St. Patrick’s Day is an excuse for fun. My mother is Irish and on March 17, like many, she raised a glass to the man who rid the Emerald Isle of snakes. But that’s my only knowledge of Ireland’s patron saint.
So, I decided to explore St. Patrick’s Way, an 82-mile hiking route from Armagh to Downpatrick in Northern Ireland.
I start with a Guinness at Rafferty’s bar.
“You know St. Patrick was one of yours,” the waiter says, adding quietly. ‘English.’
The Pilgrim’s Search: Lizzie Enfield walks the St Patrick’s Way in Northern Ireland, which passes through the Morne Mountains (pictured)
Saint Patrick was born in Roman Britain, was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery before escaping to France, where he studied religion and eventually returned to Ireland as a missionary.
One of his first converts was Chief Daire, who gave him land to build a church on a hill outside Armagh.
St Patrick’s Way begins at St Patrick’s Cathedral of the Church of Ireland. I will find many more churches named after him.
They’re like Murphy’s bars, but without Guinness.
The route winds through Armagh’s orchard area, source of hot cider and crisp apple pies, before passing through the Bainbridge linen weaving center and alongside the Newry canal.
The 82-mile route starts at St Patrick’s Cathedral (pictured) in Armagh.
Above, a stained glass image of Saint Patrick.
From Newry to 18th-century Rostrevor, I walk along country lanes with views of sparkling Carlingford Lough.
On its shores is Rostrevor, the birthplace of Robert Ross, the British major general who burned down the White House during the war between Great Britain and the United States in 1814.
It was also a favorite place of Belfast-born CS Lewis, whose inspiration for Narnia was the snow-capped Morne Mountains, the city’s backdrop.
In Kilbroney Park, I discover that I am not the only one searching for the closet door, the starting point of a Narnian path through the woods.
When I reach the lamppost, a little girl asks, “Have you seen Mr. Tumnus?”
I’m heading to the mountains. These towering masses of Silurian slate and greywacke (a thick sandstone) are where St Patrick converted the local hill people.
Wild, windy and wet, this part of the route requires good navigation skills, but there is no need to fear snakes.
On the way, Lizzie passes through Tollymore Forest (pictured), familiar as the setting for the TV series Game of Thrones.
A hiker I met at the top of Butter Mountain said Patrick never led one. It was a metaphor for purging Ireland of its pagan customs.
I head through the beautiful beech forest of Tollymore, familiar as the setting for the TV series Game of Thrones, to the seaside resort of Newcastle. I know a true pilgrim would eat a potato, but why settle when there are prawns, turbot and plaice on the menu?
The next day I continued to Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, where the saint is buried under a large granite slab carved with the single word ‘Patrick’.
In Downpatrick, Lizzie visits St Patrick’s tomb (pictured) at Down Cathedral
At the nearby glass St. Patrick’s Center, I learn that Patrick was never officially canonized.
So, the patron saint of Ireland was not Irish, nor a saint, nor did he drive out any snakes! What he did do was change the course of the island’s history.
If not for the return of St. Patrick, it might have remained the inhospitable, pagan place that the Romans considered not worth conquering.
The trail is a walk through the history it created and an area of beautiful scenery. That’s an excuse to raise a glass to St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, for sure.