Legend of Slemish

by Ald. Tommy Nicholl

The spectacular Slemish Mountain is perhaps one of the most sacred places in Ireland. It was on the slopes of this mountain, according to legend, that St. Patrick – Ireland’s patron saint – tended the swine of his master Miliucc long before Christianity came to these lands.

Tradition tells us that Patrick had been captured on a raid by Irish pirates and had been sold into slavery in County Antrim. Patrick would later escape and flee to the Continent, only to return as a Christian missionary some years after.

According to the autobiographical Confessio of Patrick, when he was about sixteen, he was captured by Irish pirates from his home in Britain and taken as a slave to Ireland, looking after animals; he lived there for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After becoming a cleric, he returned to northern and western Ireland.

One of the first places that he returned to was Slemish, the scene of his captivity, where he overthrew his former master <who was still alive> and established a Christian church on his lands.  It is also said that Miliucc’s son and daughters also accepted the Christian Faith and became great supporters of Patrick in the area, aiding him in his mission in Mid-Antrim.

From there he travelled to the great citadels of Ireland, spreading the Christian message as he went. Slemish, it has been suggested became one of the major centres of Christianity in Northern Ireland, and provided a focus for pious pilgrimage well into medieval times.

Prior to his escape to Europe, he was made to tend swine on the slopes of the mountain. The story is mentioned by Patrick himself in his Confessio and is generally accepted by many historians. It is, however, assumed that the area around Slemish may have been an important, sacred region dedicated to pagan gods before the coming of the Christian faith, this giving it a special place in Irish tradition, both Christian and non-Christian.

Early medieval tradition credits him with being the first bishop of Armagh, and regards him as the founder of Christianity in Ireland.

Ald. Tommy Nicholl