Exploring Saint Patrick’s Country in County Down and Armagh

Visit sites that played an important part in Saint Patrick's missionary work in Ireland

Next to Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), Saint Patrick is probably the world’s most famous saint. Saint Patrick’s Day – 17 March, the date of his death – is recognised around the world as people from New Orleans to Hong Kong dress up in green, drink green beer and celebrate Irish culture.

But of course Saint Patrick himself is not about green beer and leprechauns; he is known as the Apostle of Ireland and has been described as one of history’s most successful missionaries. Through his work he firmly established Christianity across Ireland, and beyond.

There are of course quite a number of sites associated with Saint Patrick across Ireland but probably the greatest concentration of places to visit to get the spirit of Saint Patrick can be found in the Armagh-Newry-Downpatrick area. The area sits two hours north of Dublin or one hour south of Belfast.

Saint Patrick storyboard in Down Cathedral
Saint Patrick storyboard in Down Cathedral

Thank you to our experts

We’d like to give special thanks to both Mairead Sweeney and Donna Fox who helped provide information for this guide to Saint Patrick’s country.

Mairead Sweeney Blue Badge Tour Guide

Mairead Sweeney offers guided tours of Northern Ireland with a special interest in historic buildings and religious sites, and in particular around Downpatrick. Mairead offers tours in English, Spanish and French. Learn more – Mairead Sweeney Blue Badge Tour guide

Donna Fox Tours

Donna Fox is a registered Blue Badge Level 4 guide and offers tours in and around Armagh and Belfast to international and local groups. Tours include a Saint Patrick themed tour, walking tours of Armagh, Belfast as well as a tour of County Armagh’s orchards. Learn more – Donna Fox Tours

Saint Patrick’s association with County Down and Armagh

As the name suggests, the town of Downpatrick (Dún Pádraig – “Patrick’s stronghold”) has significant association with the saint.

While Saint Patrick’s first visit to Ireland was as a young slave, captured and brought to these shores from the British ‘mainland’, he managed to escape and later returned with a mission to convert his former slave masters to Christianity. He came ashore close to Downpatrick on the River Slaney. He set up this first church at Saul, and established a base in Downpatrick and then later Armagh, now the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland.

Although he travelled widely in Ireland, according to documentation that goes back as far as the 7th century, Saint Patrick is now said to be buried at Down Cathedral.

In this guide we highlight some of the significant places to visit in the area that are associated with the Saint. There are of course a multitude of other activities to enjoy in County Down, The Mournes and Armagh which you can weave into your itinerary.

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Saint Patrick’s Visitor Centre, Downpatrick

Saint Patrick's Centre in Downpatrick is probably the best place to start your exploration of the area
Saint Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick is probably the best place to start your exploration of the area

The Saint Patrick’s Centre is a wonderful interactive visitor centre where renowned Irish actor, Ciaran Hinds narrates the story of  Saint Patrick in his own words taken from his ‘Confessio’. written in 450AD.

The centre traces Saint Patrick’s influence and importance in the spread of Christianity across Ireland in the fifth century. Patrick’s influence also stretched well beyond these shores as many of his followers later travelled to the continent of Europe to share their learning and the teachings of Christianity for many centuries to come.

The centre has an IMAX cinema, in which you can have the virtual experience of flying by helicopter over sites associated with Patrick in Ireland.

You can treat yourself to a lunch or refreshments in the Garden Café, which offers an excellent range of lunches and snacks in a relaxed setting. You have the possibility of sitting outside in the beautiful gardens in fine weather.

The shop is also highly commended with a collection of craft work from Ireland and Co Down so you can snap up some artistic souvenirs. You will also find the Tourist Information Centre here and will be guided expertly by its staff on the next phase of your journey.

Saint Patrick’s Square, Market Street, Downpatrick, BT30 6LZ
Learn more – Saint Patrick’s Visitor Centre

The Grove

As you step outside the St Patrick Centre and look up towards the Cathedral, you will see the area called The Grove. This was an area of Downpatrick established in the nineteenth century by the Southwell Family as an area for relaxation. It boasted statues of Roman Gods, flowers and trees. It is still an area of great beauty and as you follow the path upwards toward the Cathedral, you will be rewarded with fine views of Downpatrick and its rolling hills in the background.

On the trail of Christianity, you will be interested in the fact that the Methodist preacher John Wesley preached here in 1778 and excerpts from his address are inscribed underfoot as you make your way upwards.

Did you know: We know quite a bit about Saint Patrick’s life thanks to his ‘Confessio’ which is documented in the The Book of Armagh, now in Dublin at Trinity College.

Down Cathedral and Saint Patrick’s Grave

Saint Patrick's Grave at Down Cathedral
Saint Patrick’s Grave – and also said to be the final resting place of Saint Brigid and Saint Columcille – at Down Cathedral

Down Cathedral stands proudly on top of one of the many drumlins in the town and it dominates the land around, with its gothic tower. It stands on the site of a former Benedictine Monastery, founded by John de Courcy, an adventurous Anglo Norman knight who brought the town to prominence.

