In the autumn of 2013, I found myself standing alongside the grave of St. Patrick. Yes, the St. Patrick whose name is invoked every March 17th over tables laden with corned beef, cabbage, and endless pints of Guinness (I’m an Irish whiskey man, myself).
His remains are upriver from Strangford Lough, where my own Scot-Irish ancestors once lived, buried in the aptly named village of Downpatrick, and next to a massive, gorgeous cathedral that also bears his name. His marker, a chunk of local Mourne granite, carries a modest cross and the worn but still clear letters: P-A-T-R-I-C.
A sucker for all things ancient and Celtic, I snapped pictures, took copious notes, and trembled with ecstasy over the privilege of visiting this holy site. I learned later, that I was simply a sucker. I had been duped by the cleverness of a skilled marketeer.
It was not the bygone disciples of St. Patrick who set up his impressive gravesite on that hillside. It was Francis Joseph Bigger. Francis loved his native Northern Ireland, and over his decades he restored castles, renovated pubs, promoted the use of the Gaelic languages, boosted tourism, and generally championed every Irish cause he could find.
In April of 1900 – almost 1500 years after Patrick – Bigger placed the gravestone next to the Downpatrick cathedral. At least he payed to have it placed. It took a dozen men two weeks to actually place the stone. The truth is, we have no idea where Saint Patrick is buried. Maybe the dust that once was him is, indeed, beneath that giant rock. Maybe he is interred in the foundation or basement of the cathedral. Maybe he isn’t anywhere near that hillside.
Having had a while to think about it – and with a few of those Irish whiskies to ease my mind – I’m okay with all this and feel less defrauded. After all, Francis Bigger was not interested in beguiling anyone. His was an act of service, as he wanted more people to visit his homeland, fall in love with the storied countryside, and learn more about his island’s patron saint.
It worked. Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Patrick’s grave annually. Going there they learn, as I did, that St. Patrick is much more than a poster boy for springtime revelry. He was a remarkable man of love, humility, and patience.
He came to Ireland with a refreshing spirituality, treating others with dignity. And rather than forcing his views on people or expecting them to conform to his personal orthodoxy, he met his neighbors where they were. Francis Bigger, in his own way, was telling this story to the world.
Yes, it is true: We can never know for certain where St. Patrick rests, but we certainly know the legacy he has left behind. He chose the path of loving sacrifice, living a life of service. From his grave, wherever it may be, Patrick still calls us to follow that path. Sláinte!