St Patrick’s Day - a look at the saint’s legendary life in Co Antrim
St Patrick is one of the most famous figures in the history of the British Isles and there are strong connections to this legendary churchman and missionary in the local area.
History tells us that Patrick was brought to Ireland as a slave at Slemish Mountain. He would later escape but returned to Ireland as a missionary.
Not far removed from Slemish, a church at Skerry was once the centre for major pilgrimage on account of a stone bearing the mark of a footprint – said variously to be that of Patrick or of an angel whom Patrick had seen ascend into heaven. A shrine dedicated to the saint once drew 18th Century crowds over a period of three days.
The Ordnance Survey Memoir of the 1830s – a sort of Doomsday Book for Ireland - tells us that a stone near the eastern gable of the old Skerry church ruin was called St Patrick’s Footmark on account of what looked like an imprint on the stone. The more rational explanation offered by the Memoir was that it was formed by natural cracks and fissures in the rocks and that a chisel had been used on the stone as well.
“Stations are still performed at it, the pilgrim going round and round the church, each time making a genuflexion,” the Memoir detailed.
In the memory of locals the pilgrimage had lasted three days “with tents pitched on the hill to receive the crowd”.
The church was, according to tradition, one of those founded by Patrick.
The Hill of Skerry was believed by some to be stronghold of Milchu – who had bought Patrick as a slave. Tradition has it that a church was built there after his death (he is supposed to have killed himself rather than submit to the new religion which Patrick was representing).
The ruined church there dates back to medieval times.
One story told about the old church is that William III’s soldiers were stationed there, presumably in the months prior to the Battle of the Boyne. Supposedly some locals stole their saddles and in revenge the soldiers wrecked the church, burning the roof and rendering it a ruin.
However since the church was said to be a ruin in the 1670s this at very least leads to some confusion over dates and events.
We are perhaps on firmer ground over St Patrick and churches he founded.
The ancient records of the ‘Tripartite Life’ of Patrick detail that he established two churches at least in the Glens, at St Cunning (Cairncastle) and at Glore outside Glenarm.
No traces remain of the church at St. Cunning, but there is a record of a church ruin and graveyard at the townland of St. Cunning in the past. In 1833 it was reported that ruins were visible and the local placename ‘Church Park’ probably relates to the church.
At Glore outside Glenarm was a second church said to have been founded by Patrick along a river from which the location took its name from the Irish word Gluair meaning ‘pure, clean and clear’ and relating to the waters.
According to legend St. Patrick left a man by the name of MacLaisre in charge of the church and author Felix McKillop in his excellent history of Glenarm suggests this is the same name as MacCrevin from which Tickmacreevan (the house of MacCrevin) takes its name.
In 1622 the church is reported as “Ecclesia de Tecmacrevin, decayed’.
Further south, Patrick is also said to have been active in establishing churches, with two others that are on the coast being at Glynn and Millbay in Islandmagee.
The church at Glynn was said to have been founded by Patrick in 435AD as well as another across Larne Lough near Kilcoan and ruins can still be viewed at Glynn.
In many areas popular celebration of Patrick – and preservation of his memory - was more usual among Catholics.
The Ordnance Survey Memoir of the 1830s informs us that in Glenarm there was no observance of
St Patrick’s Day but that a little further north, in the Parish of Ardclinnis “St Patrick’s is the only patron’s day which is observed: the observance of it in this, as well as in the neighbouring parish, confined to the Roman Catholics.”
This trend was no different in the 1930s; in 1938, for example, it was reported in the Larne Times that “The feast of the National Apostle was observed in time-honoured fashion in Cushendall, Glenariff and Carnlough, large congregations attending the various services.”
The following year it was reported that “St. Patrick’s Day was duly observed along the Antrim Coast in a fitting manner. Everybody, without exception, disported the “green immortal shamrock” and it was noticeable how few there were who ‘drowned’ it. This, no doubt, is due to the wave of temperance which is doing so much good,” the Larne Times said.
In the National Hall, Glenarm, a dance was held with Mr W McMullan the MC and music provided by No 1 McCrystall Band, Broughshane. In the Feystown Hall a dance was also given when many visitors were present and No 2 McCrystall Band, Ballymena, supplied the dance music.
A largely attended ceilidh was held in the Seaview Schools, Glenarm where Mr PJ Courtney, Irish language teacher, Belfast, officiated as MC and songs in Irish were a feature. The Magill Orchestral Band. Cairncastle, provided music.
Meanwhile at Carrickfergus a ceilidh attracted upwards of 400 people in the Town Hall,
Carrickfergus, and was organised by the committee of the local Roman Catholic St Nicholas’ Church in aid of parochial funds. Desmond Gillespie was dancing master, and the Ardscoil Ceilidhe Band, Belfast, supplied the music while the programme was interspersed with traditional Irish songs by Misses Joan Gee and Peggy O’Neill, the Larne Times informed on March 25, 1939.
As St Patrick’s Day became more populist the debate over whether the message of the patron saint was being lost inevitably came to the fore.
There still remained – and remains – of course, debate as to where St Patrick actually came from. A strong tradition surrounds Dumbarton in Scotland but there is also a lobby for a Welsh connection.
One thing is clear, however, wherever Patrick was born, his legend grew to adulthood on this side of the Irish Sea.