For generations, the sacred remains of Saint Patrick, the great Apostle of Ireland; Saint Brigid, the renowned Virgin; and Saint Columcille, the illustrious missionary, lay far distant from each other. When St Patrick died at Saul in 493, a question arose over where to bury him. According to Muirchu, 7th century Irish historian and monk, two oxen were hitched to a cart carrying his body and where they stopped, he was to be buried and a church erected; guided by the will of God, they stopped at the mound of Dun Lethglaisse and there he was buried, about 2 miles from Saul in County Down. Dun Lethglaisse was the stronghold (dun) of Leglish, an ancient Celtic god; it became dun Patrick (Downpatrick) and was predictably symbolic of how Christian saints would soon replace Celtic gods. A monastery rose there complete with a stone church to house his mortal remains.
Far from Downpatrick, St. Brigid, the Mary of the Gael, went to her eternal reward in 525. Her remains were placed in a jewelled coffin within her convent church at Kildare where they were venerated by pilgrims. Later, the soul of the third great saint of the Gael, St. Columcille, went to God at his monastery on the island of Iona in 597. His monks buried him within the monastic enclosure he had founded and a century later, his bones were enshrined in a suitable reliquary, or case, adorned with precious metals.
In 795, a new terror swept down from the north as Vikings began to raid Irish monasteries. The raids threatened Iona and the reliquary of St. Columcille was taken for safety to Ireland and deposited at Downpatrick at about 825. As Viking raids continued in Ireland, St. Brigid's remains were also removed to Downpatrick in 878, where they would be more secure. Now, Ireland’s three greatest saints were together, but hardly secure, for Viking raiders eventually reached Downpatrick. The monastery was plundered on a number of occasions until 1014 when High King Brian Boru broke Viking power in Ireland.
Possession of the tomb of a saint was an important factor in the growth and wealth of a monastery for pilgrims flocked to worship there and Downpatrick not only had three, but the three greatest! It is no surprise therefore, that when the Christian Normans came to Ireland, one of their knights, set out to conquer the area and possess the tomb of the three Saints. In 1177, John de Courcy won control of eastern Ulster and built a new Benedictine Monastery, which he dedicated to Saint Patrick. Everyone knew that St. Patrick’s grave was on the property somewhere, but the exact location had been forgotten. The relics of the three great Irish saints had been protected in the church until the Viking attacks threatened them. Then, they were removed and buried in a secret grave, the location of which was confided to only a few of the clergy who later perished in raids. For years, the loss was lamented until 1185 when Bishop Malachy III, praying that the relics might be found, claimed to see a heavenly light, like a sunbeam, settle on a certain spot. Following a hunch, he ordered his clerics to dig at that spot and the bodies of the three great saints were found. The body of St. Patrick occupied a central compartment, while the remains of St. Brigid and St. Columcille rested on either side. With great rejoicing, he placed the bodies in three separate coffins, replaced in the same spot and reported the miraculous discovery to de Courcy. Together they applied to Pope Urban III for permission to remove the sacred remains, to an honorable place within the church.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, at this time in Church history the removal of holy relics from one place to another was called a Translation and was a solemn event requiring an all-night vigil prior to moving the precious remains in a bier of gold or silver. It was in fact, an outward confirmation of sanctity and the equivalent of canonization in the days before the Church had standardized the official canonization process. The Pope sent Cardinal Vivian with a commission to direct the undertaking. On the 9th of June, 1186, no less than 15 Bishops, many abbots and high dignitaries and a great gathering of clergy and laity witnessed the official Translation of the relics of St. Patrick, St. Columcille, and St. Brigid, in Downpatrick. According to the account in the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland published in 1933, The ceremony was carried out with great pomp, some of the relics were enshrined and placed on the high Altar and some were brought back to Rome. One of the enshrined relics was a bone from the arm of the National Apostle. Apparently Rome took this opportunity to retrieve a few relics to share with others wishing to venerate our patron saint, and a reliquary was subsequently made to enshrine the arm bone. Among other relics of our national saint for which reliquaries were made were his bell, his book, his lower jawbone, his crozier and even a tooth. While most of St. Patrick’s remains were re-interred at Downpatrick, what few were taken back to Rome, we may never know. As for the rest of his relics, we have some ideas.
St. Patrick’s Crozier: Sad to say, that wonderful relic was publicly burned in Dublin during the Reformation. The Domhnach Airgid: A Latin manuscript of the four gospels once owned by St. Patrick is now in the Royal Irish Academy in a 9" by 7" by 5" reliquary. The outer cover is silver plated with gold figures and letters from the 14th century and is a great specimen of the artistic skill of its time. The figures are of the Savior and 11 saints including Columcille, Brigid, and Patrick. St. Patrick’s Jaw: A silver box for a human lower jawbone which has pride of place in a newly-commissioned reliquary in the Derriaghy, County Antrim Catholic church. The Fiacal Phadraic: In later life St. Patrick began to lose his teeth, some of which were preserved by his disciples; one even gave a name to a church – Cill Fiacail, (the church of the tooth) – near Tipperary town. According to the Annals of Cong Abbey, one is in a handsomely decorated shrine of wood, in the form of a horse shoe, 11" by 9" by 1.5" with a metal plate at the top of a highly decorated rim of brass, silver, and gilt material. On the front is a metal work cross with two figures on each side above shamrock arches. Beneath is a row of raised gilt figures representing Saints Brigid, Patrick, Columcille, and Brendan. On the back is a raised cross and 4 figures, one is a female holding a harp which is one of the oldest representations of that instrument that we possess. It is highly decorated with crystals, stones, and amber studs. There are several pieces of gold and silver filagree work, similar to those around the central crystal of the Cross of Cong. At about 1820, a man named Reilly made a living by traveling with it across the country offering cures. One day Reilly met a priest who asked him to verify its authenticity as he examined it. It once belonged, said Reilly, to the canons of Cong. Then, said Father Prendergast, as I am the last of the Augustinian canons of that monastery, I'll keep it. To Reilly’s amazement, the priest rode off with it. It later ended up in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy and is now in the National Museum in Dublin. St. Patrick’s Arm: According to An Illustrated History of Ireland (1868) by Sister Mary Clare, this was held by the late Catholic Bishop of Belfast. The bone itself has long disappeared; but the shrine (reliquary) that once held it passed from guardian to guardian, until it came to him. It is a beautiful silver case in the shape of a hand and arm up to the elbow. It is thicker than the arm of an ordinary man, as if it were intended to enclose these members without pressing upon them too closely. The fingers are bent, as in the attitude of benediction. Today it is in the Ulster Museum in Belfast. St. Patrick’s Bell: This shrine is highly decorated with silver and gold filigree, figures and studs of crystal and glass. The actual bell inside is plain iron and shaped like a cowbell. It too, is in the National Museum, Dublin.
While we don’t know what relics were taken to Rome in 1186, we do know that on May 10, 1942, the NY Times reported a solemn 3-hour ceremony in which a reliquary was sealed into the new high altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. In the reliquary were bone fragments of several saints – one of whom was St Patrick – and they came straight from Rome. Another memento of our patron saint can be found at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church on 20th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia which has for its cornerstone a rock from County Armagh, from which St. Patrick is said to have preached. However, when all is said and done, the greatest and most valuable relic of our patron saint is in your possession – it is his memory. And, it is up to all of us to keep it revered with dignity.