Downpatrick is a medium-sized town about south of Belfast in County Down, Northern Ireland. It has been an important site since ancient times and its cathedral is said to be the burial place of Saint Patrick. Today it is the county town of Down and the headquarters of Down District Council. It had a population of 10,737 at the 2011 Census.
An early Bronze Age site was excavated in Downpatrick on the Meadowlands housing estate, revealing two round houses. One measured over 4 metres in diameter and contained a hearth in the centre, while the other round house was over seven metres across.
There is some archaeological evidence of Neolithic settlement at the Cathedral Hill site which otherwise appears to have been unoccupied until the late Bronze Age when there was an undefended settlement at least on the south west of the hill top.
Downpatrick is one of Ireland's most ancient and historic towns. It takes its name from a dún (fort), which once stood on the hill that dominates the town and on which Down Cathedral stands. Ptolemy, about the year AD 130, includes it (in Latin) as Dunum in his list of towns of Ireland. The old name of the town was Rath Celtair named after the mythological warrior of Ulster called Celtchar (in modern Irish: Cealtachair) who resided there and who fought alongside Ulster King Conchobar mac Neasa (anglicised Conor Mac Nessa) and is mentioned in the Ulster Cycle and, in particular, the Táin Bó Cuailgne. The name was superseded by the name Dún Lethglaise then Dún Dá Lethglas which in turn gave way, in the 13th century, to the present name of Dún Phádraig (anglicised as Downpatrick) – from the town's connection with the patron saint of Ireland.
Saint Patrick was reputedly buried here in 461 on Cathedral Hill, together with Saint Bridget an Saint Colomban, within the grounds of Down Cathedral (before its construction). His grave is still a place of pilgrimage on St Patricks Day (17 March each year). The Saint Patrick Visitor Centre in Downpatrick is purpose-built to tell the story of St Patrick.
From the seventh century the dominant power in Ulster were the Dál Fiatach so much so that the title "Rí Uladh" could simultaneously mean "King of Ulster" and "King of the Dál Fiatach". County Down was the ancient centre of the Dál Fiatach lands, and the chief royal site and religious centre of the Dál Fiatach was at Downpatrick from where they ruled Ulster for centuries.
In 1137, St. Malachy after resigning as Archbishop of Armagh, separating the two dioceses and appointing another as Bishop of Connor, became the Bishop of Down. He administered the diocese of Dún dá leth glas (Down) from Bangor and introduced a community of Augustinians (canons) to Dún dá leth glas dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and repaired and enlarged Down Cathedral.
After having received a grant of Ulster from King Henry II of England, Norman Knight, John de Courcy set out from Dublin in early 1177 to take possession of it. He marched north to with a force of 20 knights and 300 men and reached Downpatrick four days later. Downpatrick was an open ecclesiastical town of the old type and the invaders rode in and surprised it in the small hours of 2 February. De Courcy attacked the fortress and administrative centre of Rath Celtair (the Mound of Down), defeating and driving off Rory MacDonlevy (Ruaidhri Mac Duinnshleibhe), King of the Dál Fiatach and Ulster (Ulaid).
In 1183, John de Courcy brought in some Benedictines from the abbey of St. Werburgh in Chester (today Chester Cathedral) in England and built a cathedral friary for them at Downpatrick. This building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1245. De Courcy reputedly found not only the bones of St. Patrick on Cathedral Hill but also the bones of St. Brigid and St. Colmcille (St.Columba) and in the presence of the Papal Legate, Vivian, Cardinal-priest of Santo Stefano Rotondo (also Santo Stefano al Monte Celio), the relics were reburied on 9 June 1186.
In 1260 Brian O'Neill (Brian Ua Néill), King of Tír Eoghain (Tyrone) and who had been acknowledged as High King of Ireland by Hugh O'Conor of Connacht and Tadhg O'Brien of Thomond marched to Downpatrick, a centre of English settlement, and, allied with a Connacht force under Hugh O'Conor, fought the foreigners in the Battle of Down. The battle took place outside the city of Down and O'Neill, 8 Connacht lords and many others died. The death of Brian O'Neill and the defeat of the Irish was lamented by the Cenél nEógain bard Gilbride MacNamee (Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe)(1210–1272) in a poem.
Following the rebellion of Shane O'Neill in 1567, Downpatrick fell briefly into Irish hands before being re-taken by Sir Richard Morrison (Moryson).
On 21 January 1575, three Franciscans John Lochran, Donagh O'Rorke, and Edmund Fitzsimon were hanged at Downpatrick.
Four main thoroughfares are shown converging on a town plan of 1724, namely, English Street, Scotch (now Saul) Street, Barrack (now Scotch) Street, and Irish Street. Topography limited expansion of the town and so the basic early-18th-century street plan continued largely unchanged until 1838 when Church Street was built, followed by Market Street in 1846.
The condition of the town was greatly improved in the 18th century by a land-owning family named Southwell. The first Edward Southwell was responsible for building a shambles in 1719 and encourage paving of the streets which started in 1727. Importantly, in 1717 he built a quay and grain store at Quoile Quay, thereby, contributing to the economic expansion of the town. The second Edward Southwell was responsible for building, in 1733, one of the most beautiful examples of a Georgian charity school and almshouse, Southwell School, Downpatrick.
Down County Infirmary was established in a house in Saul Street in October 1767, and remained there for seven years until it was moved to Barrack Lane (now Fountain Street) where the former Horse Barracks, was purchased, in 1774, for £150 for use as the . It was used until the new Infirmary (now the Downe Hospital) was opened in 1834.
In June 1778, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism famously preached both in the new preaching house in Downpatrick and in The Grove beside the ruins of Down Cathedral which he called a "noble ruin".
On 21 October 1803, co-founder and leader of the United Irishmen, Thomas Russell, "the man from God knows where", was hanged outside Downpatrick Gaol for his part in Robert Emmet's failed rebellion of the same year. Thomas Russell is buried in the graveyard of the Anglican parish Church of Downpatrick, St Margaret's, in a grave paid for by his great friend, Mary Ann McCracken sister of leading Belfast United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken.
In his role as barrister, Daniel O'Connell, "The Liberator", was called away from London to Downpatrick to attend the County Down Assizes, as counsel in a case heard on 1 April 1829. As the leading proponent campaigning for Catholic Emancipation, he had been in London for the passage in its final legislative stages of the Emancipation Bill from the British House of Commons through to the House of Lords and thence into law. Once passed, the Emancipation Act 1829 allowed Catholics to become members of parliament in the British House of Commons, something which they had been previously barred from doing. Taken along with the highly significant Catholic Relief Act 1829 which O'Connell had also vigorously campaigned for, and which saw amongst other things repeal of the remaining Penal Laws, many of the substantial restrictions on Catholics in the United Kingdom were now lifted.
On 30 March 1829, a meeting of the Catholics of the parish of Down, under the chairmanship of the Rev. Cornelius Denvir, voted an address of gratitude to O'Connell on having achieved Emancipation. A deputation presented this address to O'Connell. On 2 April 1829 O'Connell was present at a public dinner at Downpatrick in his honour attended by ' upwards of eighty gentlemen, of different religious persuasions '.
On 17 March 1848, a crowd of between 2,000 – 3,000 set off from Old Course Road intending to march to the reputed grave of St. Patrick on Cathedral Hill but were attacked en route by Orange protesters at the Irish Street shambles who had heard about the St. Patrick's day parade; a riot ensued.
Downpatrick, throughout the course of The Troubles, had a significant paramilitary presence in the town, mostly through the presence of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) & Irish National Liberation Army (INLA)