St. Patrick and the blessed trout

John Healy
St. Patrick in the Far West | start of essay


Patrick had a great sympathy, not only with men, but with the lower animals also. He noted two trout that frequented the streamlet still flowing by the roadside. They became his pets, and even these he parted from with regret. From the earliest Christian days the fish was a sacred symbol. The apostles were at first fishers in the waters, and afterwards became fishers of men. The very letters of the word, in the Greek alphabet, were holy symbols, and, hence, the trout living in the wells and streams, whose waters were used in Baptism, had themselves something of a sacred character, and the acts and saying of St. Patrick gave encouragement to this idea, which has not yet disappeared from the minds of our people.

“My two salmon inseparable,” said Patrick,

“Swimming against the stream,

Harmless and innocent,

Will abide here, and angels will be with them.”

The venerable successor of St. Patrick at Aghagower tells me they are there no more. I am sorry for it, for I should surely regard them as sacred fish, symbols of the Saviour of men, and types of silent, innocent hearts, who, like them, are under the guardianship of God’s angels.

It would appear from the narrative in the Book of Armagh that Patrick went first from Aghagower to Murrisk, at the base of the mountain. There his car-driver, Totmael, the Bald One, sickened and died—rather suddenly it would appear—and there they buried him in the ancient Irish fashion, raising a great cairn of stones over his grave, which is, I believe, still to be seen. The simple people of Murrisk had at the time little or no idea of a resurrection of the dead; so Patrick, standing by the great cairn, said—“Let him rest there until the world’s end, but he will be visited by me in those last days”—and raised from the dead.


Thereafter, Patrick, we are told, ascended the summit of the mountain, and remained upon it “forty days and forty nights”—that is the whole of Lent—but as a fact he spent more than forty days and forty nights on the Holy Hill, for he ascended it, we are told, on Shrove Saturday, i.e., the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, and remained there until Holy Saturday, the eve of Easter Sunday. We can even fix the exact year and the day of the month on which St. Patrick ascended the Reek. The Annals of Ulster, under date A.D. 441, have this important entry—“Leo ordained 47th Bishop of the Church of Rome, and Patrick the Bishop was approved in the Catholic Faith.” There is also a sentence in the Tripartite Life which helps to explain this entry. It is this—“When Patrick was on Cruachan Aigle (that is on the Reek), he sent Munis (his nephew) to Rome with counsel for the Abbot of Rome”—that is the Pope—“and relics were given to him” to carry home to Patrick.

Now, St. Leo the Great was consecrated Pope in Rome on the 29th September, in the year A.D. 440. Croaghpatrick was a long and, at that time, a very difficult journey from Rome, so that news of the new Pope’s election could hardly reach Patrick in the far West before the early spring of the following year. As soon as the news did reach him on the Reek, he felt it his duty to send off at once his own nephew, Bishop Munis, to congratulate the new Pope, to give an account of his own mission and preaching, and to beg the Pope’s blessing and authorisation to continue his work. This authority Munis readily received from the Pope, with many relics for the consecration of the altars in the new churches which Patrick was founding in Ireland, and we hear of him on his return journey at Clonmacnoise. That is the meaning of the phrase—that “Leo was ordained 47th Bishop of Rome, and Patrick the Bishop was approved in the Catholic Faith” in Ireland. It is an exceedingly important statement and, as might be expected, Protestant writers have not called attention to its full meaning. It is a very interesting fact connected with the history of this Holy Mountain that it was from its summit St. Patrick sent this wise message to Rome, and got back the Pope’s blessing.


The Tripartite tells us that during the time Patrick was on the Reek, he abode there in much discomfort, without drink and without food, from Shrove Saturday to Holy Saturday. There can be no doubt the Saint must have spent those days on the great mountain’s summit in much discomfort. He was exposed, day and night, to all the fury of the elements—wind and rain, sunshine at times, but not improbably much snow and hail also in the early months of spring. He had the poor shelter of four stones round about him; and at night, when he sought to rest, his head was pillowed on a flag, the five stones making the shape of a rude cross—great discomfort surely of body, and no doubt, too, much anguish of mind; but it is by the Cross the saints reach their glory. Hence, all our ancient writers compare Patrick on the Reek to Moses on Mount Sinai. Both were bidden by God’s angel to spend the forty days upon a holy hill; both fasted and prayed for their people; both fought against demons and druids; both, it is said, lived to the same great age of 120 years, and the sepulchre of both, the exact spot, no man knows—for, although we know that Patrick was buried at Downpatrick, the exact spot has been unknown for many ages, even from the day of his burial, for it was deliberately concealed lest his body might be stolen. There can be no doubt, too, that Patrick suffered much anguish of spirit on the Reek. He was fasting in prayer for his people, over whom the demons of paganism had ruled so long; and the demons resolved, so far as they could, to tempt and torment him. They tempted Christ Himself, as we know—why not try to tempt His apostle? They covered the whole mountain top in the form of vast flocks of hideous black birds, so dense that Patrick could neither see sky nor earth nor sea. They swooped down upon him and over him with savage beaks and black wings; they filled the air with discordant screams, making day and night horrible with their cries.


Patrick chanted maledictive psalms against them to drive them away, but in vain; he prayed to God to disperse them, but they fled not; he groaned in spirit, and bitter tears coursed down his cheeks, and wet every hair of the priestly chasuble which he wore—still prayers and tears were in vain. Then he rang his bell loudly against them—it was said its voice had always power to drive away the demons—whereupon they gave way, and to complete their rout, he flung the blessed bell amongst them, and then they fled headlong down the side of the mountain, and over the wide seas beyond Achill and Clare, and were swallowed up in the great deeps, so that for seven years no evil thing was found within the holy shores of Ireland. The bell itself rolling down the mountain, or from the excessive ringing, had a piece broken out of its edge, although such bells were made of wrought iron or bronze; but an angel brought it back again to Patrick, and when dying he left it to Brigid—who prized it greatly—hence it was called Brigid’s Gapling, or Brigid’s Broken Bell. This is a very ancient tale, and you may believe as much of it as you please. If it should seem strange why the voice of the bell should have more virtue than Patrick’s prayers and tears, let me remind you that it was Patrick’s Bell, the symbol of his spiritual authority and, as it were, the voice of his supernatural power.