'You're always on shaky ground with St. Patrick and facts' - the saint and his stories

'You're always on shaky ground with St. Patrick and facts' - the saint and his stories

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Philip Boucher-Hayes of RTÉ for his Radio One programme 'Countrywide', which this St. Patrick's weekend features a programme all about the river Boyne and its catchment.

'The known facts about St. Patrick could be written on the back of a postage stamp, but the legendary material about him fills many volumes,' I told Boucher-Hayes in our conversation recorded at the mouth of the river Boyne at Mornington, where St. Patrick was said to have visited twice - once on his way up to Ulster and a second time when he was making his way to Slane to light the Paschal Fire there.

Anthony Murphy and Philip Boucher-Hayes

Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland with Philip Boucher-Hayes of RTÉ.

 'He [St. Patrick] stopped here on his way up to the north. He met a druid here who was displeased with the whole idea of Christianity and Patrick blessed the place and apparently the earth swallowed the druid whole,' I told Philip during our conversation which was recorded for the Countrywide programme broadcast on 16th March 2024.

When Patrick came back down from Ulster, he came to the Boyne Estuary again, and when I bring visitors to Slane, I talk about how there was a strategy behind the lighting of the fire on the Hill of Slane. First and foremost, the strategy was to do so in full view of the king, and the pagan political centre of Ireland at Hill of Tara.

Philip Boucher-Hayes of Countrywide RTÉ Radio One

Philip Boucher-Hayes recording the sound of the river Boyne for Countrywide.

But if you turn your gaze to the eastwards from Slane, you see the great monuments of Brú na Bóinne. In the Tripartite Life of Patrick, it is specifically said that he chose Magh Breg (the plain of Brega) because of its association with idolatory and paganism. So there was a clear strategy at work here.

'Kings to the left of him, pagans to the right of him, and he was figuratively flicking two fingers in both directions,' Philip replied.

'I think so. I think that's quite clear,' I said. 'For me, much of what is written about St. Patrick is fable. It's very mythological. He appears to repeat some of the feats of the earlier 'pagan' heroes - the way he strides in off the islands off Skerries sounds very much like something Fionn Mac Cumhaill was doing.'

'If we leave aside the snakes, and jumping across several miles of water in a  single stride, the lighting of the fires is historical fact, is it?'

A rainbow over the river Boyne estuary

A rainbow appeared over the Boyne Estuary as our conversation finished.

'The story of Patrick is at least suspicious. Did you know, for instance, that when Patrick finally made it to Tara, having lit the Paschal Fire and subdued the druids who came to Slane to attack him, that he made twelve thousand people drop dead all at once at Tara, according to the Tripartite Life.'

'This is strangely not what is talked about when we think about Patrick. Can we say with any certainty that he did sail past us on this little stretch of water here and put in at this point on the Boyne?' Philip asked.

'I don't believe we can say that with certainty.'

You can listen back to the entire episode of Countrywide about the Boyne catchment here: https://www.rte.ie/radio/radio1/countrywide/2024/0316/1438270-countrywide-saturday-16-march-2024/

Read more

Read my long-read article about the myths and legends of St. Patrick.

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Anthony Murphy is the author of ten books, including works of non-fiction and fiction. As of 2024, all of these books are in print or available for digital download.