Long before Patrick came to Slane, the hill was a very important site to the pre-Christian Irish.
Knowth and Newgrange as seen from atop the Hill of Slane.
The first high king of Ireland is said to have been a fir bolg named Sláine. The Fir Bolg were one of the warrior races who inhabited Ireland before the Celtic tribes conquered the country. Sláine is said to have cleared the land at Bru na Boinne for the construction of the great tumuli of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. When he died, he was buried in a great mound on the top of a hill overlooking the Boyne valley, which was named Slane in his honor. As a consequence of his abilities and good deeds, a well on the hill was said to have the power to restore the dead and heal the wounded.
The Fir Bolg were later dispossessed by the Tuatha Da Dannan, the god-like ancestors of the Irish Celts, but in these days many quasi-supernatural races are said to have fought over Ireland, and the Tuatha de Dannan then had to contend with the Formorians for possession of the island. During the second battle of Maige Tuired, the Formorians filled in the magic well on the Hill of Slane with stones in order to stop Dian Cecht, the Tuatha’s god of physicians, bringing their warriors back to life. Inside the churchyard you can still see what local tradition says is a holy well stuffed with stones. The same well? Well, that depends on how much credit you want to give to ancient legends.
The burial mound of Sláine is believed to be the “motte” you can see in a wooded area behind the church. The mound is fenced off from the rest of the site as it’s on private land, but new archaeological work has begun in the last few years, expanding what we know about the site. The mound is called the “motte” because in 1170, after the Normans came and quickly conquered the country, the local Norman lord built a bailey (a wooden “castle”) on top of the mound/motte. The countryside was littered with motte and baileys at this time, each probably housing a knight and his family and retainers, who administered the immediate vicinity on behalf of his lord. This motte overlooked another on top of the Knowth mound, and on a fine day would have been visible from a number of other mottes from as far east as Drogheda, and at least as far west as Navan. Both can be seen if you visit those towns, the one at Millmount in Drogheda (which I wrote about recently) now has a fine Martello Tower on top, although the one in Navan is overgrown.
Modern archaeological techniques have revealed the motte stands within a rath or ditch and bank, which was constructed on top of a much earlier ring barrow, a burial tomb possibly dating from the early iron age. An Earth Resistance Survey of the mound itself has revealed a stone layer on top which could have been a foundation for a fortified dwelling, and areas of low resistance inside the mound that point to it being a man-made structure, and raise the possibility of the remains a chamber or passage inside.
Even though visitors can’t explore the motte freely at the moment, the peaceful grassy surroundings of the hilltop churchyard and Friary make for an enjoyable stroll (if you have the weather) and there are plenty of carved stones, picturesque windows and broken but-climbable flights of stairs.