Travels & Traditions: The Land of St. Patrick - #603

BURT WOLF: Ireland’s geographic separation from the rest of Europe and the 2,000 miles of ocean between its western coast and North America has allowed Ireland to develop a cultural history that is both rich and independent. Its folklore ranges from little leprechauns sitting on their pots of gold at the end of rainbows to the stories of St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland. Today Ireland is a modern European industrialized state but it has held on to much of its folklore and its traditions.

In the year 314, Christianity became the state religion of ancient Rome, and as the Romans spread across Europe so did Christianity. But Christianity in Ireland was different from Christianity in the rest of Europe.

Instead of being centered in a church within a city, the Christian communities in Ireland were located in remote monasteries -- monasteries that attracted scholars and artists.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Some of the world’s great illuminated manuscripts were produced here in the isolated monasteries of Ireland. And as the Ancient Roman Empire fell apart these monasteries became the keepers of Christian knowledge. Ireland slowly evolved into an island of saints and scholars.

BURT WOLF: Christianity, however, did not arrive in Ireland as a new and attractive religion that was quickly accepted. It came in slowly and blended into the ancient beliefs of the Celtic tribes.


BURT WOLF: Tim Campbell is an authority and scholar who has written some of the definitive works on the history and culture of Northern Ireland.

DR. TIM CAMPBELL ON CAMERA: Saint Patrick was born in a place called Bannavem Taberniae. We don't know exactly where that is. Many people think he was Irish, but that's not true. 

TIM CAMPBELL: He was actually born in Britain. He was a son and a grandson of clerics, but when he was a teenager, he was a wayward minister's son. And, he decided he wasn't interested in his father's faith. He lived in a big estate and he was abducted when he was 16 and brought to Ireland to a place called Slemish Mountain.

Saint Patrick was a shepherd slave for six years on Slemish Mountain. He began to hear voices in his head, which he supposed were God's voice talking to him, and that gave him the strength after six years to run away from his master, probably to the southwestern part of Ireland, and jump onto a ship

Eventually he goes home to be with his people again, and he becomes a cleric because of his experience, and eventually a bishop. 

TIM CAMPBELL ON CAMERA: One night in his sleep the angel Victoricus comes. I call him "Victor the Mailman" because he came with this great big bag of mail, one of which was addressed to Patrick, and it said, "Vox Hibernicus, the voice of the Irish". 

TIM CAMPBELL: More or less, "Dear Patrick, please come back and save us", which he decides then to do. 

BURT WOLF: Throughout the island, altars, idols and elaborate rituals had been in place for hundreds of years. Patrick’s only hope for success was to befriend the chieftains and adapt his message to the structure that had been set up by the Druid priests.

The Celts worship the sun which Patrick accepted, but then he pointed out that some days the sun was around and some days it wasn’t and at some point in the future it might disappear forever, on the other hand, Christ was an everlasting sun. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Of course in the pagan world, and almost every religion, the sun has a prominent place. For classical Greek and Roman thought, Soul Evictus, the invincible sun. But everybody understands that the sun has a life-giving importance in human existence and so for the Christian, the identity of Christ with the sun was a natural. He fills one's life with brightness, with radiance, with warmth and he is the source of one's life and so for Christians the identification of Jesus, the son of God, with the sun was natural.


BURT WOLF: A few miles away from St. Patrick’s first church is the ancient hill of Down and the Down Cathedral. It was built in the 12th century and has been a place of pilgrimage for over 1500 years. St. Patrick is probably buried somewhere beneath the Cathedral. The date of his death is given as the 17th of March and each year during the month of March people come here from all over the world honoring his memory. 

Joy Wilkinson is the manager of the Cathedral.

JOY WILKINSON ON CAMERA: Well, this cathedral was originally built in 1183 as a Benedictine monastery by John de Courcy who came, that when the Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th century. But its history goes back many, many centuries before that because this was where the early Celts used to worship before Christianity came.

JOY WILKINSON: The Coats of Arms are the families that paid for the restoration in the 1700s. These box pews were family boxes. People paid rent for them. It was very important to be seen to be going to church, and it was even more important when you got here to have a good seat.

The columns that hold it up are the original 12th century columns of the original building with medieval capitals on the top. And the molding around the east window is the original 12th century molding.

So it's just a mixture of all the different people that have been responsible for looking after it since it originally was built. 


BURT WOLF: As is often the case, fame arrives just after your funeral, and so it was with

St. Patrick. As soon as he died, the legend of his deeds began to grow and by the middle of the 600s he was on his way to becoming Ireland’s national apostle.

In the year 807, the Book of Armagh directed all monasteries and churches in Ireland to honor his memory on March 17th in what was a spiritual ceremony.

By 1607, March 17th was marked on the Irish legal calendar and was officially

St. Patrick’s Day.

