A relatively early start today for our first (and only) full day in Belfast. And that was because we weren’t staying in Belfast, but heading in the general direction of Downpatrick, the place where St Patrick (along with Sts Brigid and Columba) is reputed to be buried.
There was something profound about heading to a place so connected with Patrick, the most famous of all Irish saints. During the pilgrimage, we had already been to other places that are associated with other Irish saints – Kildare, Glendalough, Ardmore, Dingle, etc. – so it seemed fitting that a place associated with Patrick was among the last.
The hill on which Patrick is buried, along with his companion saints, is not the home of a large cathedral church for the Church of Ireland. A religious building has stood on this site for centuries upon centuries, and the current building is beautiful both inside and out. The cathedral is set up in ‘choir style’ with each side of the central aisle facing each other. Such a setting can be a challenge for some folks, but it is entirely in keeping with the history of this particular building and its predecessors as monastic foundations – where ‘choir style’ would be the norm rather than the exception.
Worthy of particular mention, however, is the recently renovated sanctuary area. The altar table and other sanctuary furniture are both in keeping with the other furniture of the cathedral and yet are not entirely. The styling of them highlights the sanctuary area in a way that might not otherwise be possible and so it is a fitting ‘fit’ for this particular building. Our guide noted that the lectern from which the Scriptures are proclaimed, and which is of a similar pattern to the altar table, was a gift from the Benedictine monastery located not too far away from the cathedral – a fitting gift to highlight the Benedictine origins of the building that stands on the hill.
The grave of St Patrick (and the other two) is located outside the cathedral atop a little mound accessible by a few stairs and a little pathway. It is marked by a large stone that is marked simply with the saint’s name. It was wonderful to stand there, around that stone, on a spot that is so significant to the Christian history of Ireland and spend a few minutes in prayer. It was, fittingly, a nice way to begin to draw our pilgrimage together and to an end.
After some time in prayer, we wandered down the hill to the St Patrick’s Centre, where we had the opportunity to delve into the history of St Patrick and Christianity in Ireland – and to have some of our presuppositions about Patrick, in particular, quashed. It was good to hear something other than the myths associated with Patrick, though I will now have to reassess my whole sense of preparation for 17 March each year.
Reboarding the coach we headed back to Belfast where the afternoon was essentially ‘at leisure’ – basically meaning we were free to do whatever we wanted. A goodly number of our group went to explore the now decommissioned Crumlin Road Gaol. Personally, I went and had a nap.
Our dinner that evening wasn’t our usual approach to dinner. Tonight we celebrated our last night together by adjourning to a local restaurant for a festive meal to mark the end of the pilgrimage. The meal was wonderful, the company was terrific, there were thankyous, and there were some farewells – because we would start to dissipate from early tomorrow morning.
As the meal drew to an end we started to say goodbye to those who would leave us here in Belfast – and it was tough! Over the last two weeks we have experienced a journey across Ireland that has been both enjoyable and spiritual. We will always share that experience for no other reason than we have journeyed together.
So as the pilgrimage comes to an end, the journey continues.