St Patrick: Mysteries, Monsters and Miracles from Ancient Ireland

saint-patrick-ireland (Image: Sicarr; stained glass window depicting St Patrick in Oakland, CA)

It’s often said that everyone’s a little bit Irish on St Patrick’s Day. Every mid-March, pubs are packed with revellers ordering Guinness as the green garments come out and images of leprechauns and pots of gold start popping up everywhere. But the popular, commercialized, and highly Americanized version of St Patrick’s Day has little to do with the rich mythology and folklore of Ireland, stories passed down through the generations for hundreds of years. This St Patrick’s Day, we’ve brought you a selection of Ireland’s more obscure, ancient and sacred myths about their patron saint, with a touch of background information on the 5th century Romano-British missionary.

The Oillipheist, a Dragon-Like Monster of Irish Mythology

river-shannon-ireland (Image: Northmetpit; mouth of the River Shannon at Limerick)

The Peist is a dragon-like creature that’s said to live in the freshwater lakes and rivers of Ireland (and along the coast of Scotland and the Orkney Islands). With a long, eel-like body and a horse-like head, the creature is also called the eel-horse, or the Muir-dris. One of the largest of these creatures was the Oillipheist, and it was terrified of St Patrick.

It’s long been said that St Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, and even then, his reputation preceded him. According to tradition, the Oillipheist heard that the saint would be coming for him next, and in his panic, he sliced through the land and created what’s now the River Shannon.

While he was cutting his way through the land, the beast swallowed a famous piper named O Ruairc. The piper was so drunk that he didn’t even notice he’d been swallowed by the dragon, and simply continued to play his pipes. The Oillipheist subsequently decided he was more trouble that he was worth, and vomited the piper back out.

[St Patrick was born in 387, in Britain, although where exactly varies by source. His birth name was Maewyn Succat, and tradition holds that he took the name Patricius Daorbae when he entered the ministry. It means, “Patrick, who was once a slave”.]

St Patrick’s Purgatory

saint-patricks-purgatory (Image: Thomas Carve; a 1666 map of Station Island in County Donegal)

Lough Derg was said to be the last stronghold of the Druids, and it was into this lake that St Patrick supposedly drove Ireland’s snakes. In the middle of the lake is Station Island, long associated with the pre-Christian rites and rituals of pagan Ireland, and the site of what would have been a truly terrifying vision.

It was said to be Jesus himself who showed St Patrick the well on the island, where he received visions of what awaited those who found themselves condemned to Hell. A monastery still stands on the Station Island today, most of which was built during the 15th century on a pre-existing foundation. Dubbed St Patrick’s Purgatory, the monastery is off-limits most of the time, but once a year it’s the site of one of the most grueling Christian pilgrimages in the world. The faithful gather for three days of contemplation, remaining barefoot for the entire time.

There’s another story about the island, too, written at the turn of the 13th century by Grialdus Cambrensis. According to the story, the island is divided in half. On one side – the side of the church – the land is an earthly home for angels. The other side, though, was home only to evil spirits and demons that performed daily rites to the Devil himself. It was also said to be marked by the presence of nine pits, and if any living person should wander into one of those pits, he would be tortured by the demons that grabbed him.

For some, submission to the demonic torture was seen as a penance, prescribed as a way to serving part of their sentence in Purgatory during life before arriving there in death. Overseeing the evil side was a demon named Cornu, a creature that took the form of a massive but wingless and featherless black bird. Exiled to the island by St. Patrick, the demonic bird was said to have a trumpeting cry that would herald the death of the faithful pilgrims.

[St Patrick’s first trip to Ireland was as a slave. Kidnapped at the age of 16, he ran away at the command of a heavenly voice. When he returned, Patrick sought out the man who had owned him, a druid named Milchu. Milchu heard he was coming, and killed himself rather than submit to a new religion.]

The Killycluggin Stone & Cromm Cruach

St-Patrick-Killycluggin-Stone (Image: Kenneth Allen; the Killycluggin Stone)

During St Patrick’s lifetime, he was often an unwelcome figure as he crossed and re-crossed the Irish countryside. After all, he represented a new, upstart religion that was little more than a cult at the time, and he was up against a powerful establishment. Today, the replica of an ancient rock – the Killycluggin Stone – stands just outside the village of Ballymagauran in County Cavan, and associated with it is a dark legend. It’s tricky to separate fact from embellishment during this turbulent time, but even if the legend isn’t true, it speaks volumes about how Ireland’s pagans were viewed.