Today it is celebrated throughout the world, though there appears to be a greater emphasis on revelry than religion.


BURT WOLF: The city of Armagh is the spiritual capital of Ireland. In pagan times it was the seat of the High Kings of Ulster which made it the logical place for St. Patrick to build his most important church. He built it in 445 on the Hill of Armagh which is now the site of the Cathedral of the Church of Ireland.

Across town is the County Museum with a collection that illustrates the city's role in early Christian history. Greer Ramsey, the deputy curator is an expert on the subject

DR. GREER RAMSEY ON CAMERA: The monks began to record events that affected them and they recorded them in the book that's referred to today as the Annals, and date, the Annals, which would have been compiled in and around the 7th century were probably written in the great monastery at Armagh where the Church of Armagh Cathedral now stands. And the easiest way to describe the Annals is they're like the monks' diary, and they recorded them on a yearly basis. 

And we get a picture of, of great prosperity, a wealthy city. But this wealth and prosperity was soon to be shattered, and it was shattered by an entry in the Annals in the year 830. It says Armagh was plundered three times in one month by the foreigners. Today we knew the foreigners, of course as the Vikings. Why would they have plundered Armagh? What was it they were after? Well, Armagh had everything the Vikings wanted. It had food, it had wine, it had precious metal objects, and a supplier of captured slaves, and they exchanged the slaves for silver.

BURT WOLF: Nearby is Navan Fort which was built at the beginning of the first century BC -- say 2100 years ago. It’s called a fort but it’s actually the remains of a prehistoric sanctuary -- some form of sacred space used as a funeral monument and a place for religious rituals.

It’s made up of a large circular earth work with two smaller round mounds on top. The space is enclosed with a bank that has an internal ditch. The fact that the ditch is inside the bank is an indication that the mound was built as a religious center and not a defensive fort. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: This area was the ancient seat of the Kings of Ulster and for centuries the capital of Ulster. You can come here and visit the ancient earthworks, see the ancient sacred ground and even talk to the ancient sacred residents who are always willing to share their ancient and sacred folklore.

BURT WOLF: An essential part of the story of St. Patrick is a visit to the St. Patrick Center in Downpatrick. It is the world’s only permanent exhibition dedicated to telling the story of St. Patrick. Interactive exhibitions. An IMAX presentation. The center can also arrange for guided tours of St. Patrick country.


BURT WOLF: Two of the most famous holy sites in Ireland were not made by man but created by the forces of nature and both are associated with the life of St. Patrick -- Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick.

MONSIGNOR RICHARD MOHAN ON CAMERA: Lough Derg is a lake in the northwest of Ireland, and in that lake there are many islands, but two are special. One is known as the Purgatory of Patrick, and the other one is known as Saint's Island. The story seems to have been that Patrick went onto the smaller of the two islands, and went into a cave there. And Patrick spent 24 hours in the cave. While there he had a vision of the afterlife. He according to the story got a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of purgatory and hell, and the suffering that people had to go through in order to be purified, or to grow in order to get into heaven. And, having had that vision, other people wanted to come and do the same thing. They came over the years to Lough Derg and wanted to go into that same cave. As a result of that, a monastery was set up on the larger island, and that monastery in a way ran or controlled the Purgatory. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Perhaps the best way to understand purgatory is to go back to the words of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, where he said, "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God." Although people who die in the friendship of God, they're sins are forgiven, there still must be a time when their soul is purified so they are pure of heart and can be in the presence of God. Dante, when he writes the Divine Comedy, the last part of the purgatory, says the soul now is purified and perfect and can journey to the stars. That's the idea of purgatory, being purified so that one can be in the presence of the divine.

BURT WOLF: In 1632, as part of England’s effort to suppress Irish Catholicism, the British destroyed the relics on Station Mountain and banned pilgrimages to Patrick’s Purgatory. The faithful could no longer reach the island so they would stand on the shores of the lake fasting and praying as if they were on the island.

Despite persecution and suppression the pilgrimage survived. 

MONSIGNOR RICHARD MOHAN ON CAMERA: To this day people go on pilgrimage there, they eat little food, and they spend 24 hours without sleep, and the night of vigil and the 24 hours without sleep is equivalent to being in the cave with Patrick.

BURT WOLF: Over 25,000 pilgrims come to Lough Derg each year. Many of the pilgrims are in their 20’s, but I think they would be even younger if not for a minimum age requirement of seventeen. Pilgrims do station prayers, circle crosses honoring St. Patrick, St. Brigid, St. Brendan, and St. Catherine. Their objective is to find a peace within and a feeling that they are closer to God. 


