The Hill of Slane is one of the major archaeological sites associated with early Christianity in Ireland, but recent research has suggested that there may be more truth in the ancient legends about the site than previously thought.
The traditional St. Patrick story holds that around 433AD Patrick built a bonfire on the hill to celebrate Easter. However, this coincided with the feast of Beltaine, the spring rite of renewal and rebirth in the Celtic world, and tradition held that all fires must be extinguished and relit from the King’s bonfire on Tara Hill — although in practice, there would likely have been many communal fires around the country, given that the Hill of Tara is not visible from everywhere in Ireland. Tara is visible from Slane Hill, however, and tradition holds that the High King, Laoire, sent for the person responsible for this break with tradition. His druids had warned him that if that fire was not extinguished there and then it would consume the whole kingdom, and figuratively that’s just what it did.
Given that our “knowledge” of this event comes from Patrick’s highly suspect hagiographer, we have to take it with perhaps more than a grain or two of salt — a handful at least. Modern archaeologists have suggested that the event was likely moved to Slane (after all, we Irish have never let the truth stand in the way of a good story) from another site, possible Knowth at the nearby Bru na Boinne complex. Regardless, Slane had clearly been a significant spiritual site to the pre-Christian Celts, so Patrick was quick to establish a church on the hill, and left some followers to preach to the locals.
Depending on your point of view, the dominant feature of the hill is either the ruins of the old church and the monks’ dwelling known variously as the Friary or the College (if you’re into crumbling piles of stone) or the amazing view from the top of the hill (if you’re more into nature). The view is fair enough as you walk up the hill, the kids debating which of the two ruins to explore first, but it’s even better once you get inside the College and climb up to the first floor. (When I was a kid, the tower of Slane was not locked like it is today, and the view from up there is truly breathtaking. Thankfully — for me and every other overprotective dad — it’s kept well-padlocked today.
The original church on the site is said to have been founded by St. Patrick who installed Saint Erc as its first bishop. The legend of St. Erc says that when Patrick was called before the High King to answer for his pascal fire faux pas, the king charged his courtiers to remain seated and extend no gesture of respect towards Patrick. Erc, however, was touched by Patrick’s saintliness and stood and greeted him warmly. He was then the first of the King’s circle to convert to Christianity. The fact that Erc was a local, and presumably a respected, and influential member of pre-Christian society would have made him a much better administrator and symbol for the new religion than Patrick and his band of outsiders was a canny move on the Patron Saint’s part.
St. Erc’s tomb stands within the church yard at Slane. All that remains are two immense triangular-shaped stones, the “gable ends” of the tomb, and sundry fragments between them. It was once the tradition during local burials to carry the coffin around the tomb three times and then rest it beside the tomb for a few moments before continuing to the opened grave.
This is the first part of the two-part entry about the history and mythology of the Hill of Slane. Read part two, The Pre-Christian History of the Hill of Slane…
You may also be interested in the history of the Hill of Tara…
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