The Hill of Slane, overlooking the prehistoric passage-mounds of the Boyne Valley, is famous as the place where Saint Patrick lit the paschal fire, bringing Christianity to Ireland, In mythology it was said to be the burial place of a Fir Bolg king called Sláine. A motte on its summit may in fact be a prehistoric burial mound.
Slane is such an impressive, important and influential site that it defies a simple description. Steeped in myth and history, the hill towers 158 metres (521ft) above the surrounding landscape and has breathtaking views of the countryside. From Slane, one can easily see the great passage-mounds of the Bend of the Boyne (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) and there are views towards the sea at Drogheda. To the south are the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains and the Hill of Tara. To the west lie the hills of Loughcrew. to the north are important prehistoric sites such as Mount Fortescue, Sliabh Breagh and Mount Oriel, and on a clear day it is possible to see Sliabh Gullion and the Mourne Mountains in the northeast.
The importance of the Hill of Slane can be traced back into prehistory, probably as far as the Neolithic. In ancient Dindshenchas mythology, the Fir Bolg king Sláine was said to have been buried here. In Christian history, the hill became established as the place where Saint Patrick lit the first paschal fire in direct defiance of the pagan king Laoghaire at nearby Tara.
The hill remained an eminence of Christian significance long after St. Patrick appointed Erc as the first Bishop there. A monastery survived on the Hill of Slane even after successive raids by the Vikings.
There are other, less known facts, which make Slane a mystical and fascinating place. The motte which stands on the summit of the hill, shielded from view by a wood of trees, is said to be of Norman origin, but is probably Duma Sláine, the burial mound of Sláine, the Fir Bolg King, who according to legend was the one who cleared the wood from the Brugh when the mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth were built. The mound also has interesting alignments with other ancient sites, and in mythology may have an astronomical significance.
Slane was also supposed to have been the location of a mythical healing well, which was used by the Tuatha Dé Danann to heal their wounds during battle.
Another intriguing story about Slane concerns a certain Dagobert II, heir to the throne of a Merovingian kingdom called Austrasie (in France), who was exiled to Ireland after his father's death in 656AD. Dagobert is said to have grown into a man "at the Monastery of Slane", and attended the court of the High King of Tara. While in Ireland, he married a Celtic princess. He eventually returned to Austrasie and claimed the kingship in 674, some 18 years after his exile to Slane.
Slane sits on an extraordinary 135-mile equinox alignment stretching from Millmount, Drogheda, in the east as far as Croagh Patrick in the west, passing through the town of Kells and the impressive monument complex at Cruachan Ai. I call this Saint Patrick's "Equinox Journey". The near-equinox alignment involves watching the sunset around March 23rd from Millmount, overlooking the Boyne in Drogheda. This sunset falls behind the Hill of Slane. An observer looking at this equinoctial sunset is unwittingly looking also in the direction of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. Thus, two of the most eminent sites associated with Saint Patrick are in a near-equinox alignment.
From the Drogheda Leader newspaper, March 2003
SAINT PATRICK may not have lit Ireland's first Paschal Fire at the Hill of Slane, as popular historical and folklore accounts would maintain, prominent archaeologists have said. Professor George Eogan, who excavated the Knowth passage mound for 40 years, raised the possibility that St. Patrick's fire was lit at Knowth and not at Slane.
According to tradition, Patrick and his followers landed at Colpe in the Boyne Estuary, and by evening reached a place called Ferta fer Feic (in English the "burial place of the men of Fiacc").
This location is usually associated with the Hill of Slane, according to archaeologist Dr. Geraldine Stout's book Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne. But this has been disputed, Stout says.
Professor Eogan says Slane was never mentioned in the accounts and there is no archaeological or historical evidence that Slane was an important site at that time. The archaeologists are still unsure as to the exact location of Ferta fer Feic, with Professor Eogan saying it is likely to be near Rosnaree and suggesting the paschal fire could have been lit at Knowth, which was a hive of activity in the Early Christian period.
Dr. Stout feels it is possible the fire was lit somewhere in the Bend of the Boyne, but not necessarily at Knowth, and possibly even at Newgrange. Both of these monuments are visible from the Hill of Tara, from where King Laoghaire was supposed to have seen the fire.
The lack of mention of either Patrick or Ferta fer Feic in written placename legends may indicate the Paschal Fire was not lit there, Stout maintains.
