Downpatrick – City of Saint Patrick

By Michael Sheane

Downpatrick was originally known as Dún-da-leth-glas (Fortress of the Two Broken Fetters). In Gaelic or Irish, the word ‘Dún’ means a fort or stronghold.

In the Book of Leinster, written perhaps 400 years before Patrick or Succat, the fort is mentioned as Celtchar of Leith-Glas. The name of the county town also derives from the great Dún. The hill on which the cathedral of the Holy Trinity stands is the great rath of Dún Celtchar, the royal residence of the mighty Celtchar of the battles, the Red Branch Knights having their origins in Armagh.

The old abbey of Down was plundered many times by the Danes. Later in 1136, Saint Malachy came to Down, where he established a house of Regular Canons.

In 1177 John de Courcy, a Cheshire night, conquered Downpatrick. He later spread his rule over a great part of Antrim and Down, having Downpatrick as his capital and building a castle there.

In the old Gaelic monastery, he founded a community of Canons Regular, but replaced them by Benedictines from Chester, for whom he built a stately abbey. He also tried to please the Gaels by changing the dedication to Saint Patrick.

In 1315, Edward Bruce from Scotland burned the abbey cathedral and over the years, it was destroyed and rebuilt. In 1538, the monastery was suppressed and all its wealth went to the crown. In 1539, Lord Grey destroyed it again. Now the cathedral lay in ruin for two and a half centuries, and in 1790, the final rebuilding started, but due to lack of funds, it was not completed until 1818.

An ancient 10th century high cross can be seen outside the east end of the cathedral. Until recent times, a round tower stood at the present entrance.

The medieval scholar, Duns Scotus, recalled the glory of the Fransciscan Convent of Down. During Norman times, there were in Downpatrick at least six important ecclesiastical buildings – the cathedral, the priory of St. John, the priory of St. Thomas, the Fransciscan Friary and Nunnery dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a hospital for lepers.

The priory of St. Thomas is thought to have been near Downe Hospital, but the priory of St. John is hard to place. The site of the leper hospital is unknown. The parish church is dedicated to St. Margaret. The tower is Norman, and it is said that the dining hall of de Courcy was home to the Crusader Knights.

The first church dates from about 1560, and the present building dates from about 1560. The present Grecian style building dates from 1735. The three Roman Catholic churches in Downpatrick are dedicated to Ireland’s three great saints – Patrick, Columba and Bridget. They are said to be buried together in the grounds of the cathedral.

The foundation stone of St. Patrick’s was laid on March 17th in 1868, and the church was opened for worship in 1872.  St. Bridget’s and St. Columba’s are of pleasing modern design, and were erected recently to serve the growing population.

The island of Inch lies near Downpatrick. It was formerly called Iniscourcy, from Cumhscaidh, one of the sons of a great king of Ulster. It is almost certain that the island was named after John de Courcy, but the name is much older, for the abbot of Inis Cumscraigh is mentioned some years before the advent of de Courcy, the Norman knight adventurer.

There was an ancient Gaelic church here, and over its south doorway was a sculpture representing Christ on the Cross. The sculpture is now in the parish church, and is an unusual relic of that period.

De Courcy, upon conquering the district, brought Cistercian monks from Furness Abbey in England about the year 1180, and established them at Inch. The new abbey was thoroughly anti-Irish and was later complained of in the Querimonia, which was addressed by Donald O’Neill, and other chiefs, to the Pope in 1318.

The ruins of the abbey are well cared for by the UK government, and are easily accessible from the main Belfast-Downpatrick road. In retrospect, the great glory of Down is that it possessed the body of St. Patrick. The historian Jocelin wrote that the people of Ultonia, having entered Down, celebrated the solemnities of the Mass.

It is also said in the Book of Cuana that the relics of the saint were enshrined by Columba, 60 years after his death. Three precious relics were found in the tomb – the Cup, the Angel’s Gospel, and the Bell of Will. The angel directed Columba to divide the three reliquaries thus – the Cup to Down, the Bell of Will to Armagh and the Gospel of the Angel to Columba himself.

It appears that the bodies of St. Brigid and St. Columba, which had remained buried in the respective churches, were finally brought to Downpatrick, thus fulfilling an ancient prophecy of Columba that these three great saints should share a common grave.

St. Patrick had his enemies within the church. The abbot of Saul, during his absences while evangelising throughout Ireland, acquired a measure of independence. The British Church was curious about the activities of this sixty-year-old saint, who hailed himself as the Apostle of Ireland. The abbey of Saul had been a grant from a local chieftain, Lord Dichu of Down.

A major criticism was that Patrick’s Gaelic Church was identifying too much with Gaelic culture. The fifth century Roman Church was anxious for uniformity. The British Church sent a delegation to Saul to enquire into the activities of Succat at his abbey. The bishops arrived at Dun-da-leth-glas.

Many believed that Patrick was too set in his ways. He was accused of immorality, some saying that he was a homosexual, but Patrick had a good reputation in the Catholic Church of Éire or Ireland. His enemies accused him of being greedy for land grants from the local kings. He was too tolerant towards the Pagans and the druids. But Patrick survived these criticisms. Today his name is revered throughout the world by both believers and non-believers.   

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