15 Oct The Hill of Slane
“What an extensive page of our country’s history does it unfold to us! What recollections gush upon us as we stand on the abbey walls of Slane…The records and the footprints of two thousand years are all before us… their epochs, ruins, sites, or history, legibly inscribed upon this picture.” 1 (William Wilde, 1849)
The Hill of Slane is but a short drive away from the most renowned of Ireland’s archaeological attractions: the Hill of Tara, and the Brú na Bóinne tumuli.2 Yet this multi-epoch site has only a small fraction of the tourists daily streaming to the other Co. Meath locations. A visitor to the 158 m (518 ft) Hill of Slane may find that they have the entire mount to themselves, and may wander freely through the picture-postcard ruins of the church, with elements dating from the 11th century, and with a graveyard some 500 years older. Nearby are the remnants of a 15th-century college, a 12th-century Anglo-Norman motte, and what may be an ancient burial mound predating them all.
There is now nothing remaining of the important monastery and legal center, mentioned in the annals, which existed here from the 6th century until the 12th. Also unseen, but hovering in the air above all this, is one of the foundational myths of Christianity in Ireland. Here the nascent fire of St. Patrick was said to have challenged the imperious flames of the pagan priests across the valley at Tara.
In the virtual-reality feature to the right (use full-screen view) the scene begins with a satellite photograph of the Hill of Slane. Click the “i” (info) button in the VR’s toolbar to show/hide the archaeological sites annotated with schematic diagrams. The plan of the church is after Manning, 2008. The plan of the college is after Westropp, 1901. The plan of the motte is after Moore, 1987.
Sláine, whence the name? Not hard to say. Sláine, king of the Fir Bolg, and their judge, by him was its wood cleared from the Brugh. Afterwards, he died at Druim Fuar, which is called Dumha Sláine, and was buried there: and from him the hill is named Sláine. Hence it was said:
“Here died Sláine, lord of troops, over him the mighty mound is reared: so the name of Sláine was given to the hill, where he met his death in that chief abode.” (Dindsenchas) 3
Located 500 m (547 yds) north-west of Slane village, the Hill’s historical prominence may be due to its position overlooking a strategic ford of the Boyne. The Hill of Tara, once the home of Ireland’s high kings, may be seen to the south. This vantage point is significant in the most prominent legend of the Hill of Slane, featuring Ireland’s patron saint, as will be seen below. To the people of Slane village, their Hill represents a key connection to local heritage, as the graveyard next to the ruined church is still used for some burials.
The virtual-reality feature at the top of the page offers three different aerial views of the hilltop, with hotspots that will lead to six different ground-based VR perspectives of the motte, the church, the graveyard, and the college.
Hidden within the dense growth of the wood at the Hill’s western edge, some 150 m (164 yds) from the ruins of the church, is a large enclosed mound considered to be a 12th-century Anglo-Norman motte.4
Encompassing, and thus likely predating the steep-sided motte, is a barely-discernible low mound, perhaps a ring-barrow, which may be “Fertae Fer Feic” the burial mound of Sláine mac Dela. He was the King of the legendary Fir Bolg, mentioned by Muirchú, a 7th-century hagiographer of St. Patrick. According to his text, a renowned prophet of the region, Feccol Ferchertni, had his slaves dig ditches to contain the bodies of slain men. The Dindsenchas refers to the mound as “Dumhach Sláine,” which indicates its association with a prehistoric burial mound and ties the site to themes of kingship and judgement.5 Interestingly, these themes would be replicated in historic times with the Hill’s status as a celebrated legal center.6
The motte and its associated earthworks were surveyed in 2010 by the Hill of Slane Archaeological Project. A ditch surrounds the structure, up to 2 m (6.5 ft) deep in places. From its 45 m (148 ft) wide base, the summit of the motte rises nearly 8 m (26 ft). The area on the top is 20 m by 23 m (66 ft by 75 ft) and shows remnants of low stone walling along its north side. These stones may be all that remains of the primitive earth and timber “castle” built to “harass the enemies” of Richard le Fleming, the Anglo-Norman baron given title to the area.7
According to the Song of Dermot and the Earl, the castle was attacked and destroyed in 1176, with 500 of its defenders killed, by the native king of Cinéal Eóghain. The Flemings rebuilt their castle about 1.4 km (0.9 mi) to the southwest, on the banks of the River Boyne. Following the Williamite Confiscations in the 1690s, the Conyngham family replaced the Flemings as lords of Slane. Their present 1785 castle is popular as a concert venue.
