There is always water in Saint Patrick’s footprint, even at the lowest tide. This enables you to make a wish, but, of course, you must never tell anyone what that wish is. I have made a good many wishes there, since my father first showed it to me a long time ago. I recall him holding my left hand and lowering me down, to dip my fingers in the water and whisper the wish to myself and to Patrick. I can only conclude that a great many of those wishes came true, but I can’t remember them all. I didn’t make one yesterday, because my footing was precarious on the wet seaweed and there was nobody there to hold my hand. I had no wish either, to inadvertently join the intrepid winter swimmers of Skerries, the aptly named Frosties.
It is no surprise that a man of the stature of Patrick should have made such an impression. There can be no argument about the fact that his arrival was the most significant thing that ever happened in Skerries or indeed, in Ireland. There will be arguments, of course. Scholars argue. Was Patrick a Gaul, a Briton, or a Welshman? Was he Patrick at all, or just somebody else called Patrick? Legends have grown up around him. He made a giant leap from his island and landed so forcefully on the rock at Red Island that his footprint remained in the stone. I prefer that version to the more prosaic suggestion that the people marked the spot where he set foot on the mainland of Ireland to begin his mission. That is an awesome thought Fifteen hundred and eighty two years ago, a man arrived from far away to preach the Gospel to the people who had held him in his boyhood as a slave.
The story is told that Julius Caesar, as a young man, was held for ransom, by Cilician pirates, the scourge of the Eastern mediterranean. It is likely that they enjoyed his company. He was noted for his ‘people skills’, but he promised that he would return some day and crucify them all. No doubt they laughed at his joke. He kept his promise. Patrick made the obverse of Caesar’s promise. He came without legions or fleet. He saw. He conquered Ireland. Who was the better man? There’s a subject for an argument.
Courage is the watchword of missionaries. Imagine approaching a Zulu kraal, armed only with a Bible. Think of David Livingstone, setting off for Africa with only an attache case of medicines to cure all the ills of that continent. On the Radharc film series (it means ‘vision’) many years ago, I saw a young medical missionary sister on a round of her clinics among the Turkana people of Kenya. She flew a little Auster aeroplane. The engine failed. She took out her tool-box, got the engine going again and took off into the bush to find her patients. I read about her in recent years. She was working in Burkina Faso, during a famine. She was in her nineties. What legend can adequately express such courage?
His leap took him from the island on the right, Inis Phádraig, to a point beside the white wall on the left. It is still a world record. You may stand in his footprint but you could never fill his shoes. His name went out from this point and scattered ‘like a wildflower’ all over Ireland and all over the world, wherever Irish people have settled. His image is everywhere.
Look closely at the ruined monastery on his island, Inis Phádraig, and you will see a white, ghostly figure in the window, the Bishop’s Window. It is the man himself, every inch a bishop.
(Image courtesy of Image Depot, Skerries)
Go and make a wish at his footprint, but be sure to get someone to hold your hand.
” ‘Did Brother Fergal ever tell you the one about the saint and the goat?’ It was worth telling again.
The friar nodded. he had heard it many a time, how the saint took a great lep from his island and how his footprint can be seen in the rock to this day. Didn’t he demand his goat back and didn’t the people deny that they had it? It was true up to a point, because the goat was eaten.
The butcher from next door, joined them.
‘God save you, Friar John,’ he said. He lent his ear to the story.
‘The dirty liars’, went on the tanner. ‘And didn’t the goat inside in their bellies, hear them and didn’t he give a great maa out of him?’
‘What was that?’ asked the butcher. He loved a yarn. He was, in his own way, an artist. Whenever he put a carcass to hang on the row of hooks outside his shop, he made little nicks in the outer membrane. As the days went by and the wind and sun did their work, the nicks widened and stretched to form pleasing floral patterns, a florilegium of shoulder, brisket and haunch. He knew, by the ripeness of the blossoms, when the meat was ready. He also had come for saltpetre to add to his steeping corned beef, the best corned beef in Kilkenny.
He folded his arms as the tanner, out of consideration, began the story again. The tanner fumbled in a satcheland took out a lump of dark bread. He tore a piece off and offered it to the friar.
‘No thank you,’ declined the friar, raising his hand. ‘Fasting.’
The tanner took no offence. The ways of the friars were inscrutable. They lived by denying themselves all the simple pleasures of life, God’s gifts to men in a hard and cruel world. He spoke with his mouth full. He chuckled at the humour of the story. ‘So the good saint put a curse on them It is a fact that the women of that nation, grow beards, like any goat.’
The butcher laughed. ‘By the Lord, that would be a sight to see.’ He apologised for the oath. ”That would be a sight.’
The Devil to Pay Hugh FitzGerald Ryan Lilliput Press 2010 ebook Amazon Kindle
DISCLAIMER I have lived in Skerries for almost three quarters of a century and I have never met a bearded woman. This must be a legend or a vile slander put about by envious people from elsewhere.