Shrines of the Three Saints

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter IX

It has been doubted whether Downpatrick could lay claim to the honour of being the burial-place of Ireland’s three great saints,[6] but there are good arguments in its favour.

An old prophecy of St. Columba regarding his interment runs thus:—

“My prosperity in guiltless Hy,

And my soul in Derry,

And my body under the flag

Beneath which are Patrick and Brigid.”

The relics of the three saints escaped the fury of the Danes, who burned the town and pillaged the cathedral six or seven times, between the years 940 and 1111.

In 1177, John de Courcy took possession of the town, and founded a church attached to a house of Secular Canons, under the invocation of the Blessed Trinity.

In 1183 they were replaced by a community of Benedictine monks, from St. Wirburgh’s Abbey, at Chester.

Malachy, who was then bishop, granted the church to the English monks and prior, and changed the name to that of the Church of St. Patrick.

This prelate was extremely anxious to discover the relics of the saints, which a constant tradition averred were there concealed.

It is said, that one day, as he prayed in the church, his attention was directed miraculously to an obscure part of it; or, according to another and more probable account, to a particular spot in the abbey-yard, where, when the earth was removed, their remains were found in a triple cave,—Patrick in the middle, Columba and Brigid on either side.

At the request of De Courcy, delegates were despatched to Rome by the bishop to acquaint Urban III. of the discovery of the bodies.

His Holiness immediately sent Cardinal Vivian to preside at the translation of the relics.

The ceremony took place on the 9th of June, 1186, that day being the feast of St. Columba.

The relics of the three saints were deposited in the same monument at the right side of the high altar.

The right hand of St. Patrick was enshrined and placed on the high altar.

In 1315, Edward Bruce invaded Ulster, marched to Downpatrick, destroyed the abbey, and carried off the enshrined hand.

In 1538, Lord Grey, who marched into Lecale to establish the supremacy of his master, Henry VIII., by fire and sword, “effaced the statues of the three patron saints, and burned the cathedral, for which act, along with many others equally laudable, he was beheaded three years afterwards.”

The restoration of the old abbey-church was undertaken of late years, and preceded by an act of desecration, which is still remembered with horror.

The church had been surrounded by a burying-ground, where many had wished to repose, that they might, even in death, be near the relics of the three great patron saints of Erinn.

But the graves were exhumed without mercy, and many were obliged to carry away the bones of their relatives, and deposit them where they could.

The “great tomb,” in which it was believed that “Patrick, Brigid, and Columkille” had slept for more than six centuries, was not spared; the remains were flung out into the churchyard, and only saved from further desecration by the piety of a faithful people.


[6] Saints.St. Patrick, St. Columba, and St. Brigid. See Reeves’ Ecc. Anti. of Down and Connor, p. 225, and Giraldus Cambrensis, d. 3, cap. 18.