The Ballad of the Church of Slane
Attend each true Milesian unto this week narration
Whilse in disconsolation I ponder for a while,
In silent meditation, to peruse the elevation,
Likewise the ruination of this religious pile;
The abbey once respected, alas! now stands neglected
I really did inspect it, which does increase my pain,
That man's degeneration, and Erin's degradation,
Which leaves depopulated the ancient Church of Slane.
'Twas in the fourth century in this delightful country,
After St. Patrick's entry upon our fertile shore,
He raised this grand foundation, the wonder of our nation
That's held in veneration, and will till time's no more.
In fact it's only stated that he had consecrated,
St. Erin, then related to Tara's noble train.
And history does mention, he got St. Patrick's sanction,
To rule this holy mansion, that's on the hill of Slane.
One thousand years and better, this spot advanced letters
'Till Erin she in fetters, alas! then she was bound;
Then British spoilators, and vile assassinators,
Did basely ruinate her, and nearly dragged her down.
And left us but a sample to show that they did trample
To follow their example, perhaps they would us blame,
But we are not lost in slumber, and our men cannot be numbered
That won't cry out like thunder, revenge the church of Slane.
Learning here had flourished, religion is was nourished,
The stranger here was cherished and always found relief;
Men of the highest station came here for education,
From France that brilliant nation, Dagobert the Chief,
Literature so blased, that mankind stood amazed
And nations in awe gazed, at such number that came,
To this spot so delighting, their manner for to brighten,
And talents to enlighten upon the Hill of Slane.
This ballad appeared in the Drogheda Independent newspaper of December 15th, 1972. It was accompanied by the following notes:
"These verses are from an old ballad, about the Hill of Slane, of which there are a few versions. There is also a ballad written about St. Patrick's Chapel, which was built in 1802, as Mr. P.L. Cooney mentions in his recent article. The gentlemen who donated the land, the Marquis of Conyngham is also mentioned in a few ballads.
Slane appears to have been a haven for poets and bards in olden times and it is in Slane that Peadar Galligan wrote "Para Joe", reputed to be the most caustic verse written between the Boyne and the Blackwater during the last century. Also composed in Slane was Seamus Dall MacCurta, elegy to Fr. Phil Reilly, whose cross in Monknewtown can be clearly read after two centuries. Close to Fr. Reilly's cross the poet is reputed to be buried as well as the famous Colonel Leonard, as Mr. Liam O'Reilly records in his article.
Galligan and MacCurta are hardly remembered today in Slane and most people appear to prefer the tranquility of Francis Ledwidge's verse. Dean Cogan "Diocese of Meath", is imcomplete, but is a stepping stone for historians.
The volumes of this work are not easily obtained and quite a few people in the Slane area have little knowledge of them. Now that the centenary of his death is about to take place, one hopes the people of Slane and Co. Meath will have it suitably commemorated."
Many visitors and pilgrims who come to the Hill of Slane do so because of its Christian significance. Few visitors realise that this place was hugely significant long before St. Patrick ever set foot in Ireland. A mound on the peak of the hill, which lies hidden from the view of visitors by lots of trees, has a very ancient significance, linked to Newgrange by mythology.The motte, as it is now called, was in Norman times the site of a castle which was built by Richard de Fleming in the 1170s. But it is probably the same mound under which was buried the Fir Bolg King, Sláine, who gives his name to the area. The ancient Dindshenchas says the following of Sláine:
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.
A tenth-century poem, ascribed to Caoílte Mac Ronáin, says: "Sláine of the Fir-Bolgs of fame t'was he by whom Tara was first raised." And so, it seems, Sláine was indeed a very important character.
The motte is not the only evidence of prehistoric activity on the hill. There are other earthwork features in the ground around the hilltop. Most notable of these is a ring-barrow, located very close to the motte. Ring-barrows such as this can range in date from the Late Neolithic (c3000-2500BC) to the Early Iron Age (c500BC). There are barrows like this on another ancient hill nearby called Sliabh Breagh, which is visible from Slane.
The Hill of Slane features strongly in a detailed and lengthy passage of the Táin Bó Cualgne called "The Array of the Host". This fascinating chapter of the famous epic story places the Hill of Slane in a very mystical and cosmic setting, and the story itself has all the elements of a fantastic story, arcane, ancient and astronomical. Here are selected quotes from the story:
'' . . . MacRoth surveyed the plain and he saw something: a heavy, grey mist that filled the space between the heavens and earth. It seemed to him that the hills were islands in lakes that he saw rising up out of the sloping valleys of mist. It seemed to him they were wide-yawning caverns that he saw there leading into that mist. It seemed to him it was all-white, flaxy sheets of linen, or sifted snow a-falling that he was there through a rift in the mist. It seemed to him it was a flight of many, varied, wonderful, numerous birds, or the constant sparkling of shining stars on a bright, clear night of hoar-frost, or sparks of red-flaming fire. . .''