BURT WOLF: Located on the west coast of County Mayo, Croagh Patrick is Ireland’s Holy Mountain. The Celts called it Eagle Peak and it was sacred to their goddess of fertility. During Lent of the year 441, St. Patrick retreated to this mountain, and like Christ, Moses and Mohammad in the desert, spent forty days and nights in solitude, fasting and praying. In St. Patrick’s case his prayers were for the people of Ireland.

At one point an angel appeared and announced that his prayers had been heard.

And as a result many Irish souls would be free from the pains of purgatory and that seven years before Judgment Day the sea would spread over Ireland and save its people from the temptations and terrors of the Devil. And on that last day, Patrick himself would be the judge of all the people of Ireland.

During the last Sunday in July some 80,000 people climb to the top of the mountain. Many are barefoot and the sharp stones of the trail are often marked with blood. They are attempting to atone for their sins through physical pain.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: To a certain extent the pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick mirrors the ancient Celtic rites. The day used to honor St. Patrick, is the same day that the ancient Celts used to honor their goddess of fertility.

BURT WOLF: St. Patrick had a great talent for blending Christian rituals together with Pagan rites. His activities at Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg are famous examples but he was doing it all the time and the evidence is scattered throughout Ireland. 


BURT WOLF: As St. Patrick traveled around Ireland, he marked certain wells as sacred and used their water to baptize new converts to Christianity. For thousands of years people have associated wells with magical forces. Each well had its own legend and its own set of powers. Wells were dwelling places for the gods.

The well itself acted as an intermediary between human beings and the spirits. You can still see a remnant of that idea in a wishing well where people leave an offering along with their wishes.

The ancient Romans thought that any point where water came up from inside the earth was a place where an altar should be built, and as they spread their culture across Ireland their beliefs were blended together with the Celtic rituals that had been in place for hundreds of years.

Both pagan and Roman traditions were incorporated into Christianity and the neighborhood well became an efficient place to preach conversion and to baptize those who converted. 

Wells became social centers for the community. In the days before you went down to a pub to hoist a pint, you went to a well to hoist a bucket. Both wells and pubs are known as watering holes.


BURT WOLF: Under the theory that the body must be fed as well as the soul I stopped into Dublin's Four Seasons Hotel for a traditional Irish breakfast with the General Manager John Brennan and the Head Chef Terry White.

JOHN BRENNAN ON CAMERA: Traditional Irish breakfast starts with really good pork products, so sausages, Irish back bacon, puddings, both white and black pudding, fried eggs, normally sunny side up, and then like everything in Ireland you can't get away from, potatoes, some really nice sautéed potatoes, as well as half a grilled tomato and a grilled flat mushroom.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What's in white pudding?

JOHN BRENNAN ON CAMERA: Well it's primarily oatmeal but it also obviously has pork products in it and its just minced together and then turned into like a large sausage, it's sliced from there.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What will it cost me to keep you from telling me what's in the black pudding?

TERRY WHITE ON CAMERA: Well, that one's a bit different. All the same ingredients but with the addition of some blood.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Anybody's blood that I would know?

TERRY WHITE ON CAMERA: No just a few porks running around the field.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Okay…tell me about the tea.

JOHN BRENNAN ON CAMERA: Tea is something that you get in every Irish home and it's always the same kind of tea, it's like a breakfast tea, but it's always strong, the most prevalent one is from Barry's Tea from County Cork. It's actually so famous in Ireland that they send in out in the diplomatic pouch to the guys who are ambassadors or in the diplomatic missions overseas.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How do you make the soda bread?

TERRY WHITE ON CAMERA: Well the soda bread is made by somebody who gets up much earlier than I do. They start with whole meal, treacle and Guinness.


TERRY WHITE ON CAMERA: We put a drop or two in there. In starts their morning of well and one for the loaf and a little for them.


BURT WOLF: The legend of St. Patrick is the classic story of the hero’s journey. Separated from his home and his parents he is held against his will in a strange and dangerous world. But with the help of a supernatural force he overcomes the challenges and returns to save society. It’s the chronicle of St. Patrick but it is also the story of Star Wars and Harry Potter.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: These days it’s very easy to get caught up in our love of science and lose the meaning behind the legend. They say that St. Patrick spent his life trying to banish the snakes from Ireland. Then the scientists tell us that there were no snakes in Ireland to begin with. Does that diminish the legend of St. Patrick? I don’t think so. If you think of a snake as a symbol for a serpent -- and a serpent as the symbol for the devil, and remember that St. Patrick spent his life trying to banish the devil from Ireland. Then it all makes perfectly good sense. It’s important not to lose the real meaning behind the legend.

BURT WOLF: One of the great things about the Irish is that for over 2,000 years they have fought to maintain their cultural heritage and to keep their myths alive. They understand the story behind the story and they make it part of their lives.

For Travels & Traditions. I’m Burt Wolf.