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During his time, in the twelfth century, tradition came to say that the hill was the burial place of three saints, Patrick, Brigid and Columcille.  According to the couplet:

In Down, three saints one grave do fill,
Patrick, Brigid and Columcille.

Over the centuries people come from far and near to visit Patrick’s tomb, and take a little soil as a souvenir. So popular was this habit that, by the end of the nineteenth century, soil was disappearing at such an alarming rate, it was decided to cover the tomb with a grave stone. The fine stone you see there today was hewn from granite in the nearby Mourne Mountains and transported to Down Cathedral as a fitting tribute to the resting place of the saints within.

Down Cathedral interior
Down Cathedral interior

You can visit the cathedral with its beautiful interiors during opening hours and you can also request a guided tour.

Learn more – visit Down Cathedral

Saul Church – Saint Patrick’s first church in Ireland.

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Saul Church’s claim to fame is that it is situated on what was the site of St Patrick’s first church in Ireland. The story goes that when Patrick came ashore at the nearby Slaney River, he encountered a local cheiftain named Dichu, who gave him a barn for shelter.  Patrick converted the chieftain to Christianity and the barn became the first church. The word for barn in Irish was Sabhall, from which we get the anglicised word Saul.

I would visit the church as a side trip on your way to Slieve Patrick, or other attractions in the area such as Castle Ward. There is a small stone building near the church where you can sign a guest book and spend a moment in reflection.

Saul Road, Saul, Downpatrick BT30 6PE

Slieve Patrick and Saint Patrick’s Statue

Saint Patricks Statue on top of Slieve Patrick near Downpatrick
Saint Patrick’s Statue on top of Slieve Patrick near Downpatrick

Originally known as Slieve Willian, Slieve Patrick was renamed in 1938 when the statue of St Patrick was unveiled. The ‘world’s tallest statue of St Patrick’ stands atop a 400m high drumlin with spectacular views over Strangford Lough, the Mournes, Downpatrick, and on a clear day you can see the Isle of Man. On St Patrick’s day the site is a site of pilgrimage.

There is parking at the foot of the hill, and it is a relatively easy climb with seats at the top so you can, together with Saint Patrick, enjoy the view.

19 St Patricks Rd, Downpatrick BT30 7JG

Saint Patrick’s HQ in Armagh

Saint Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh
Originally founded by Saint Patrick, the current Metropolitan Cathedral of St Patrick was rebuilt and remodelled over the centuries. Brian Boru’s remains are said to be interred on the hill and a plaque commemorates this.

Moving on from Downpatrick, Saint Patrick established his first stone church in Ireland in Armagh in 445. He built the church on the hill of Ard Macha from which the name Armagh derives. This was a strategic move because the site in Armagh is close to Emain Macha (known as Navan Fort today), which was the seat of the High Kings of Ulster.

Armagh subsequently became the most important settlement in Ireland at that time and is, to the present day, the Ecclesiastical Capital of Ireland. The only clergy entitled to spread the Christian faith were those taught in the Abbey of St Peter & St Paul and a plaque marks the location where the Abbey once stood at the top of the appropriately named Abbey Street, one of the oldest streets in Armagh.

Armagh is the only city in the world that has two cathedrals named after the same saint: the Saint Patrick-founded Church of Ireland Metropolitan Cathedral of St Patrick, and also the Catholic Saint Patrick’s Cathedral that was established in the 1840s with the foundation stone being laid on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1840.

Many local legends place Patrick, and consequently Christian traditions, in the local landscape and in Armagh. There is Saint Patrick’s Well on the Western edge of the city which was a former popular place of pilgrimage in years gone by.  Indentations in stones, such as the Bull’s Tack ballaun stones at Ballymacnab, are said to be impressions of the saint’s knees.

Saint Patrick is said to have had a habit of using his staff to pierce a person’s foot to reveal a miracle where the ‘victim’ felt no pain, and the blood running from the wound would turn to water. Both Saint Brigid and King Aengus of Cashel were beneficiaries of this miracle. There is a mosaic of St Patrick baptising King Aengus in the Catholic Cathedral.

Walks, ways and trails

St Patrick’s Trail

The St Patrick’s Trail is a 92 mile linear driving route linking 15 key sites associated with the saint and the early Christian Church. Sites along the route include Armagh, Downpatrick, Newry, Bangor and the Ards Peninsula. Brown signposts mark the route. Learn more – St Patrick’s Trail

St Patrick’s Way – the Pilgrim Walk

St Patrick’s Way is an 82 mile walk through beautiful landscape starting at the Navan Centre, Armagh and finishing at the St Patrick’s Centre in Downpatrick. The route is suitable for leisurely walks and pilgrimages. Learn more – St Patrick’s Way 

Slemish Mountain – Where St Patrick was once a slave

The Views from Slemish

Slemish is a small but distinct hill in County Antrim where it is said that St Patrick lived as a young slave tending sheep. It was here that he had a vision, escaped and then returned to Ireland. You can park at the foot of the hill and scramble up to enjoy fantasic views across Ulster and across to Scotland. Read about climbing Slemish

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