By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
Ah, St. Patrick, that elusive, mystery man who surfaces once a year, on March 17, empowering everyone to flaunt their Irishness, whether or not they have even one drop of Irish blood.
Would you believe – and you can pull this tidbit out at your next Trivia session – that this year marks the 1,550th anniversary of the Holy Man’s death? Well, 2011 marks the death of one St. Patrick anyway. Whether there was more than one is the stuff of legend and ongoing controversy.
If there was only one, he was very well-traveled and, like St. Bridgid, managed to get around the country exceedingly well in an era without cars, trains, and such.
The St. Patrick whose memory is celebrated this month, as our readers probably know, was actually born in Britain around 400 AD, captured by Irish outlaws, and taken to Ireland as a slave when he was 15. He escaped but ultimately returned to convert the Irish pagans to Christianity.
He died on March 17 and was buried in the graveyard beside Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. Although Patrick is credited with driving snakes from Ireland while fasting atop Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, it is said that there never were any snakes in Ireland, that they were simply used as a metaphor for the conversion of pagans and expulsion of Satan from the country.
Want to learn more about St. Patrick? If so, there is an excellent starting place in Downpatrick called the St. Patrick Centre, billed as “the only permanent exhibition in the world which tells the story of Ireland’s patron saint.” The centre is two hours north of Dublin and about half an hour from Belfast. For details, visit saintpatrickcentre.com
The Centre features an interpretive exhibition, an art gallery, restaurant, and a great craft and gift shop where I’ve found different and unusual Irish-made gifts to bring home. The Centre also has an extensive outreach program – Friends of St. Patrick – with chapters all over, including in Pittsburgh, Arizona, and Milwaukee.
ST. PATRICK’S TRAIL
Northern Ireland is really a beautiful and friendly spot and what better time to travel there than now to follow St. Patrick’s Trail?
You can start in Armagh and follow the 92-mile sign-posted driving route all the way to Bangor. There are many places of interest along the way such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Armagh County Museum and public library and St. Patrick’s Trian Visitor Centre, which incorporates three major exhibits including The Land of Lilliput based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, all in Armagh; the Cistercian Monestary (Bagenal’s Castle) in Newry and other attractions nearby including the Dromore High Cross and Cathedral; Bangor Abbey, and North Down Museum in Bangor.
To learn more, visit: discovernorthernireland.com/stpatrick.
Heading south to the Republic, Dublin celebrates March 17 in fine fashion with its annual St. Patrick’s Festival, which runs from March 16 to 20 this year.
There was a time when St. Patrick’s observances elsewhere – where rivers were dyed green and such – far out-festivaled anything the staid Irish did on that special day. In Ireland, March 17 was a family day for the most part – church, perhaps a parade, lunch with family in a local hotel or pub and home. The most we saw the Irish do to display their heritage was pin a live shamrock to their coats.
But now, Dublin goes all out to celebrate every year and, according to the website (stpatricksfestival.ie), “This year, Dublin City is going green for St. Patrick’s Festival! To celebrate Ireland’s national holiday, Festival organizers have launched an initiative called ‘Greening the City,’ asking all businesses and venues to turn their lights green to create a city-wide illumination for the duration of the event (16th-20th March).” All kinds of events are planned for all ages and, if you’ll be in Dublin, you’ll surely have a St. Patrick’s Day to remember.
Cork, Limerick, and Sligo also have St. Patrick’s Festivals and on March 19 Wexford will host the National Lottery Skyfest fireworks spectacle. Websites include: (Cork): corkstpatricksfestival.ie; (Sligo): sosligo.com. Wherever you go in Ireland this month, you’ll find St. Patrick recognized and honored.
SHEEP IN THE ROAD
A friend, knowing my fondness for photographing Irish sheep, recently gave me a brochure from a South Shore company called “Sheep in the Road.” It seems that some years ago, artist Elaine Hailer photographed a lone sheep on an Irish road while visiting her Cork birthplace. Later, she did a series of paintings and once even painted a surfing sheep as a wedding present. Elaine’s husband Mike, inspired by the surfer sheep, began sketching sheep engaged in other human activities and the seeds of a company were sown.
The Hailers collaborated with Steve Rocha and his wife, Kylyn, and the two families now work together selling fun T-shirts featuring sheep in many original poses.
The brochure says “After all is said and done, Sheep in the Road is the story of two families working in concert to spread the infectious enjoyment brought forth by simple yet clever images and concepts presented on high-quality, made-in-the-USA merchandise and apparel designed to make you smile.”
Take a look at their great website at sheepintheroad.com.
Save the date if you’re a walker and plan to travel near beautiful Leenane, Co. Galway, on the N59 at the head of Killary Harbor between April 29 and May 1.
The 4th Annual Leenane Mountain Walking Festival will be held on those dates and it sounds fascinating – especially the special Herb Walk along the Famine Trail on Sat., April 30, led by Dr. Dilis Clare from Galway. A GP & Herbalist, Dr. Clare will point out what grows on the waysides and the herbs people would have used during famine times to survive.
There are lots of great places to stay in that area, great places to eat – Blackberry Café is one of my favorites and I make a point to stop there every year – and there will be lots of post-walk activities too, like an arts and crafts exhibition in the village hall, a mussel fair in nearby Tully Cross, various seisiuns and sean-nos dancing, a barbecue, and hooli.
While you’re in Leenane, be sure to take note of the food festival slated for Sept. 24 and 25. And, stop by the Sheep and Wool Museum, an interesting place with a good gift shop and homemade luncheon fare like quiche, soups and yummy desserts. For more information, visit leenanevillage.com
Hankering for a royal stay prior to the royal wedding?? Well, take a look at the websites for five-star Ashford Castle (ashford.ie) in Co. Mayo or Dromoland Castle (dromoland.ie) in Co. Clare for special offers that have been extended through April – for 97.50 euro per person, you can stay for two nights and get either a third night free or a complimentary meal one night. Both castles offer falconry programs and many other activities and are spectacularly beautiful and well worth a visit even if it’s just for lunch, a cocktail or tea and scones, and a walk around the grounds.
We saw a photo on Facebook in mid-February showing blooms starting to burst forth on trees and bushes in an Irish garden. A friend of the woman who posted the photo said Snowdrops were blooming in his yard. Ireland’s spring is well ahead of ours and April and May are my favorite times to visit there.
Enjoy your trip to Ireland whenever you go and don’t forget to check with your travel agent or on the internet for the latest travel specials. Tourism Ireland’s website – discoverireland.com – is a great source for travelers and has a wealth of information about different areas and activities, festivals and more.
When you’re in Ireland, be sure to stop by the Failte Ireland tourist board offices (marked with a big green shamrock) for details about happenings, to secure accommodation, and learn about the area where you’re traveling.
Check out the Aer Lingus website and other international carriers, too, for air and ground deals. And, have a very happy St. Patrick’s Day wherever you choose to celebrate.