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 land, sea and sky as well as a welcoming people.
We skirted Belfast on our second-last leg of our journey and got off the motorway to roll through a pastural land on our way to St. Patrick’s Country, or perhaps Game of Thrones’ territory to fans of the mega-hit. We were aimed for the Dufferin Coaching Inn in lovely Killyleagh.
It’s on the main street, just down from the imposing Killyleagh Castle, which features and a short walk to the village’s quaint harbour. That’s where pastel-painted row houses form a crescent around the appendage of Strangford Lough.
Killyleagh Castle looms majestically from the top of the town’s main street and looks down it to the crescent of bay which leads to St. Patrick’s landing spot near the River Slaney. Photo by Pam Martin
Fortified by a big three-course meal at the Dufferin Arms pub and a bracing breakfast at the immaculate Inn next door, which is housed in an old Ulster Bank building, we met our guides.
John takes his morning coffee on the sidewalk beside The Dufferin Coaching Inn. It’s in a former Ulster Bank building on Killyleagh’s main street.
John Keating of Life — One Great Adventure and Eddie Hawkins of Wild Rover Adventures were another pair of bantering bros who took us out on Strangford Lough to follow the paddle strokes of St. Patrick to the mouth of the River Slaney, where Patrick set foot on his mission to pagan Ireland in 432.
John Keating and Eddie Hawkins flank John as they turn into the wind on Strangford Lough near where St. Patrick began his mission. Photo by Pam Martin
Folks down in Skerries, near Dublin, protest this good-naturedly by the way, noting Patrick first landed in an island near there and boast a giant and mythical footprint on their beach to prove it.
Whatever, the Strangford location was almost lyrical with emerald drumlins rising and falling around the lake, which we seemed to have all to ourselves this day.
We launched from Delamont Country Park, a short drive from Killyleagh and explored just a small part of this, the United Kingdom’s largest inlet, sometimes leaning into a stiff wind and lake chop before a restorative picnic repast from Fodder, a trendy gourmet food supplier, on Delamont’s shore.
John and Eddie laid out a moveable feast from Fodder, a cool local provisioner, for a picnic on Strangford’s shore. Then they told a few yarns. Photo by Pam Martin
Next up, and purely by chance, we hit upon the intersection of St. Patrick’s travels and the mad-keen devotions of Games of Thrones’ fans as we toted the boards from the Quoil River, where Pam and Eddie facilitated this visit’s money shot as they paddled towards Down Cathedral, the site of St. Patrick’s burial plot.
Eddie and John tote the boards from the River Quoile past the ruins of Inch Abbey. Photo by Pam Martin
A massive Game of Thrones’ tour bus had just decanted fervent fans who suited up in capes and swords and swarmed Inch Abbey, whose majestic remains serve as a backdrop on the series for the camp of the Houses of The North and The Riverlands.
A Game of Thrones-themed tour group spilled off a bus and gathered at Inch Abbey. Photo by Pam Martin
Pam, brandishing her paddle, broke into mock swordplay with a Thrones’ fan as the group fanned out to take photos of the scene.
Pam challenged a Thrones’ enthusiast to a mock paddle-to-sword contest and emerged victorious, the Warrior Queen of Inch Abbey. Photos by John Kernaghan
We spent that night at tidy Delamont Camping and Caravan Park, right beside the big public park and enjoyed the latter’s trails and the towering Strangford Stone, a megalithic peace monument erected in 1999 which overlooks Strangford Lough.
The view from a hilltop in Delamont Park and over Strangford Lough to the Mountains of Mourne. Photo by Pam Martin
The Peace Tower in Delamont Park was erected in 1999 to signify the end of The Troubles, almost 30 years of sectarian strife. Photo by Pam Martin
As well as its early days, the final days of St. Patrick’s mission in Ireland was played out here amongst the gently undulating drumlins that surround the town of Downpatrick. Patrick died near the origins of his first church at Saul on March 17 in either 461 or 463.
The little chapel which grew from those humble beginnings in 432 is modest, but powerful. A few moments of repose in it allows one to reflect on the reach of Patrick’s mission, the winning over of kings and serfs across a rugged land.
John with Maury, which seemed almost as big as Saul Church, where St. Patrick’s first church was built. Photo by Pam Martin
It’s just a few kilometres to Patrick’s burial ground at Down Cathedral, ironically a Church of Ireland, not Catholic church. A huge slab of granite covers the gravesite, placed there to stymie Irish emigrants who were taking handfuls of soil from the grave’s bed to comfort them on their travels.
Down Cathedral is the home of St. Patrick’s grave, which sits protected by a granite slab. Photo by Pam Martin
A short walk downhill from the grave is The Saint Patrick Centre, which features a virtual tour or his mission and explanation of it, often using Patrick’s own words.
That’s a one-stop view of his life. There’s also Saint Patrick’s Trail, a driving route that includes 15 important point of interest in his story locally.
The whirlwind tour finished up at Castlewellan Forest Park and a night in Maury under a tree in a pristine pasture, followed the next morning by a tour of the park in electric bikes provided by Keating’s Life Adventure Centre. In the spirit of the pace of our visit, we shifted them to turbo mode.
Our last night in Maury was in a pampered pasture under a tree at Castlewellan Forest Park. Photo by Pam Martin
The day fades over the lake at Castlewellan Forest Park. Our trip was coming to a close to. Photo by Pam Martin
COVER PHOTO: Pam and Eddie Hawkins paddle in perfect syncopation across the River Quoile towards Down Cathedral and the spot where St. Patrick is buried. Photo by John Kernaghan