Across the road sits Saul Church and its amber-coloured round tower. It’s a modest place – no frills, no grandeur, no gilded altars or lavish ceilings. It’s modest because St Patrick, who it was built to commemorate, had a modest life. And if you want proof, jog back 1,700 years to this same spot where he established his first church... in a barn.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because long before Patrick was a saint and well before he was a saviour, he was a slave.
The Lord is my shepherd
Just like the cows, the sheep on the side of Slemish Mountain have no idea this is where Ireland’s patron saint found fortitude. Kidnapped from his home on Britain’s coast, a teenage Patrick was bonded to slavery on Slemish.
Imagine it: ripped from family and home as a teen, deposited on a rocky outcrop without a soul in sight, and subjected to rain, sleet and snow. Patrick did all he could do, and turned to prayer.
However he did it, Ireland's patron saint managed to leave a glow of serenity behind on this mountain, as well as on the vastness of County Down’s pastoral heartland.
What dreams may come
A successful escape took Patrick home, but dreams plagued him. The pagan land of Ireland demanded his return, and so he came back to turn Ireland’s population from pagan to Christian.
This time, though, it was at his own pace. Under the elbow of County Down and up into Strangford Lough, if Patrick needed a fresh impression of Ireland, he found it here. He sailed into a scene of scattered islands, rocky nooks and green fields.
But Patrick wasn’t here for the scenery. He had work to do.
Kings, cathedrals and a crozier
Patrick’s busy schedule took him to the site of what is now St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin (so named after he was said to have baptised converts here); and to the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary (where Patrick is said to have baptised the King of Munster by accidentally putting the spiked end of his crozier through the king’s foot).
It took him to Lough Derg in Donegal to found a monastery; and to the Hill of Slane in County Meath, where he lit his Paschal fire.
It was on Croagh Patrick, though, where he had an epiphany. On scree slopes and with views of Clew Bay, Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights.
And St Patrick isn't the only one to have found solace on the peak. Each year, thousands of visitors climb the mountain for a slice of the clarity the saint himself sought.
Some do it barefoot. Some find answers. All find peace.
Standing over the smooth stone that denotes the saint’s final resting place at Down Cathedral, it hits you – Patrick left a legacy. His life was epic, and Ireland clings close to his memory to this day, with legends, rich heritage and one of the best festivals in the world.