The Hill of Slane

Saint Patrick's Ideal Place for a Showdown with Pagan Rituals

The Hill of Slane in County Meath
© Bernd Biege 2016

The Hill of Slane in County Meath is one of the places with a strong connection to Saint Patrick, yet it is rarely visited by tourists. Why? Maybe because it is slightly out of the way (and not that easy to find), maybe because its significance is eclipsed by better known attractions nearby, maybe because ... there is not a lot to see.

Then again some people would say that there is not a lot to see at the Hill of Tara either, a much more popular destination which is closely connected to the Hill of Slane through Saint Patrick.

How to Get to the Hill of Slane?

Slane is a bottleneck on the N2 between Dublin and Derry, a reasonably short drive from Dublin or Drogheda. The actual Hill of Slane rises north of the town (at the main crossroads in town take the "uphill route"). A cemetery and some medieval ruins can be spotted from the main road, there is a car park and a short walk will bring you to them.

Why is the Hill of Slane Remarkable?

It is, as the saying goes, a commanding site -well over 500 feet or about 160 metres high, it is the largest hill in the area. And large local hills were always seen as "special places", for both ritual and military purposes.

Legend has it that the Fir Bolg king Sláine mac Dela was buried in this place. Then called Druim Fuar it was quickly renamed as Dumha Sláine, the Hill of (King) Slane. There actually is an artificial mound on the hilltop (at the Western end). So while the maybe mythical Sláine may not have been buried here, somebody seems to have been. Or, at least, somebody had taken the pains to erect a mound here. And there are two standing stones on the hill (in the graveyard), possible signs of another Pagan place of worship.

Thus the hill wouild have been an almost natural choice as the site of a Christian church - existing pagan shrines where happily adopted.

How Did Saint Patrick Get Connected to the Hill of Slane?

In the 7th century, a "Life of Patrick" first committed the Patrick-connection to writing. In this hagiography, the Hill of Slane was the Christian "strong point" against the nearby Hill of Tara, still in the Pagan hands of Ireland's High King Laoire.

Around Easter time (when Pagan spring festivals were also held), King Laoire observed the tradition of the fireless night - all fires in Ireland were to be extinguished. Then a massive bonfire was lit on the Hill of Tara, in the presence and at the command of the High King. From this, all other fires would be lit ... metaphorically speaking, more than likely. This spring ritual transformed the High King into a God-King, spring would start at his behest, symbolized by the bonfire.

Obviously, Patrick could not have a God-King in a Christian Ireland. So in clear defiance of ancient customs he built his own bonfire, a Paschal Fire, on the Hill of Slane. Lighting it before King Laoire's fire was lit. As the Hill of Slane is only about ten miles (as the crow flies) from the Hill of Tara, this fire would have been seen by the High King and his nobles, not to mention the peasants. Talk about a slap in the face ...

King Laoire, however, too it on the chin - he allowed Patrick to continue on his mission. Obviously the missionary would have been stopped by a sudden death only, not by decree or admonitions.

Is it a True Story?

Well, maybe ... it is possible at least. Another tradition has it that Patrick appointed Saint Erc as the first bishop of Slane, so he might well have been in the area.

The Hill of Slane Today

The Hill of Slane certainly served as a local centre of religion for centuries to come - ruins of a friary church and college can even today be seen on the hill. They include an impressive early gothic tower, about twenty metres in height and often climbed by adventurous visitors. There is documentary evidence that Slane Friary underwent restoration in 1512, it was abandoned in 1723.

The legacy of Saint Patrick is remembered by a rather lacklustre statue. It is somehow strange that in this place, where Patrick tempted fate by snubbing the Pagan High King, no fitting monument has been erected.

Go there anyway - if just for the medieval ruins and the view.

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