Arts

Saint Patrick link cements status of Slemish as an Irish landmark

slemish.jpg

THE term ‘landmark' can conjure up many subjective definitions when thinking about Ireland's cultural heritage. Should it be confined to geographical features such as – given the weekend that's in it – Croagh Patrick? Or should it factor in urban structures, such as the GPO?

One of the best-known northern landmarks associated with St Patrick is Slemish Mountain, which rises 1,500 feet above the Co Antrim plains to the east of Ballymena. The central core of an extinct volcano, it dominates the landscape; however, its value as a heritage site is validated with its intrinsic association with Ireland's patron saint.

Legend suggests that Patrick was born in Roman Britain – possibly Bannavem Taburniae – which could be Banwen in Neath Port Talbot, Wales, where every year a service is held in his honour.

He was captured and brought to Slemish to work as a shepherd under a man named Milchu for around six years while he was a teenager. Conditions were bleak. But there he found faith in God and one night he heard a voice, telling him the time had come to escape. It told him: “See, your ship is ready.”

"I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time," he tells us in his Confessio.

Patrick fled, travelling 200 miles to Wexford, and a boat for Britain. When he returned to Ireland years later, having trained in France as a priest, he converted many to Christianity – apparently including Milchu, back at Slemish.

One of Patrick's churches is thought to be at the site of Skerry Churchyard, close to Slemish, which enjoys marvellous views of the Braid Valley. An indented stone is located near the churchyard gate; pilgrims in the 1800s are said to have knelt at it as part of their religious observances on St Patrick's Eve.

His legacy, of course, lives on, and on March 17 large numbers of people climb Slemish in pilgrimage.

Although open year round, the St Patrick's Day climb of Slemish draws around 3,000 people. The mountain is part of the St Patrick's Trail, a 92-mile driving route linking 15 sites across Northern Ireland, all identified as having some connection to Patrick's life and legacy. You can follow the Saint Patrick's Trail through a host of Christian sites at Bangor, the Ards Peninsula, Downpatrick, Newry and Armagh and discover how strong the links are with the region and our patron saint.

:: Cathal Coyle is the author of The Little Book of Irish Landmarks, published by The History Press. Cathal is convening a writing workshop for aspiring non-fiction writers in Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy on Saturday April 14. Details at seamusheaneyhome.com

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