St. Patrick and our ancestors

Two of our early Irish ancestors supposedly knew Saint Patrick. High King Niall of the Nine Hostages of Tara captured St. Patrick in Britain in 403 AD, took him to Ireland, and sold him into slavery. King Eoghain of Aileach, a son of High King Niall, was converted to Christianity and baptized by St. Patrick at the Grianan Aileach in 450 AD.


St. Patrick was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland in the year 387, and died at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland on March 17, 493. His birth name was “Maewyn Succat” (Latin: Magonus Succetus), and his parents were named Calphurnius and Conchessa. His father belonged to a Roman family of high rank and held the office of decurio. His mother was a close relative of St. Martin of Tours in Gaul. When Patrick was sixteen, Irish raiders, led by our ancestor King Naill of the Nine Hostages, captured him and took him to Ireland, where he was sold as a slave to a chieftan named Milchu in Dalriada in County Antrim. There, for six years, he tended his master’s flocks in the valley of the Braid and on the slopes of Slemish, near the modern day town of Ballymena. After six years of captivity, he fled from his cruel master and headed towards the west. He relates in his "Confessio" that he had to travel about 200 miles, probably to Westport. He found a ship there ready to set sail, and after some rebuffs was allowed on board. In a few days, he was back among his family and friends in Britain.


Patrick devoted the next few years to study in Britain and Gaul to become a Christian priest. It is the tradition of the Morini that Patrick under St. Germain’s guidance for some years was engaged in missionary work among them. When Germain was commissioned by the Pope to proceed to Britain to combat the teachings of Pelagius, he chose Patrick to be one of his missionary companions. In Britain, Patrick’s thoughts often turned towards Ireland. He often had dreams of the children of Ireland, who cried to him: "O holy youth, come back to Erin, and walk once more amongst us." Pope Celestine I  entrusted  St. Patrick with the mission of gathering the Irish into the Church.  It was on March 26, 433 that St. Patrick arrived at the Hill of Slane, across the Bourne valley from Tara, and on the summit of the hill he kindled the legendary Paschal fire, beginning his long mission to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity.


The ninth century hagiography Bethu Phátraic (Tripartite Life of Patrick) narrates a circuit said to have been made by Saint Patrick around the northern half of Ireland in the fifth century. It contains an account telling how, in 450 A.D., our ancestor King Eoghain mac Naill of Aileach (a son of King Niall Noígiallach a/k/a Niall of the Nine Hostages of Tara), went to meet Patrick at a place (now unknown) called Fid Mór (Great Boundary Tree) somewhere near the Grianan Aileach. In the account, Eoghain leaves his fortress the Grianan Aileach to meet Patrick at the boundary of his kingdom, where during their conversation, Eoghain complains of his own ugliness. Patrick covered Eoghain and a handsome youth with a sheet, whereupon they fall asleep, so that when Eoghain awoke, he found that he had acquired the handsome looks of the youth. Eoghain then complained about his lack of height. Patrick asked Eoghain to indicate his desired height with an outstretched arm, whereupon Eoghain immediately grew to that height. These miracles accomplished, they then proceeded to the Grianan Aileach, where Eoghan was baptised a Christian by St. Patrick.


The Lunney Family standing inside the Grianan Aileach

where their ancestor Eoghain was baptised by St. Patrick


On departing to continue his journey, Patrick left a flagstone and prophesied that the Eoghain’s descendants, the kings of Aileach would rule over all Ireland. This flagstone can no longer be found at the fortress. It is believed that a preserved flagstone at Belmont House School in Derry, called St. Columb’s Stone, is this inauguration stone. On one side of the stone, which is 2 metres square, are carved two feet marks. However, there is no substantiating evidence to back this up. The details of this account are clearly apocryphal, being typical of the legends attached to the early saints in hagiographical literature; however, the basic outline of the account appears to be substantiated. An “Eogan i Fid Mór (Eoghan at Great Boundary Tree)” incident is referenced in eighth century notulae (brief notes) contained within the Book of Armagh, that act as an index to a lost collection of early traditions relating to Patrick, and so the account can be seen to reflect a more authentic early tradition, of which we can say no more.


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