Saturday 18 March 2023

The Grave of Saint Patrick


Last night on Radio Maria Ireland's show 'All the Saints of Ireland' I looked at the question of where Saint Patrick was laid to rest. Downpatrick, County Down emerged as the only place with an actual reputed burial site to which a visitor could be pointed. As I explained on the show, by the nineteenth century there was a lot of muttering about the shabby state of the grave, a sentiment reflected in the 1882 article below, syndicated in a New Zealand newspaper from The Cork Examiner. By this time the railways had reached Downpatrick making travel easier and encouraging the beginnings of tourism. Victorian visitors went armed with their guidebooks, anxious to see what historical curiosities their destinations offered, so it must have been something of a disappointment to read of Downpatrick's rich Patrician associations only to be be confronted with the reality of this unprepossessing grave site where not just Saint Patrick but his two co-patrons, Saints Brigid and Colum Cille, were said to rest. To make matters worse, the historic market cross which marked the grave was destroyed in a mindless act of vandalism. So, the picture of the grave site by the early 1880s is bleak indeed, but tomorrow we will have another newspaper article which describes how things changed dramatically twenty years later:

THE GRAVE OF ST. PATRICK. (From the Cork Examiner.)

AWAY in the far north, in the quaint little graveyard of the Cathedral Church of Down, lies the grave of St. Patrick. In the Saint's lifetime called Dun-de-leth Glaiste, the town in which the honoured remains were interred became known as Downpatrick. This ancient borough has been singularly privileged in Irish ecclesiastical history in having not less than three saints interred in its old and venerable cathedral churchyard, the ancient chronicle tolling us that —
"One grave in Down three saints do fill—Patrick, Bridget and Columbkille."
For centuries, and even up to the present day, the shrine of our patron saint and of his great fellow-labourers in the cause of Irish evangelization, has been annually visited by hundreds of pious pilgrims, the tradition of the neighbourhood affirming that miraculous cures of physical ailments have been obtained by helpless sufferers. In the "Life of St. Patrick" written by the Nun of Kenmare, we find it stated that when the Patron Saint died at Saul (a little village lying a couple of miles eastward of Downpatrick, on the shore of Strangford Lough), in the year 465, a dispute arose between his followers as to which of the two places his remains should be removed to. It was known that the Saint's wishes pointed in the direction of Armagh; but, anxious to prevent dissension among his disciples over his remains, and unwilling to express a decided preference for either place, he gave instructions for bis funeral to the effect, that when his body was removed for interment it should be placed on a bier drawn by two young bullocks which should be permitted to go without hindrance or guidance in whatever direction they chose, and that wherever the bullocks should stop, there his remains should be buried. The bullocks stopped at Dun-de-leth Glaiste, where his place of sepulture was accordingly made. Close beside, stands the Cathedral Church of Down, one of the most venerable ecclesiastical structures in Ireland, and nearly opposite the southern side of the Cathedral tower, on the highest part of the old burial-ground (which in itself forms a hill), is the grave of St. Patrick. To a stranger, the first look begets disappointment. Instead of a jealously-guarded crypt or tomb, worthy even in a small degree of the great Apostle, the eye rests on a flat green sod, 7 feet long by 7 feet wide, with a hole at the east end, 20 inches square by 8 inches deep, which, from the veneration of the Saint and by a continuation of visitors, is rapidly developing into much larger proportions. Up to the year 1846 a magnificent Irish stone cross, dating from centuries before, stood at the head of the Saint's grave, and was a source of pride to the inhabitants of Downpatrick, as well as of interest to visitors; but in that year a band of vandals, at the dead hour of night, dragged the sacred emblem from the grave of the Saint, and, conveying it a short distance, deposited it with ignominy in the common town drain. The indignation of the inhabitants was profound, and on the action of the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral, who at once offered a reward for its discovery, the violated Celtic stone cross was restored to its place at the head of St. Patrick's grave. Again it was stolen, doubtless in the hope of obtaining further reward; but on that occasion it was unfortunately smashed into many fragments, and being after a time recovered, they were placed beyond reach of future sacrilege, by the Dean and Chapter, in the east end of the cathedral. And so the grave remains unmarked by brass, or stone, or monumental urn. . . . Indeed, the grave itself would have been ere now in much worse condition than it is, were it not for the thoughtfulness which has, for many years past, prompted Mr. Robert H. Bell, a native of Downpatrick, to bestow some gratuitous attention upon it.

THE GRAVE OF ST. PATRICK. (From the Cork Examiner.),New Zealand Tablet, Volume X, Issue 476, 26 May 1882

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