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St. Patrick, who undertook a Christian mission to Ireland in the 5th century, is the only figure from this period whose own writings have survived giving us an insight into his family background and thinking. In his Confession (a ‘profession’ of faith, rather than a ‘confession’ as such), written towards the end of his life, Patrick famously narrates his early life. From a wealthy, landowning Romano-British family, possibly living not far from the coast of what is today Cumbria, he tells us he was the son of Calpurnius, a deacon of the Church and the grandson of Potitus, a priest. When he was sixteen, he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, evidently to county Mayo. 

Known as Domnach Mór Maige Coba (‘the Great Church of the Plain of Coba’), the church founded at Donaghmore may have acted as a missionary centre for the surrounding area. The medieval High Cross in the graveyard of the later parish church can be seen on the left.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Known as Domnach Mór Maige Coba (‘the Great Church of the Plain of Coba’), the church founded at Donaghmore may have acted as a missionary centre for the surrounding area. The medieval High Cross in the graveyard of the later parish church can be seen on the left. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Patrick laments in his Confession that he was irreligious as a boy but during his time as a slave, he experienced a Christian conversion. After about six years in Ireland, he received instructions in a dream about how to escape slavery. He followed these directions and was eventually re-united with his family in Britain. Patrick subsequently received another vision calling him to return to Ireland to preach the Gospel.

Archaeological and place-name evidence demonstrate that Christians were already present in Ireland by the early 5th century, particularly in the south-east of the island. There were sufficient numbers to warrant Pope Celestine I to ordain Palladius as the first bishop for the Irish Church and send him there in 431. This was to guard against the Pelagian heresy which was influential in Britain at that time. Patrick seems to have arrived in Ireland sometime after this.

A watercolour of the seal of the old Newry Urban District Council from the front page of Newry’s Roll of Honour compiled in 1915. The seal was based on that of medieval Cistercian abbey comprises a mitred abbot flanked by two yew trees. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
A watercolour of the seal of the old Newry Urban District Council from the front page of Newry’s Roll of Honour compiled in 1915. The seal was based on that of medieval Cistercian abbey comprises a mitred abbot flanked by two yew trees. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

Although we have valuable information on Patrick’s background, there is no contemporary surviving evidence for his activities as a missionary. Much of the material derives from the cult of St. Patrick connected with Armagh’s claims to supremacy in the Irish Church in the 7th century and the veneration of Patrick as a saint. The two biographies of Patrick written by Tirechán and Muirchú, which are based on oral traditions and scraps of documentary evidence which were then available, are seen in this context.  

Postcard showing the Cathedral of SS. Patrick and Colman in Newry. The tradition that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity cannot be traced back further then the 17th century.
A Postcard showing the Cathedral of SS. Patrick and Colman in Newry. The tradition that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity cannot be traced back further then the 17th century.

Assessing Patrick’s links with the Newry area illustrate well the problems historians face when attempting to trace Patrick’s missionary activities. The name of the city of Newry, in Irish Iubhair Cinn Tragh, derives from the tradition that St. Patrick planted a yew tree at the head of the strand above the Clanrye River. This is not recorded in any early source and only appears in 1162 when the Annals of the Four Masters report that the Cistercian monastery at Newry was destroyed by fire along with ‘the yew tree which Patrick himself planted.’ However, the annals were recording a tradition which had been embedded in the area for some time and the site may have been a place of pilgrimage before the 12th century. The tradition was strong enough for the monastery to be dedicated to St. Patrick when it was founded in 1153 as well as being dedicated to St. Mary and St. Benedict which were the more prevalent Cistercian dedications.

The dedication of his new church to St. Patrick in 1573 shows that Sir Nicholas Bagenal wanted to retain links with the saint as he redeveloped Newry. The present church dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The dedication of his new church to St. Patrick in 1573 shows that Sir Nicholas Bagenal wanted to retain links with the saint as he redeveloped Newry. The present church dates from the 18th and 19th centuries. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

For Patrician evidence of a slightly more concrete form, we need to look a few miles north of Newry to Donaghmore. The domnach place-name had gone out of use in Ireland by the end of the 5th century and appears to be contemporary with Patrick’s mission. Early sources attribute the establishment of Donaghmore to St. Patrick and St. Mac Erca, who was its first bishop. The site continued to be highly significant and a 10th – 11th century High Cross survives there today.

The link with St. Patrick has continued to be celebrated in Newry in a number of ways in more recent centuries. When Sir Nicholas Bagenal built the first purpose-built Protestant church in Ireland in 1573, it was dedicated to St. Patrick. Newry Cathedral, which opened in 1829, was also dedicated to St. Patrick and also to St. Colman. The seals of both the Newry Town Commissioners and the old Newry Urban District Council featured yew trees. Today, the logo of Newry. Mourne and Down District Council incorporates St. Patrick’s crozier.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Ken Abraham

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