Downpatrick - Story of Belfast

DOWNPATRICK is only eighteen miles from Belfast, but it seems to belong to the "land of long ago." The story of St. Patrick is closely entwined with Downpatrick, and the country surrounding it. Here he founded one of the earliest abbeys in Ireland in the year 493, the Abbey for Canons Regular, but it met with the usual fate and was destroyed, was rebuilt and destroyed again. The town is built on a group of little hills. Ptolemy mentioned it as Dunum, and few towns can boast of a more ancient foundation. Downpatrick figures prominently in monastic story and popular legend. It was burnt six or seven times and the cathedral was pillaged every time. Several Priory churches were erected. When De Courci rebuilt the cathedral in 1185, he found the remains of the original figures of St. Patrick, St. Bridget and St. Columba, and he placed them on shrines inside the Abbey. But the statues met with a sad fate in the year 1538. Lord Leonard de Grey wilfully defaced them, and he too met with a sad fate, for he was beheaded for this act of desecration.

The venerable and beautiful structure was taken down in 1790 to allow a new building to be erected on the same site. It was completed in 1829, and the mutilated figures were placed over the east window. A round tower sixty-six feet high formerly stood at the western end of the cathedral, but unfortunately it had to be taken down, as its ruinous condition threatened to injure the church. A fine old Celtic cross was also removed from the street, and it is now behind the chapel. Dun-Padriug—the hill of Patrick—was once known as Rath-Celtchair, and it is the largest hill fort in the province. It is a short distance from the north side of the cathedral and is a very ancient structure. It measures 895 yards at the base, and is surrounded by three ramparts. In the year 1259, there was a great battle fought in the streets between Lord Justice Stephen De Long Epée, and the Irish chieftain O'Neill. O'Neill and 352 men were killed. In 1246, part of the abbey was destroyed by an earthquake; Edward Bruce plundered and wasted it still more, and burnt the town. Three years later, he returned and again plundered the abbey, and he proclaimed himself King of Ireland at the cross near the cathedral.

Downpatrick was the chosen place of residence of many of the Kings of Ulster, and in addition to the abbey founded by St. Patrick, we read of four priories, one of which and a leper hospital were founded by De Courci. The story of the life and death of De Courci is closely interwoven with the history of Downpatrick, where he lived in regal state and where he was finally taken prisoner. He was a man of immense size and strength and of great courage. He once challenged Sir Hugh De Lacy to fight him in single combat but De Lacy refused, saying it was not fit for the King's representative to fight with a rebel. He bribed some servants to attack De Courci when he was kneeling at prayer in the graveyard. He was unarmed and was only clad in linen garments, but he seized a large wooden cross and killed thirteen of his opponents, and he was finally overcome and taken prisoner. The end of his life is of thrilling interest and well repays perusal. The ruins of the cathedral stood for two hundred and fifty years, and part of it was used in the rebuilding. The famous Jeremy Taylor was Bishop for some time. The Gaol, Hospitals and County Court House are all handsome buildings.


Saul Abbey is one mile from Downpatrick, the Latin name is "Saballum"; in Irish it is "Sgibot-Phadraig "Patrick's Barn. The cry of Patrick was "Come and be saved" which was corrupted into "Samall" to save, still further changed into "Saul." There is another story of how this curious name originated. An Irish chieftain named Dichu gave St. Patrick a barn to be used as a church, and gave him also a piece of ground to be used as a site for building a church upon, so "Patrick's Barn" arose. This was the first monastery in Ireland and was built by St. Patrick in the year 432; the old church was of cruciform shape and covered a considerable extent of ground. St. Patrick died in Saul at the great age of one hundred and twenty years. He dearly loved the quiet peaceful spot, and his grave is near the door of the Cathedral in Downpatrick, but the memory of his long and useful life will be for ever fragrant in Ireland. It will always be as fresh as the shamrock and as green as an emerald.

The greater part of the church has now disappeared, but a small cell with a curiously high-pitched roof is still in the churchyard. It is said to be the tomb of Malachi O'Morgair, a once famous Bishop of Down. There is a fine slab, with an incised cross on it, set into the gate wall. Some rude stone crosses lie among the grass and numerous stone coffins, and the graveyard is crowded to excess. The ruins of an embattled castle and two small towers stand near the old church. A mile south of the hill of Slieve-na-Griddle are the wells of Struel, four holy wells each covered with a vault of stone. On Midsummer Eve, great crowds of people used to assemble, some for penance, and some seeking for health.

The Eye Well is in the centre of a green space, and exactly at twelve o'clock the water of the well overflows and fills the green; it remains for half an hour and then subsides until the next Midsummer Eve. The people believe in the water having a miraculous healing power for spiritual as well as bodily disease. There are four wells, the Body and the Well of Sins, the Limb Well, the Eye Well, and the Well of Life. It has been discovered that the wells are all connected by a subterranean stream. The name Struel comes from an Irish word "struthair," a stream. Near the old Chapel on the brow of a hill is a stone chair known as St. Patrick's Chair. There is also a remarkable Druidical altar, and, in the same neighbourhood in the year 1834, a beautiful gold torque was found which was richly ornamented and set with gems, truly a relic of olden times.