“The long-term dynamics of this site clearly led to a continuing focus of power from the prehistoric to the medieval periods… There must have been a conscious and unconscious use of the past in the construction of space here.” 8 (Matthew Seaver, 2005)
The Church and Graveyard
Many sources insist that the church ruins on the Hill of Slane are the remains of a Franciscan friary. This misinformation likely results from the site’s confusion with the actual Franciscan foundation established nearby in the 16th century, as an extension of St. Erc’s Hermitage on the grounds of Slane Castle.9
There is little left to recall the actual 6th century monastery on the site, in tradition founded by St. Erc, a pagan druid converted by St. Patrick. Beginning in the 8th century, the monastery was known as an important legal center, with links to sites on the Continent. The bones of its founding saint were venerated at the hilltop church. A biography of St. Patrick may have been written and held there, adding to the site’s renown. The original structures were likely destroyed when the site was attacked by the Hiberno-Norse in 833 and 948, or when the native Irish attacked in 1150 and 1161.10 The monastery once contained an iconic round tower, also destroyed by the “Danes of Dublin,” during their raids.11
The picturesque ruins of the church, largely dating from 13-15th-century modifications, are what remain today, surrounded by a graveyard still in use. Its precursor, a wooden structure, collapsed in 1028. The church is dedicated to St. Patrick and served the community until the early 18th century. About 30.5 m (100 ft) long, the ruins include the nave, south aisle, and the chancel with a 19 m (62 ft) 15th-century bell-tower at its western end, ascended by 68 steps.12 At the top the view of the Boyne Valley stretches from Trim to the coast, an expansive panorama that William Wilde described with an abundance of enthusiasm in 1849:
“Here, pilgrim, stop; rest on yonder monumental slab, beneath the shadow of that tall, ivy-mantled tower, the belfry of the cathedral–it once was gorgeous with the shrines of Fathers, and illumed by many a flickering taper, though now the hemlock fills its aisles, and the purple foxglove waves its lonely banneret. The ground whereon we stand is sacred,–consecrated by the foot-prints of our patron saint, hallowed by the dust of kings.” 13 (William Wilde, 1849)
A deep holy well, now filled in with rocks due to safety concerns, is located just inside the graveyard’s wall, to the north of the church. It may be viewed in the initial aerial VR view here. Known variously as Tobar Padraig (St. Patrick’s Well), or St. Erc’s Well, it was here, according to tradition, that St. Patrick baptized St. Erc, and where St. Erc went on to baptize his own followers. William Wilde heard stories of how the water in the well was said to rise and fall with the waters of the nearby Boyne,14 a legend similar to that found at the Tullaghan Hill Holy Well in Co. Sligo, which was reputed to conform its water level to the ocean’s tides.
Surrounding the church ruins is a graveyard which has been in continuous use for more than 1,500 years, from the earliest days of the monastery. While the oldest memorial stones are crude and unmarked, those that are legible have been recorded and are available online here.
Also occupying the top of the Hill, but not connected architecturally to the church, are the remains known as the “college,” seen here in an aerial VR view.
These ruins represent different phases of construction and purpose. The earliest building, likely a tower house, is now known as the “rectory,” and was used for the administration of the parish. In the late 15th century a chantry college was built on the site, endowed for priests to celebrate masses for the souls of the Fleming family. The structure housed four priests, four lay-brothers and four choirboys in some comfort, with fireplaces and a double garderobe (toilet). The buildings were situated around an open rectangular cloister.
The college was rebuilt in the 16th century with a further Fleming family bequest.15 There was once a bawn (defensive enclosure) around the tower house, whose only remnant today is its massive gatehouse.16 Stone sculptures, not in their original positions, include the Fleming coat of arms, a ferocious gargoyle, an early depiction of an artillery mortar, and what may be a dragon, a griffin, or the head of “the devil himself.”17 Some of these are featured here. Other fragments discovered on the Hill include a piece of stone with an interlacing design, suggesting that it was a part of a high cross. This was removed in 1994 by OPW for its preservation. Interestingly, a c. 12th-century story describes how in the year 847 the high cross of Slane was shattered into bits by magic: “The cross which was on the green of Slane was raised up into the air, it was broken and divided, so that part of its top fell at Teltown and Fennor.”18
St. Erc, St. Patrick, and King Laoghaire
What may be the oldest memorial on the Hill of Slane is also its most distinctive: a primitive structure within the graveyard walls, appearing similar to the gable ends of a hut. While one source suggested it was known locally as a “pagan’s grave,”19 it is now considered to be the burial site of St. Erc. In our virtual-reality tour, the tomb may be seen here.
