The lore surrounding St Patrick offers us an insight into ancient pagan traditions
The creation by early Christians of legends surrounding St Patrick inadvertently helped preserve knowledge of ancient pagan Ireland.
Much of what academics now know about the traditions of pre-Christian Ireland have been gleaned from the myths built up around St Patrick.
A University College Cork (UCC) study has found that many of the legends surrounding the Welsh-born missionary and his conversion of Ireland to Christianity offer fascinating glimpses of the pagan culture he helped supplant.
UCC Department of Religion Studies academic, Dr Jenny Butler, pointed out that the lore surrounding St Patrick including the legend of him banishing snakes, chasing monsters into lakes, being tormented by a black bird on Croagh Patrick and preaching the Gospel near holy wells and groves offer an insight into ancient pagan traditions.
“There is much emphasis on the notion that he individually converted so many people and even baptised whole tribes or clans, eventually Christianizing the whole of Ireland," she said.
"As such, St Patrick is the archetypal missionary saint, whose appearance is equivalent with Christianity’s arrival: as a mythic figure, St Patrick is synonymous with Christianity.”
But she stressed that interwoven into the myths surrounding St Patrick are clues as to the traditions and values of the pagan Ireland that was being dismantled.
She explained that the famous story of the saint ridding the island of Ireland of snakes can be interpreted as symbolic of the new religion of Christianity superseding the older pagan religion
“Snakes and serpents are found in many indigenous cultures as symbols of ancient pagan deities, for example the Sumerian god Enki and the 'feathered serpent' deity of the Mesoamerican religions, called Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs.
”One of the “serpents” that St Patrick is supposed to have defeated is the 'Caoránach', a female creature that the saint is described as pursuing from Croagh Patrick, a mountain in Co Mayo, as far as Lough Derg in Co Donegal.
She explained that these two locations, the mountain in Mayo and the lake in Donegal, may have been sacred in the indigenous religion. Both became the two biggest pilgrimage sites connected with devotions to St Patrick right up to the current day.
The legend of St Patrick climbing of Croagh Patrick also contain the motif of his torment by black birds as he tried to pray.
In fact, the black bird or crow refers to the form taken by the shape-shifting Celtic war-goddess 'the Morrígan' in Irish mythology.
In the centuries following St Patrick's death, the myths surrounding him grew more elaborate and reflected local holy sites whose religious connections dated back centuries, some between 500BC and 800BC.
"The local legends place St Patrick, and consequently Christian traditions, in the local landscape," she said.
"This process is one of blending of two religious cosmologies in thegeo-physical space of the land of Ireland itself.
“St Patrick is connected, through name and story, to various rocks,trees and wells throughout the Irish countryside.
"Visual marks are said to have been left by the saint on his travels through the countryside, with impressions of his knees or footprints left in the shape of stones or as indentations in bullaun stones.
"The word bullaun is an anglicised version of the Irish word bollán,which refers to a large round stone or boulder.
"It is said that the saint kneeled down to pray and was praying so long or so devoutly that he imprinted the hollows in the stones.”
Similar connections are made to springs and wells - all of which played a vital role in the ancient pagan religion which had beensupplanted.
"A prevalent explanation for the existence of holy wells is that they sprang up when the staff of a saint touched, or stuck into, the ground," she said.
"This kind of legend, for example, is attached to St Patrick’s Well inRoscommon. Again, these legends would suggest a re-contextualization of tradition; the place remains sacred but within an entirely new religious framework.”
Hawthorn trees are traditionally associated with the sídhe (fairies)in Irish tradition, sometimes called “fairy thorns”, but are also commonly associated with St Patrick.
There are various “Patrick’s trees” or “Patrick’s bushes” of hawthorn located throughout the country at places with some connection to him, for example at Kilmogg, Co Kilkenny and Milltown, Co Carlow.
Downpatrick, which is supposedly the burial place of the saint, has a St Patrick’s Well with a white thorn bush growing beside it.