around again, I find myself thinking about Saint Patrick. It is easy to get carried away with the festive spirit of the day, getting swept up in the sea of shamrocks, parades and pints of the black stuff; but I think it is important to stop and reflect a little more deeply on our beloved patron saint.
I must admit, as far as it goes, I probably think about Saint Patrick more than the average individual. I am currently in the first year of my PhD, where I am exploring the function and significance of the pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory in late medieval Irish society. Whilst the focus of my research deals primarily with a period long after Patrick’s, his long-lasting influence throughout the centuries down to the present day is undeniable. Indeed, during the twelfth century, when we first hear tell of the pilgrimage to Lough Derg, there is no doubt that the linking of the site with Patrick was deliberate; associating it with Ireland’s most famous saint only added to interest in the place, and undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the site’s fame across Europe.
We are incredibly lucky to have surviving material written by Patrick himself – his Confessio, and his Epistola. Neither of these texts is particularly long, but they do give a glimpse into the life, experiences, and personality of the man. Having been abducted from his home in Britain at the age of 15, he was brought to Ireland and sold into slavery. Lucky enough to escape, he returned home to Britain; but, as we know, he was called back to Ireland, where he returned as a missionary, bringing Christianity to the native people.
In his Confessio, Patrick gives details of his enslavement as a young man: ‘after I had arrived in Ireland, I tended to sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day; and thus the love of God grew more and more.’ Although he gives no exact details of where this was, since the seventh century, the place has been associated with Slemish in County Antrim, thanks to one of his biographers, Muirchú. To this day, people still climb Slemish, and although it is open to the public all year round, it is particularly popular on – you guessed it – Saint Patrick’s Day! The local council has once again been able to organise their annual trek, to celebrate the day.
Whilst I will not be joining them this year, I did venture up Slemish in the spirit of Saint Patrick in the summer of 2020, during a period when covid-related restrictions had begun to ease. It started out as a rather misly morning, with some ominous-looking clouds – there was a risk of getting soaked, but I was determined to get to the top. As luck would have it, the higher I got, the clearer the sky became. Before I knew it I was at the top, looking out over some breath-taking scenery.
Slemish may only stand at 437m, but when you get to the top you get some of the best views around. To the east you find both the Antrim and Scottish coasts, with the Antrim Hills to the north, and Lough Neagh and the Sperrins to the west. In his Life of Patrick, Muirchú wrote that upon his return to Ireland, the saint headed for Slemish to buy his freedom from the man who had previously enslaved him, noting how ‘Holy Patrick, standing in the said place on the right flank of Sliab Miss, from which, on his return full of grace, he had the first view of the district where he had lived as a slave—to the present day a cross stands there to mark (the spot of) his first view of that district’. The cross pictured is the one that you will find on the summit today.
I would highly recommend anyone with any interest in Patrick – or hiking – to visit Slemish. The day I visited it was fairly quiet, with only a handful of others attempting the trek. Sitting at the top, it was hard not to think about Patrick, and what his experience might have been like. Desolate though it was, the serenity and beauty of the place was striking, and I think I was beginning to understand why Patrick did come back to Ireland.
So, if you can, add it to your bucket list, and give it a go! And no matter what you’re doing this Saint Patrick’s Day, whether it’s a hike up Slemish, taking in the freshly-dyed Chicago River, or attending one of the numerous parades around the world, have a safe day, but must of all, have fun. Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona duit!
By Tara Shields
 ‘Sed postquam Hiberione deueueram, cotidie pecora pascebam, et frequens in die orabam, magis ac magis itaque accedebat amor Dei’(https://celt.ucc.ie/published/L201061/index.html) accessed 15 March 2022.
 (https://www.midandeastantrim.gov.uk/events/st-patricks-day-at-slemish) accessed 15 March 2022.