It is constructed of two triangular stones, each about 1.5 m (5 ft) in height, positioned some 2 m (6.5 ft) apart. There are grooves cut into the stones’ edges, perhaps to fit large closing slabs, now lost. Similar shrines, seen at monastic sites mostly in the west of Ireland, would hold the disarticulated bones of a saint. If indeed this is St. Erc’s tomb, it would have been a focus for devotion very early in the history of the Irish church.20 In the middle of the 19th century, William Wilde reported that during Slane’s funerals of the “lower orders,” pallbearers would lay the corpse down for a short time at this monument before carrying it to its final resting place.21
St. Erc begins his (quasi-) historical role as a pagan, a druid in the retinue of Laoghaire, the Ard-Rí (high king) who ruled from the Hill of Tara in pre-Christian Ireland. According to the legend—in written form beginning in the 7th century—St. Patrick defied the king when he ignited the first “paschal fire” from atop the Hill of Slane. We’ll examine this legend in greater detail below. Erc was the only druid who broke ranks with the king to pay homage to the man who would become Ireland’s patron saint.23
Erc was baptized and converted to Christianity by St. Patrick, and subsequently appointed the first Bishop of Slane. He went on to found the monastery there that began a religious presence on the Hill that was to last for more than 1300 years. After further missionary work across Ireland, and perhaps also in Cornwall, Erc retired to Slane, where he built a modest hermitage beside the Boyne, and died c. 513 “after a life free from reproach” at the age of 93.24
“Christian and pagan ideas were blended. Following the wise, and, indeed, the only practicable method–that of peaceful permeation–the Church often retained the forms of heathen ceremonies, while actually investing these with new meanings.” 25 (Walter Johnson, 1912)
St. Erc embraced the new order, while St. Patrick’s confronted the old with the flaming gauntlet he presented to King Laoghaire from the Hill of Slane. This became a foundational metaphor for the triumph of Christianity in Ireland, even commemorated in a fresco on the ceiling of Dublin Castle (below, left).26
This event, according to tradition, came about as Patrick grew frustrated with his inability to convert King Laoghaire by his powers of persuasion. Patrick left the king’s fort at Tara, and ascended the Hill of Slane, some ten miles across the valley. There he ignited Ireland’s first Paschal (Easter) Fire, in defiance of the king, who had decreed that the only visible fires allowed were those of his own festival to mark the end of winter and the beginning of the new year. The king’s Bealtine fire would be seen for miles around after it was lit at dawn on the Hill of Tara. Thus, it was written, on Holy Saturday of the year 433, a druid warned the king, “Unless [Patrick’s] fire be extinguished this very night, it will never be extinguished; it will outshine all the fires that we light. And he who has kindled it will conquer us all.”27
Ultimately King Laoghaire, perhaps moved by Erc’s conversion, agreed to allow Patrick to continue his missionary work. Later in his life, at Rathcroghan’s Ogulla Holy Well, Patrick would baptize two of Laoghaire’s daughters, Eithne the Fair and Fedelm the Red, into the church.28
In our VR view of the graveyard, a link at the horizon will transport you to the Hill of Tara, representing a line-of-sight connection for the saint and his druidic adversaries long ago. John Creedon (RTÉ One) conducted an experiment in 2016 to determine if St. Patrick’s audacious Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane might in fact have been visible from the Hill of Tara. See the video to the right, where (at 3:30) you may learn the results.
Today, nearly 16 centuries later, each year on Holy Saturday (just before Easter Sunday) the local parish priest lights a fire atop the Hill of Slane to commemorate Patrick’s defining moment.
Modern scholarship suggests that a more likely location for the radical Paschal Fire was the old royal necropolis of Brú na Bóinne, and specifically the Knowth passage tomb, by that time a chieftain’s residence.29 But there is a staying power to the Hill of Slane’s claim to this pivotal event, or if you prefer, pivotal myth in the saga of Ireland. Knowth has no (living) residents, no chamber of commerce, and thus no vested interest in contesting the title to the Paschal Fire ceremony. The good people of Slane, on the other hand, have established their own commemorative festivals, and even offer a triple-casked whiskey, co-branded with St. Patrick’s revolutionary fire.
“It has here to be remembered that we are dealing with the teaching of a pre-industrial, pre-literate, story-telling culture, where, let us also remember, people liked stories to be dramatic, marvelous, mythical, and symbolic.” 30 (D.L.T. Bethell, 1981)
Click here to see all the notes from this page.
The Hill of Slane, Co. Meath
Nearest Town: Slane
Townland: Slanecastle Demesne
Latitude: 53° 42′ 53.99″ N
Longitude: 6° 32′ 53.19″ W
Many thanks to Conor Brady, who assisted in the photography and the research for this page.