The stone was an idol called Cromm Cruach, and it wasn’t just a regular idol – it was the king-idol. According to folk belief, the name could be translated in a variety of ways with ‘Cruach’ alternately meaning corn stack or heap…. or slaughter. A single ancient text claims that the ancient Irish sacrificed their first-born on the rock, in exchange for a good harvest the following year.

The legend goes on to say that when St Patrick approached the stone, he found a host of high-born men, including Samhain, prostrating themselves before it. As the missionary approached they were struck dead by their own god, and St Patrick broke the stone open with a blow from his staff. When the demon emerged from the center of the rock he was banished to hell, and the survivors converted to Christianity and were baptized.

[When attempting to convert a man named Lucetmael, St Patrick’s wine was poisoned by the Druid. When he blessed the wine glass and turned it upside-down, only the poison ran out. Lucetmael would challenge him to a trial by fire, burning alive while St Patrick remained untouched by the flames.]

Caoranach, Mother of Demons

saint-patrick-Fionn-mac-cumhaill (Image: Stephen Reid; illustration of Fionn mac Cumhaill)

Lough Derg – the lake of Station Island and St Patrick’s Purgatory – takes its name from the creature said to have once lived there – and was banished by St Patrick. The monster’s name was Caoranach, and several versions of the legend have arisen to tell of what happened on the shores of the lake.

One holds (PDF) that the missionary confronted the monster on the shores of the island, but let her live. Eventually, the inevitable happened and the monster – sometimes called the mother of demons – broke free of her prison and headed for land. There, she swallowed the chieftain of one of the first peoples she came across, who cut his way out of her stomach and killed her where she lay. The monster’s blood ran into the lake and turned the waters red. At the north end of the island sits a pile of boulders that are said to be all that remains of her bones.

Another version of the story of Caroanach claims that she was brought to life when the shinbones of Fionn mac Cumhaill‘s mother were thrown into the lake, suggesting she may have been an ancient creature in Irish lore that was adapted into the legends of St Patrick.

[St Patrick was among the first people to speak out against slavery, and for the treatment of women as equals. His crusade for those who had no other voice led to a disagreement with the Catholic Church.]

St Patrick’s Chair and Well

Surrounded by the forests of Alradavin Glen in County Tyrone is a massive rock known as St Patrick’s Chair. Also called the Druid’s Chair and the Well of St. Brigid, it’s said that anyone who visits the chair and makes a wish while sitting on it will have their request granted in three days. The nearby ‘well’ isn’t technically a well in the way we usually think of it. Instead, it’s a bullaun, said to never run dry and to be bestowed with healing powers.

A bullaun is the name for a rock with a natural basin indented into its surface, and its characteristic healing properties date back to the 6th century St. Aid. When the future Bishop of Kildare was born, it was said, his head hit a nearby stone and left an indentation in the rock, which then collected water known to cure any ailment.

[After his retirement, St Patrick received a vision that instructed him to return to his first church, Sabhail (Saul), built on a hill in County Down. He died there on March 17, though the year is unknown.]

The Mysterious Silva Focluti

abandoned-church-ruin-killala-bay (Image: Francoise Poncelet; ruined church overlooking Killala Bay)

Many places around Ireland are strongly associated with St Patrick, but in his actual writings, he only mentions one place by name – and we’re not even sure where that place really is.

Silva Focluti, the Wood of the Fochaill, was named as the place where St Patrick spent six years a slave, and as the place where he heard the angelic voices calling to him, bidding him to not only run away, but to devote his life to Christianity. While there’s no evidence in the historical record or other clues in his writings, it’s thought the site was likely in County Mayo, and according to the Diocese of Killala, the wood may have been on the western shore of Killala Bay. That’s based on the writings of a 7th century scholar and hagiographer Tirechan.

Related – The Dark Mythology of St Lucy’s Day, the Original Winter Solstice

 

About the author: Debra Kelly

 

 

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