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 patron saint has been celebrated with a feast for almost 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 remarkable vistas of sea, sky and land as well as a welcoming people.
The drive from Portrush to Toome on Lough Neagh passed the area where some histories place St. Patrick during his early years of slavery.
According to legend,, Patrick worked as a shepherd at Slemish Mountain for about six years, from ages 16 through 22, turning to frequent prayer as the only salve for his loneliness. In a dream, the legend goes, he was encouraged to escape. He found Irish sailors to help spirit him home to Britain.
Another dream or epiphany, once home, spurred him to become a priest and he returned to Ireland, allegedly to convert his old master. As Patrick was not the first Christian Bishop to visit Ireland, his ministry was confined mostly to what is now Northern Ireland.
Slemish Mountain, which rises 340 metres from a plain near Ballymena, is open all year round and on Saint Patrick’s Day large crowds hike to the top of the mountain as a pilgrimage with a festival held in nearby Broughshane.
After the turbulent Irish Sea, Lough Neagh was calm, but not so quiet that a rogue wave driven by an uptick in wind didn’t catch John unawares and send him tumbling into the drink.
John and Lawrence of Far and Wild Adventures get ready to launch on Lough Neagh. Photo by Pam Martin
The thought of eels resident in the lake, the United Kingdom’s largest, didn’t cross his mind until later, after we had learned about the local eel fishery.
The eels make a remarkable two-way migration from the Sargasso Sea and back, accessing the ocean via the River Bann. They come from the massive and unusual North Atlantic sea of free-floating sargassum, a seaweed, then head back to spawn as adults between the ages of 11 and 25.
We put in at Toome lock, a stone-walled canal that is another Game of Thrones’ site, this time representing Old Valyria, Essos in season five.
An information panel explains how this old setting provided a scene for an episode of Game of Thrones. Photo by Pam Martin
It is here where disgraced Jorah Mormont spirits the fugitive Tyrion by boat in an effort to bring him to Daynerys Targaryen.
It was scarcely that moody a scene on this visit, again with Far and Wild’s Lawrence as guide, as we paddled down the tranquil canal and into broad, sunny Lough Neagh.
Lawrence led us through a canal from Lough Neagh to the eel fishery weir. Photo by Pam Martin
Afterward, we tried eel for the first time and favoured the smoked variety, which simply tasted like very good seafood wrapped in potato farls and dressed with rapeseed oil.
We lunched on eel, local breads and relishes and rapeseed oil after our paddle. Photo by Pam Martin
Next on the agenda was Armagh, which St. Patrick selected as the base for his mission and a site of great symbolism with not one, but two St. Patrick’s cathedrals facing each other on hills overseeing the old market town below.
Armagh has a dramatic setting with both St. Patrick’s churches facing each other across the old town. Photo by Tourism Ireland
The Church of Ireland cathedral is on a site that in 445AD housed a church built by Patrick. The neighbouring Roman Catholic cathedral has its roots in medieval times. The legendary High King of Ireland, Brian Boru, who died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, is said to be buried in the North Wall of the Church of Ireland Cathedral.
The legend that accompanies that 445AD date is something you might expect out of Game of Thrones. The resident king, Daire, granted the Christian lands at the base of a hill called Macha. St. Patrick coveted the summit for his church, but Daire was unmoved.
Things changed when a squire of the king pastured his horse on Patrick’s land and found it dead the next day. In a rage, Daire ordered his men to kill Patrick. But after they set out he fell ill and his wife concluded it was the Christian’s work.
A message went out retracting the death sentence and asking for St. Patrick’s help. He provided Holy water which the men sprinkled on the dead horse, bringing it back to life. It also restored Daire’s health. However fanciful, in time St. Patrick was granted the higher land, creating the epicentre of his Irish mission.
The visit had special resonance for John, who began working in journalism with the Armagh Guardian newspaper as a photographer 50 years earlier. That was just as The Troubles, as sectarian strife in Northern Ireland was known, broke out.
John, right, had fond memories of working in Armagh with the Guardian newspaper and taking photos like this one of a gypsy family with horse and caravan. Photos by John Kernaghan
Then we were on our way to St. Patrick’s Country, or perhaps Game of Thrones’ territory to fans of the mega-hit.
Cover photo: The eel weir at Toome speaks to an epic journey in which eels migrate from the middle of the Atlantic to the source of the River Bann at Lough Neagh. Photo by Pam Martin