St Patrick in Irish folklore

Picture of Dr John J O Riordáin CSsR

Dr John J O Riordáin CSsR

Dr Riordáin CSsR is an Irish priest and writer from Limerick

It may be trite to say that St Patrick was a larger than life figure, and yet, that is what he was. There is Patrick the saint whose life is a guide for living by the spirit and values of the gospel of Jesus; and then there is Patrick of the folk tradition. This article focuses on Patrick of the folk tradition.

What makes Patrick a saint is the overall thrust of his life. And that thrust can readily be gleaned from two surviving writings namely, his Confession and Letter to Coroticus. In these letters three key elements stand out: (i) his life lived in union with Jesus Christ who is not only his Saviour and Lord but his closest and often his only friend and companion. (ii) Patrick considers that each and every person is of absolute value to Christ, and (iii) it is his ambition to transform every human mind and heart into the likeness of Christ.

Patrick is a saint of the 5th century. The traditional view is that he arrived in Ireland in 432 and died in 461. An alternative view contends that his Irish mission was a generation later, from 456 to 493. He was not the first Christian missionary to bring the faith to Irish shores but he was the most influential and is symbolic of the whole movement that led to the Christianisation of the country. 

There is little reference to Patrick for about 200 years after his death. Then in the late 7th century, two biographies of the saint were written, one by Muirchú, reputedly a man of the cloth from Armagh, and the other by bishop Tíreachán from Tirawley in north Mayo. A third Life, Bethu Phátraic dates to the late 9th century. That Life, though not as reliable as the two earlier works, is rich in patrician lore and makes an important contribution towards imaging the national apostle in the popular mind. 

Tíreachán concentrates largely on Patrick’s activities in the upper Shannon basin and north Connaught. Tireachán and Muirchú, especially Muirchú, draw on a common source namely, an account of Patrick compiled by St Ultan who died in 657. Ultan was abbot of Louth monastery in the village and county of that name. The monastery was founded around the 5th or 6th century by Mochta, also known as Mochaoi or Nendrum.

Initially Mochaoi was a swine-herd in the Nendrum area of County Down. Patrick not only converted and baptised him but also taught him how to read the Latin alphabet. He must have been a particularly bright student because it is claimed that he learned the Psalter by heart in a month, and by year’s end was an authority on the bible. Because of Mochaoi’s close association with Patrick, the monastery of Louth treasured not only his two letters but the considerable corpus of lore that had grown up around him. Muirchú and Tíreachán dipped into these resources and added their own colour and stamp. 

 According to Muirchú, the druids foretold that Patrick would convert the country to Christianity. To dramatise his story he introduces a standoff between King Laoghaire and Patrick over the Paschal fire on the hill of Slane. There are echoes of the Book of Exodus in the text, Laoghaire and Patrick mirroring the Pharaoh and Moses. When the druids’ magical spells proved to be damp squibs, they declared that in contravention of Laoghaire’s law, the fire that was lit on Slane was there to stay: “unless it is extinguished on this night in which it was lit, it will not be put out forever.”

Muirchú says that Patrick went on a reconciliation mission to Miliuc by whom he had been enslaved. On hearing of such an impending encounter Miliuc panicked, made his own funeral pyre of his belongings and valuables and set fire to the lot. On hearing of the tragic outcome of his effort to meet Miliuc, Patrick fell silent for three hours and then declared that none of the chieftain’s descendents would succeed him.

Both Muirchú and Tíreachán record the ‘test by fire’. For the test, a special house was designed and built in Tara. One half was of freshly hewn timber and the other of dry wood.  A druid was installed in the less flammable portion and St Benin in the other. The house was set alight and the druid went up in flames while Benin remained unscathed.

That story went viral and is associated with saints in many parts of Ireland. In Tullylease, County Cork, for example, the same story is told of a druid and St Berihert. After the house was set alight the druid with his clothes on fire was seen streaking towards the River Allow, while Berihert was observed to be sitting in the ashes of the house reading his breviary. 

On another occasion we are told that when Patrick sought a hilltop site near Armagh for his monastery, Dáire, the wealthy landowner assigned him an inferior plot. To make matters worse Dáire’s stable boy put a horse grazing on the monastery plot despite Patrick’s remonstrations. The horse died and in consequence Dáire decided to kill Patrick but in the event it was Dáire who died.

Two men were sent to Patrick, not saying that Dáire was dead but that he was ill and needed something from the saint to restore his health. Patrick gave the messengers some holy water that restored both Dáire and the horse. Dáire was essentially a decent man (a sort of alter ego of Dagda, the father god in Irish folklore). He gifted Patrick with a magnificent cauldron and later inquired what Patrick said on receipt of the gift.

He said “Grazacham” replied the servant.

“No more?” said Dáire.

“No more,” said the servant.

Thinking that he had given the cauldron to a right amadán (fool), Dáire sent his slaves to repossess the gift.

“What did he say this time?” inquired Dáire.

He said “Grazacham.”

So intrigued was the wealthy man that he personally delivered the cauldron to Patrick commending him for his patience and, for good measure, Dáire threw in the hilltop which Patrick had sought, the very spot on which Armagh is built. And what of ‘Grazacham’? Apparently the Latin ‘grates agam’ (‘let me give thanks’) was a favourite expression of the saint.

In the folk tradition, Patrick is known for blessing one place and cursing another. Such references reflect the bias of the author. It is said in Cork for example, that “St Patrick never visited Kerry.” Such a jibe may be directed at a particular class, publicans or innkeepers for example. Once when Patrick visited a tavern, he noticed that the landlady was giving short measure to all her customers. 

Taking offense at this practice Patrick pointed out to her that the devil in the form of an ugly beast was hiding in the cellar and growing fat on her dishonesty. She pleaded with the saint to banish the horrible beast. “Well Mrs,” said Patrick, “you’ll have to do that yourself by mending your ways.” 

A year or so later when he had occasion to visit the same tavern, he noticed that the glasses of whiskey were served full to the brim and overflowing. Patrick then took the landlady to see the fat devil in the cellar. There he was sure enough, but little more than skin and bone, and at the sight of Patrick he vanished in a flash of lightning.

In memory of the repentant landlady, Patrick said people should always have a shot of whiskey on his feast day. In olden times this drink was flavoured with shamrock, hence the term ‘drowning the shamrock’ or ‘wetting the shamrock’. That tradition, together with others such as wearing shamrock, banishing the snakes, using the three-leaf shamrock as a catechetical aid, do not appear in the folk tradition prior to the late 17th century.

The 9th century Bethu Phátraic has Patrick winning some concessions from God. These include the right to judge the Irish on the Last Day; that Armagh would always be the chief church in Ireland; that no foreign country should rule over Ireland indefinitely, and that Ireland would be submerged seven years before the end of the world. 

In the same Bethu the saint was said to have done a tour of Munster in Ireland’s south-west during which he baptised King Aonghus in Cashel. In the ceremony Patrick accidentally puts his crosier through the king’s foot. Thinking it was all part of the ceremony Aonghus didn’t complain. This tour of Munster gave a foundation to the image of a man who travelled the length and breadth of Ireland and singlehandedly converted the whole island to the Christian Faith.

 Dr John J O Riordáin CSsR, a member of the Redemptorist Community in Limerick, is passionate about the Early Irish Church. In addition to Early Irish Saints and Irish Catholic Spirituality: Tradition and Transition and other full-length works, he has written a series of short books on Irish saints and their pilgrimages.

Reality. Reprinted with permission.

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