'' MacRoth went his way till he took his station in Slane of Meath, awaiting the men of Ulster. The Ulstermen were busied in marching to that hill from gloaming of early morn till sunset hour in the evening. In such manner the earth was never left naked under them during all that time, every division of them under its king, and every band under its leader, and every king and every leader and every lord with the number of his force and his muster, his gathering and his levy apart. Howbeit, by sunset hour in the evening all the men of Ulster had taken position on that height in Slane of Meath.''
One interesting feature of the ancient mound of Slane is the fact that it forms a very interesting alignment with some other ancient sites. Almost directly east of the Slane Motte, in nearby Drogheda, is another 'Norman' motte with significant prehistoric ties, known today as Millmount. This site is said to be the burial place of Amergin, the first bard of Ireland and chief of the Milesians who was famed for saying: ''What land is better than this island of the setting sun; who but I can tell the ages of the moon.''
A line drawn on an ordnance survey map from Millmount through the Slane Motte can be traced with reasonable accuracy as far west as Loughcrew, and specifically Carnbane west which contains a number of neolithic sites. If this supposed alignment seems imaginative, it gains credence when one considers that from Millmount, Winter Solstice sunset occurs exactly in the direction of the Hill of Tara and another ancient mound, the Mound of the Hostages.
Alignments such as these are repeated throughout the ancient sites of Ireland. This alignment continues through the town of Kells, passing near the town of Longford, right through the Cruachan Ai complex in Roscommon and onwards as far as Croagh Patrick, the place from where Patrick was said to have banished the snakes from Ireland. See more about this amazing alignment, which we call the "Equinox Journey" of Saint Patrick.
Another surprising revelation made by us at the Slane mound was the fact that the Rockabill islands, although lying some 38km away in the Irish Sea, are visible from the top of the mound. What's even more interesting is the fact that the islands are only visible through a gap formed by dipping hills. Rockabill is very significant to the Baltray solstice alignment, and the islands were also mentioned in ancient mythology.
From Millmount, through Slane, all the way west to Croagh Patrick
Saint Patrick landed on the Boyne Estuary at Inbher Colpa before making his way upstream to Slane, where popular accounts say that he lit the Paschal Fire in defiance of the King of Ireland. This great Easter fire was ignited a few days after spring equinox, in the year 433AD. Millmount, the supposed burial place of the Milesian leader Amergin, is the main ancient site overlooking Inbher Colpa. From here, a few days after spring (Vernal) equinox, the sun sets directly over the Hill of Slane, the place where Patrick lit the Easter fire. Of course, Easter falls at the time of full moon following the vernal equinox. It is likely there is significant astronomy associated with Patrick's story. Slane is targeted from the east by an alignment after equinox with Millmount. It is also targeted from the west by the chamber of Cairn T at Loughcrew.
In our book, Island of the Setting Sun, Richard Moore and I describe Patrick's Journey from Inbher Colpa to Slane as his "equinox journey". It is tied in with Neolithic cosmology. In the Neolithic, the sun at spring equinox was above the giant man figure of Orion – the huge light bearer of the sky. At autumn equinox, the sun was housed in Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. Looking in the direction of Slane at the time of autumn equinox in the Neolithic, one would have been looking towards another giant man of the sky, Ophiuchus, grappling with the snake.
Recently, we've discovered just how astonishing the architects of ancient alignment were. Using Google Earth, we found that extending the line from Millmount to Slane westwards travels all the way to Croagh Patrick, perfectly intersecting the little chapel on the summit of the reek with breathtaking accuracy. Significantly, this line skirts the hills of Loughcrew on its way, and also travels directly through Cruachan Aí, one of the largest archaeological complexes in the whole world, with 200 monuments located in a 10-mile radius. Croagh Patrick, known in prehistoric times as Cruachan Aigle, is the place where, according to legend, Patrick banished the serpents from Ireland.
At the moment of the above sunset, we were looking in the direction of Slane and also Croagh Patrick, following a sacred pathway to the stars. This is breathtaking. It connects some of the most significant places associated with Ireland's national Saint, and at the same time reflects an ancient cosmology which predates Patrick by three and a half millennia. There seems no limit to what the ancients were capable of. We are amazed.