Seaforde woman Jean to follow in footsteps of St Patrick

Seaforde woman Jean to follow in footsteps of St Patrick

14 October 2020

PILGRIMS retracing the footsteps of Ireland’s patron saint will enjoy an extra layer of authenticity this Sunday in Downpatrick.

Not only will they be hearing about St Patrick’s life and times and visit places which were special in his lifetime, they will hear all about it in his adopted tongue of Irish. 

A half-day walking tour starting off at 1am from the St Patrick Centre moves to the impressive granite statue of the saint in Saul, St Patrick’s Memorial Church and the revered healing wells in Struell.

Along with a tour taken in English by former Adoration Sisters Martina Purdy and Elaine Kelly, this Irish language tour is part of a drive from the St Patrick Centre to promote the St Patrick’s Way and boost local tourism.

Jean O’Neill is the tour guide and has already taken four groups since the walks were introduced in July.

“The tour has attracted people from Dublin, Meath, Sligo and all parts of the province. Some have a lot of Irish and some don’t,” explained Jean.

“I am keen to promote that it can be seen as an introduction to the language as well as the Irish language is very much part of our heritage. 

“Just look at our road signs and places. The River Quoile for instance is derived from An Caol  which means narrow water and Saul is from the Irish ‘Sabhall’ meaning barn and the site of Patrick’s first church. 

“Our language is part of our local environment and it’s certainly reflected in the walk that I do.”

Jean believes that it was Patrick’s love of the language which helped him bring his Christian faith to the pagan natives from 432 AD onwards.

“I think the difference between him and any of his predecessors was that Patrick had the local language and I’m sure that contributed to it as he lived her for six years before he left and came back to bring Christianity to the island and spread the word,” said Jean.

While being a walking guide is far removed from Jean’s job, there could be no better choice for the role than the part-time Irish teacher from Seaforde where she lives with her family.

Jean is a fluent Irish speaker and devoted advocate for the language, having rekindled her language skills with the Cumann Gaelach Leath Chathail group based in Downpatrick for many years.

She’s also an avid walker, both locally and beyond, having completed the famous pilgrimage walk, the Camino De Santiago in Spain, for years.

While Dublin born and raised, and a self-described “blow-in” who has been living in Northern Ireland since 1984, Jean is steeped in local community’s history and heritage and is cultural officer for Loughinisland GAC. A woman of faith, she also regularly attends St Macartan’s Church in Loughinisland. 

One of her own favourite spots on the tour is St Patrick’s statue in Saul which was constructed in 1932.

“We have a tremendous story to tell here in Downpatrick and one to tell in relation to St Patrick and all of the local sites concerning him. We are basically walking in his footsteps,” said Jean.

“It’s lovely to walk around a local area, it just opens up so many new experiences for everyone, even local people who have done it before. The statue of St Patrick is an incredible piece of sculpture which has ancient Irish engraved at its base.

“He’s wearing one boot and one sandal, he has the face of the Church of Ireland Archbishop at the time, yet he’s wearing the robes of a Catholic primate. I’m sure that came about in recognition of the fact that St Patrick reflects both Christian traditions.”

It’s not only St Patrick that fascinates Jean. She is also endlessly interested with all facets of our local natural history as well.

She said: “The Irish language is an integral part of our heritage and when I explain the place names, we can see it still all around us. “I even talk about about our local flora and fauna and point out about plants such as Meadow Sweet, Airhead Luachra in Irish. It was the most fragrant plant and used to sweeten beds at night and then we have the Neantóg (nettles) and Féithleann (honeysuckle). All of these things I like to point out along the way.”

Jean gained her degree in Irish from the University of Ulster two years ago and is determined to spread her love of Irish — much like the missionary zeal of St Patrick himself.

Jean said: “Learning the Irish language has actually taught me so much, not only about our culture, but our environment and our topology as well and the local world around me.

“I would invite anyone to come along locally to learn the language in Downpatrick or with Glór Uachtar Tíre based in Castlewellan.”

For further information contace the St Patrick’s Centre, Downpatrick, on 028 4461 9000 or visit