To the north of Downpatrick stands the Hill of Down, once of great strategic worth, fought over long before St Patrick made its name famous. A Celtic fort of mammoth proportions was constructed on the hill, and given the name Dun Cealtchair. Dun, meaning ‘fort' in Gaelic, became the nameplace of both town and county. For some 400 years, between the 8 th and 12 th centuries, the settlement was intermittently harassed by Danish raiders. However, this particular problem ceased when a more dangerous predator appeared on the scene in 1177. As the conquering Norman armies made inroads throughout England, so inevitably they would eventually look across the Irish Sea toward more conquest. Thus it was that the Norman John de Courcy, armed with 22 horse and 300-foot soldiers, made the short journey to Ireland, and there met and defeated the incumbent Gaelic ruler, Rory MacDonleavy. Down provided the initial Norman foothold in Ulster.
The Augustinian Priory occupying the Hill of Down was dispossessed by de Courcy, who then established a Benedictine Abbey in its place and renamed the site Downpatrick. By the 13 th century it was the second most important Norman settlement in Ulster after Armagh, with defensive walls surrounding its abbey. An early account of St Patrick's life asserts that his body is buried in a church near to the sea; this may well refer to Downpatrick, but no one knows for certain.
The Norman abbey was eventually destroyed by an earthquake in 1245 and churches that replaced the abbey on the same site were successively rebuilt and again destroyed in 1316 and 1538. By 1609 James I was on the English throne and in that year upgraded the church at Down to the status of cathedral, despite it being in a ruinous state; the new bishop was enthroned beneath a gaping roof. The present cathedral was erected in 1790, retaining much of its original structure. Internally, the most fascinating feature are the 18 th century box-pews, characteristic of the Regency period, labelled with the names of their owners on small brass plaques - the only ones of their kind remaining in use in Ireland. Very strikingly, there are two thrones facing each other across the span of the nave, these are the bishop's throne and the judge's throne placed thus because they date back to a time when trials were held inside the church. Externally, standing to the front of the cathedral is an ancient and weather-beaten 10 th century cross, while to the rear the graveyard is host, allegedly, to the three saintly graves of Columba, Patrick and Brigid. In the grounds are several further antiquities, largely removed here from other sites.
English Street, crowded with Georgian buildings is home to the intriguing 18 th century gaol, which now houses an excellent little museum, the Down County Museum, as well as also being the St Patrick Heritage Centre. The museum premises incorporate two gatehouses and two quite separate buildings surrounded by open courtyard, all within very high walls, a reminder of their original function. The complex includes exhibitions reminding visitors of the harshness of St Patrick's life and times, as well as an account of the history of County Down - the latter provides much fascinating material on the rebellion of 1798. The prison cells, barely changed since the 18 th century and complete with graffiti from the period, are open to the public.
The Downpatrick Railway Museum offers tours of the restored station and workshops as well as an occasional ride on a steam train. Nearby is the Downpatrick Race Course, second oldest in Ireland and home to the Ulster National. The Roman Catholic church of ‘St Patrick's' is quite an impressive building, standing as it does atop a hill. More modern than the neighbouring cathedral, it was constructed in the late 19 th century in the ‘Gothic' style. The Mound of Down is the remains of de Courcy's motte and bailey fortification, considered the finest example of its type in Ulster.
Close by Downpatrick is Inch Abbey, a ruined Cistercian abbey built by John de Courcy around 1180, and beautifully situated on the banks of the Quoile River. The abbey's name is derived from ‘inis' an island, and it rises up between drumlins (small hills) protected by marsh on one side and the river on the other. Inch Abbey stands on the site of a much older settlement called Inis Cumbscraigh , dating back to at least AD800 when the place was indeed an island. John de Courcy shipped monks over from Furness Abbey in Lancashire with the intension to establish a thriving centre of English influence. The Norman abbey suffered a conflagration in 1404 and all monastic life ceased by the mid 16 th century.