Those who wish to pay homage to St Patrick on 17 March could attend a parade, don an outlandish green costume or swig a pint (or several – twice as much Guinness worldwide is consumed on St Patrick’s Day than on any other day of the year). An alternative way to celebrate the saint's legacy, however, is far more peaceful and spectacular: visiting the sites where he brought Christianity to Ireland – including mighty hilltops, vast mountains and exquisite alpine lakes.
Facts about Patrick's life and work are as misty as Ireland's mountains, and they’re mingled (or mangled) with folklore and legend. Scholars generally believe that he was born sometime around 373 AD in Roman Britain. As a 16-year-old, Patrick (Patricius in Latin) was captured by Irish raiders and sold as a slave to a druid (a Celtic priest) in today’s County Antrim in Northern Ireland, though the exact location is unknown. For the next six years, he toiled as a shepherd, developed his spirituality through prayer and became fluent in Irish.
According to his autobiographical letter Confessio, thought to have been written around 450 AD and first published in the early 9th Century (the Book of Amagh, containing the earliest copy believed to exist, is in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin), an angel appeared in a dream urging him to flee from his enslavement. After being reunited with his family in Britain, he had a divine calling to the priesthood. He trained in France and returned to Ireland as a missionary in about 433 AD.
At the time, the Hill of Tara, located 43km north of Dublin in fertile County Meath, was the ceremonial capital of the High Kings. They practised Celtic paganism and believed Tara to be both the dwelling place of the gods and the gateway to the Otherworld. Today the hill, a vast green expanse rising 197m with sweeping vistas of the surrounding countryside, remains a palpably sacred site with a wealth of remains including a Stone Age passage tomb (a narrow passage made of large stones containing multiple burial chambers) and prehistoric burial mounds up to 5,000 years old. The Heritage Ireland information centre runs 40-minute guided tours of the site and screens a 20-minute film entitled Tara, A Royal Sanctuary about the area’s impact on Ireland's Celtic history.
While it's not known when Patrick first visited Tara, he certainly saw the High Kings' power base across the valley not long after his return to Ireland. While Celtic festival fires were burning on Tara, the High Kings forbid other fires in the area. But Patrick defied convention, lighting a paschal (Easter) fire on the Hill of Slane, near today's village of Slane, located about 16km northeast of Tara. From the Hill of Tara, you can see the Hill of Slane across the valley on a clear day. High King Laoghaire and his attendants (including Erc, who later was baptised as a Christian and would become the first bishop of Slane shortly thereafter) went to confront the interloper. According to legend, Patrick plucked a shamrock from the ground, using its three leaves (and his Irish language skills) to explain the Church’s paradox of the Holy Trinity: the union of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in one. Convinced by the stranger, Laoghaire agreed to let Patrick continue his missionary work. The weathered, silvery stone ruins scattered across the grassy, 158m-high Hill of Slane today include a foundational outline of a church, a round tower and a monastery associated with St Erc, and a later Norman motte and bailey on the hill's western side, built by Archembald Fleming, who came to Ireland with Henry II in 1171. Every year on Holy Saturday (the Saturday before Easter), the local parish priest lights a fire on the Hill of Slane in Patrick's honour.