Liam Browne & Sean Doran of DoranBrowne are curating a strand of the inaugural Home of St Patrick Festival 2017, coming this week to counties Armagh and Down - here, they write for RTÉ Culture on the inspiration behind a rather unique event.

Were you to ask the man or woman in the street what they know of St Patrick, they would almost certainly mention his association with the shamrock or that he banished the snakes from Ireland. Beyond that, they may struggle.

Legends live on, indestructible, but the real story of Patrick’s life is much more interesting, and more powerfully contemporary, than the legend.

Stained glass window of  Saint Patrick with three relics
Saint Patrick's Church of Ireland, Armagh

My colleague Sean Doran and I (as DoranBrowne) have been invited to curate a strand of the Home of St Patrick Festival, which takes place 3rd-19th March across counties Armagh and Down, a territory that Patrick knew well - Armagh being the site of his chief church, and Downpatrick where he is reputedly buried.

In terms of other festivals we have curated (on Beckett, Wilde and Brian Friel), the programme inspiration has come directly from the work and life of the writer concerned (a bio-fest model), encouraging both a web of interconnections and an overall coherence.

Down Cathedral, illuminated for the Home Of St. Patrick festival

With Patrick, we adopted the same approach and quickly realised that, like most people, we knew very little about him.  But with some background reading you quickly come to realise that Patrick is a figure for these very times, a man who at one stage or another in his life was a slave, a refugee, an outsider, a visionary. In his Confessio, he writes 'My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.'  Despite this underplaying of himself, his innate modesty, this was a man who converted Ireland to Christianity through entirely peaceful means, an achievement virtually unheard of elsewhere in the world.  We can only speculate as to the personal and political skills, the charisma even, required to effect such profound and widespread change. We decided to explore specific themes across three weekends: Pre-Christian: Myths and Legends, Spiritual Journeys and Contemporary Celebrations.

The Home of St Patrick Festival’s unique distinction - what sets it apart from every other world-wide celebration of Patrick - is the relationship between programme and place, the resonance that this particular landscape offers to each event. Patrick’s presence is everywhere. As an acknowledgement of this, churches and other places of worship across both counties will ring their bells at 17.17 across the 17 days of the festival. In towns and cities like Armagh, Downpatrick and Newry those bells will be heard by many; in more remote or rural areas they may not be heard by a single soul - but that too has its own beauty.

Turkish writer and political activist Elif Shafak

When Patrick returned to Ireland, he arrived at the mouth of the Slaney and walked a mile or two inland to Saul. There, he was bequeathed a barn for refuge by a local chieftain (from which comes the name, sabhall being the Irish for barn). It was to be the site of his first church and inspired by the symbolism of the name we’ve commissioned an annual talk, The Saul Address. The inaugural talk will be given by the Turkish writer and political activist Elif Shafak on the theme of moral leadership, or the lack of it, in the world today. She will also talk about Istanbul, where she lives for part of the year, a city that encompasses both national and cosmopolitan identities.

This event is also part of a special relationship for 2017 between the festival and Istanbul. The vision of a city built on seven hills is an enduring one; it is claimed by, amongst others, Rome, Jerusalem, Mumbai, Edinburgh, Prague, Dunedin and Istanbul itself. Armagh too is such a city, and as part of an internationalising of the festival it will link up artistically each year with one of these cities. We’ve joined with the Istanbul Biennial on their a good neighbour billboard project and both Armagh and Downpatrick are international partners on this exploration of what it is to be a good neighbour in today’s world. A further link to Istanbul comes via the presence at the festival of the nine-piece The Secret Ensemble, whose mystic music is inspired by their spiritual culture of Sufism.

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The spiritual theme continues with Aboriginal (from the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin) and Irish musicians performing together at sunrise and sunset, classical DJs in the Cathedrals, writers Viv Albertine and Sally Magnusson on ‘memoirs & confessions’, Negro spirituals performed by the mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene, and workshops and demonstrations by the manuscript illuminator Toni Watts.

The American short-story writer Joy Williams once said in an interview with the Paris Review that ‘all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm.’ The words describe very well our programming aspirations for this festival - an art that is rich in mystery and spiritual rhythm.

The Home of St Patrick Festival 2017 runs from March 3-19 – view the programme in full here.