To most of us, St. Patrick’s Day means green beer, funny hats and a chance to let loose as winter gives way to spring. But Ireland’s saint has been celebrated with a feast for about 300 years and still, few know his story. John Kernaghan and Pam Martin went looking for it, paddling in his wake on standup paddleboards and travelling his paths in a hulking camper van. We also found a remarkable landscape of sea, sky, land and people. Here’s a seven-day countdown to St. Patrick’s Day.
We pursued St. Patrick’s story on road and water, with our big rental RV Maury carrying our inflatable standup paddleboards. It was a tight squeeze on many roads in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Photo by Pam Martin
Departing Dublin aboard the Celtic Campervan rig, which we nicknamed Maury, meant we could overnight near a river St. Patrick surely followed or crossed at Leitrim Village’s Battlebridge Caravan and Camping Park.
The setting close to the Shannon River was ridiculously pretty with a dozen swans played in the current under an ancient stone bridge.
St. Patrick’s mission covered several years and followed a harrowing experience in the early 400s when, at 16, he was captured in what is now Wales by Irish pirates and pressed into slavery as a shepherd. He found God in the privations and solitude of the mountains, escaped, and made his way to Rome. Returning as a Holy Man, he began his mission to convert pagans to Christianity.
The River Shannon has many arms like this one flowing under an ancient stone bridge in Leitrim. Even this bridge would not have been around in the mid-400s when St. Patrick began his mission to convert Pagans to Christianity. Photo by Pam Martin
We picked up his story the next day in Sligo, where he had travelled the coast to establish a rustic church on the rugged coast, famously losing a tooth.
We needed to experience what he might have felt exploring on the water, and that meant Northwest Adventure Tours out of Sligo obliged with a jet lag-busting paddle across Lough Gill and down the Garavogue River to Sligo’s city centre.
The lake was choppy and Northwest tour leaders Barry Hannigan and Melanie White suggested we paddle it on our knees until we got the wind at our backs. The effort of hand-pumping the inflatables and crossing the lake called out for a food break, so we ducked into a little bay and tucked into some healthy snacks from Sweet Beat Cafe in Sligo.
Then it was up on our feet and easy going on the placid Garavogue, perhaps Ireland’s shortest river and surely one of its prettiest with the Ox Mountains and Dartry mountain range flanking us.
A section of it ran along the ancient Hazelwood Estate and featured a stone roundhouse battlement near shore, a vestige of times when attacks by water were repelled by gun fire through slotted openings in the stone.
But the peace was only shattered, and agreeably so, by the strong trill of birdsong, the same soundtrack that must have played to St. Patrick’s ears as he travelled towards the coast.
Barry Hannigan leads John down the Garavogue River in Sligo. St. Patrick may have travelled this very water more than 1500 years ago. Photo by Pam Martin
Barry Hannigan watches a trio of kayakers move through a channel between Lough Gill and the Garavogue River near Sligo. Photo by Pam Martin
That night we missed getting into one campground by five minutes, called another 30 minutes away and had our accident en route to it as an oncoming driver hogged the centre line on a curve and wide Maury simply ran out of road.
The campervan’s left flank was savaged by a protruding stone wall abutment, gouging a big hole. Maury would be able to carry on with a large patch of green garbage bag and duct tape.
Our arrival at Lough Arrow Touring Park was a master class in Irish hospitality. We pulled up near the campground’s community room, the gaping wound from the stone wall exposed to all.
Folks poured out offering sympathy. Women hugged us and the men consoled with “it’s only a flesh wound” and “ah now, no one died.”
A bottle of wine was produced and helped mend the driver’s wounded pride.
The glistening Lough Arrow beckoned in the morning but we were headed to a restorative visit the VOYA in Strandhill, Sligo, where owner Neil Walton would introduce us to the spa’s seaweed bath treatments.
Walton, a former elite-class triathlete, discovered seaweed’s benefits when he was seeking ways to recover faster from the punishing trio of swim, cycle and run events.
His fellow pro athletes told him about the qualities of seaweed, how it drew toxins from the body. That led to a plunge into seaweed research and the renewal of baths that used to dot Ireland in the early 1900s, nine in tiny Strandhill alone. That work emerged as VOYA and also begat a seaweed cosmetics company run by brother Mark that now ships product around the world.
A seaweed bath is beguiling, relaxing as the tentacles of the marine vegetation gently glide around you. It can be used as an exfoliant, too.
Afterward, Walton suggested we find a quiet beach area to relax as our bodies would initially feel tired.
This also showcased the flexibility of our Celtic camper van. We found an uninhabited beach just off the Wild Atlantic Way route and negotiated a rocky beach roadway until we could go no further. Some lunch, a little wine and the seaweed magic set in, blissful naps with a cool ocean breeze flowing through Maury.
Maury rests on a quiet beach near Sligo. Photo by John Kernaghan
We woke invigorated and spent the night at Strandhill Caravan and Camping Park, where we could watch the surfers drawn to the coast’s big waves and marvel at the standup paddle boarders handling the big surf, too.
A surfer heads down to the beach at Strandhill to test the challenging waves on Ireland’s west coast. St. Patrick established a church near here and famously tripped and lost a tooth in the rugged terrain. Photo by Pam Martin
Like most regions, this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way had its own St. Patrick story, a yarn about a stumble along a rocky shore at Killaspugbrone, near Strandhill, in which Patrick, on his mission to spread Christianity, lost a tooth and give it to the Bishop in charge of the church as a token of friendship.
It resided in a place of reverence in the church St. Patrick established there and the relic can now be viewed at the National Museum in Dublin.
The folks at Northwest recommended the remains of Killaspugbrone Church as an agreeable walk from the campground, but the clock was ticking and we had to saddle up with Maury and head north.
Next: St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Donegal and a soft landing in the Fermanagh Lakelands.
Feature photo: Barrie Hannigan, Melanie White and John (left to right) paddle past an old roundhouse battlement rising from the Garavogue River. Photo by Pam Martin