The ancient eastern area of County Down around Strangford Lough is rich in Christian heritage. Known as the ‘Cradle of Christianity’ it has a wealth of abbeys, churches and monastic sites. In addition there are St Patrick’s Wells, the best preserved holy wells in Ireland. On the Ards Peninsula is Templecowey, the site of three holy wells believed to have healing powers. Pilgrimages took place to St Cooey’s Wells, Templecowey up to the early 20th century. The ruins of Nendrum monastic site are one of Ireland’s finest surviving examples of an early Christian monastery. North Down Museum in Bangor has an excellent exhibition on the early Christian period and tells the story of St Columbanus and his travels across Europe spreading Christianity.
St Patrick is the most famous saint associated with Ireland and is a global icon. He is closely connected with the ancient eastern area of County Down and he established his first church at Saul which is a short distance from Downpatrick, County Down. He first arrived in Ireland at the age of 16 after being captured as a slave and many years later he returned as a missionary to spread Christianity throughout Ireland in the 5thcentury. He was a humble man and a visionary. You can follow in the footsteps of St Patrick as you walk on the oldest pilgrim route in Ireland near Downpatrick in County Down. There is an exhibition on Christianity in the Down County Museum. In the St Patrick’s Centre there is an audio -visual display on St Patrick. Both places are centrally located in Downpatrick.
Much research has been undertaken by academics to demonstrate the importance of spending time in nature for our physical and mental wellbeing. In fact some doctors are now prescribing time spent in nature as a treatment for depression. There is something relaxing and restorative about walking along the waters’ edge or sitting by the seaside and watching the ebb and flow of the water; watching a variety of birds feeding at the water’s edge or diving into Strangford Lough in search of food; appreciating the diversity of creatures living in the coastal zone; the beauty of wildflowers such as thrift with its’ bright pink flowers against the grey rocks. Nature teaches us many lessons and time spent observing nature in tranquil places of great beauty is time well spent.
The ancient eastern coastal area of County Down has a very rich maritime heritage. The earliest settlers to reach the island of Ireland are believed to have arrived by boat from Britain and there are important features along the east coast of County Down associated with early settlers e.g. the Neolithic Cairn on the Upper Ards Peninsula coastline. Transport by water was very important in early times as much of the island of Ireland was forested and there were no roads. Invading groups such as the Vikings arrived by sea. They had a base on an island in Strangford Lough. There are many stories of shipwrecks and heroic rescues by locals living along the coast through the centuries. The coastline with its numerous bays was ideally suited to smuggling which was rife in the 19th century and there are great stories of some colourful characters and how they evaded detection. Strangford and Portaferry were ports and emigrant ships sailed from Portaferry to North America.
Strangford Lough is the largest sea lough in the Celtic Isles covering an area of 150 square kilometres. It is a national Marine Nature Reserve with over 2,000 species of marine wildlife in or around the lough. It is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and it is an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI). Over one third of the protected area of Strangford Lough is managed by the National Trust. There are over one hundred islands in the lough. These islands are drowned drumlins and in recent years many of them are affected by erosion caused by climatic change.
When St Patrick returned to Ireland as a missionary in the 5th Century he sailed into Strangford Lough and then up the River Slaney. He walked around the shores of the lough converting peasants and leaders to Christianity.
Today the lough is used as a location for innovative marine engineering projects and Queen’s University Belfast has an internationally renowned marine research laboratory on the shore of the lough at Portaferry. The area attracts artists, writers, birdwatchers and nature lovers. If you want to enjoy peace and tranquility in beautiful natural surroundings this is the place for you.
The Celtic Year starts on the night of the 31st October/1st November . This is known as Samhain. It was believed in early times that the deceased members of the family returned on this night to their old home for a few hours hence the old tradition of leaving out bread and water. The 1st May, May Day, Bealtaine is the first day of summer – celebration of fertility- one of the two most ancient and powerful festivals in the Celtic calendar(the other being Samhain) The best loved tradition was to bring home the May blossom- the white flowers of the hawthorn that are abundant at this time of year. This is the only time that the taboo is lifted on touching the fairy thorn. In all other seasons it must never be interfered with as it was unlucky to do so. At 1st May people go out into the fields and bring back mayflowers to decorate door lintels and barns. You can still see knots of flowers tied on door knockers on May Day in some rural areas. The 21 June is the midsummer solstice and is associated with ancient Celtic custom of bonfire building. The fire was lit at sunset and tended until midnight had passed. Next day the bonfire’s cold ashes were sprinkled in the fields. There was a belief that if the whole ritual were not observed by the community their crops might fail or animals die. The Celtic year ends with a thanksgiving for the harvests. The 31st July/ 1st August is the Lughnasa first fruits festival. This is the season of harvests and all the fruits had to be gathered of the trees before the 1 November.
Celtic Saints and Celtic customs
If you are interested in traditions such as the making of the St Brigid’s cross, Brigid Watson can deliver a workshop on this and give participants an opportunity to make their own St Brigid’s Cross while learning about this revered Irish saint and the features of Celtic Christianity.The photograph on the left shows a group making their own individual St Brigid’s cross.
Brigid has given talks to womens’ groups, youth groups and school groups.
Brigid has given illustrated talks and presentations on a variety of themes, for example, Inspirational women from County Down and local history of the area. If you are interested in booking a talk please get in touch. Talks and presentations can be adapted to suit audiences of different ages from school groups to pensioners.