Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hill of Slane, County Meath

The Hill of Slane in County Meath is a place steeped in Irish myth, legend and history. The site is positioned on the top of a hill that rises nearly 160 metres above the surrounding landscape, and offers beautiful and commanding views of the surrounding lands. This elevated position made it a strategic and desirable place for thousands of years.
According to Irish mythology, this was the burial place of Sláine mac Dela. He was the King of the legendary Fir Bolg, and was buried here at Dumha Sláine, from where we get the modern name, Slane.

The Hill of Slane is also part of the legends that grew around St. Patrick. According to legend, Patrick was the son of a wealthy Romano-British nobleman, he was captured by a band of Irish marauders who were raiding Wales for slaves. They brought him back to Ireland and reportedly sold the young Patrick to a druid. This druid made Patrick keep watch over his sheep, and kept him for six years before Patrick managed to escape and return home to his family. At home Patrick decided he wished to become a Christian, and entered the church, eventually reaching the rank of bishop. He returned to Ireland seeking to convert the country from Paganism to Christianity.

As part of this mission, the legend states that Patrick chose to attack and subvert one of the most important Pagan traditions. The main pagan festivals of the time were Imbolg marking the beginning of Spring, Bealtine marking the beginning of summer, Lughnasa was a harvest festival usually set in late August and Samhain marking the beginning of winter.

Of these festivals one of the most important was the rituals surrounding Bealtine. All the fires across the country would be extinguished to mark the end of the winter, and a great fire that could be seen for miles around would then be lit at dawn on the Hill of Tara, this symbolized the dawn of a new year. Patrick sought to hijack this pagan practice. He lit a huge fire here on the Hill of Slane. This burned throughout the night before the Kings warriors managed to capture Patrick and haul him back to Tara to answer to the King. Legend has it that Patrick then managed to perform many feats and miracles to prove to the King that the Christian God was far more powerful than the old Gods, and in the famous story he used a three leaved Shamrock to explain the mysteries of Christianity to the King. While the King had no wish to convert to Christianity himself, he was convinced enough to allow Patrick to continue on his mission to spread Christianity across Ireland.
Again historians question and dispute the legend. This history of Christianity in Ireland was written just two centuries after the events being described. This meant it was still important to the Christian scribes to show that the Old Gods had been defeated in their own heartland by the Godly Patrick, allowing a clear path for the new religion to become the dominant faith in the country.  In the few writings actually ascribed to Patrick himself, he never mentions Slane or Tara, and it is possible that he never even ventured there. However as the Christian monks and scribes were generally the only literate people at the time, we only have one version of the story. However we do know that the site was important to the early Irish Church, as a monastery was founded on the hill by St. Erc who died in 514 AD. This monastery is mentioned a number of times in the Annals of Ireland as being an important centre of early Irish law. It is also mentioned for a number of Viking raids that struck the site. Most notably in 948 AD when it is recorded that the 'abbot of Slane was taken prisoner and died in pagan hands', and two years later in 950 AD the; 'bell-tower of Slane was burned, together with a particularly fine bell and the crozier of the patron saint, and the lector and many people were burned after they took refuge with the monastery's valuables in the tower'

Though nothing remains above ground of the early 6th century monastery, today visitors to the Hill of Slane can find a superbly preserved 16th Century Franciscan Church and College.

These remains are a wonderful place to explore. Both the church and college are thought to date to 1512 when Sir Christopher Fleming, Baron of Slane, founded the site for the Franciscan order. The church has a particularly fine bell tower with a large gothic window. See if you can spot the strange stone head leering from above the windows of the tower on one side of the church.

The college was established to serve the church. It housed four priests, four choristers and four lay-brothers. It was constructed around an open quadrangle, with the priests quarters on the northern side. You can still explore some of the great original features like the staircases (please do take extreme care in wet-weather), and see the fireplaces, window mouldings and even a double garderobe (a good old classy medieval toilet). 

As you explore the ruins keep an eye open for some of the superb stone sculpture and carvings you can discover on the Hill of Slane. Like this dragon or wyvern (left). If you go inside the large vaulted room on your right as you enter the college, you can also see a large collection of decorated stone fragments.

The Hill of Slane is a great place to visit. The site is free to enter and has a large carpark. However please make sure that you take care (especially with small children) inside the ruins of the college, as the staircases may become dangerous in wet weather. There are a number of other great sites to see nearby such as the Hill of Tara. If you'd like to hear about the wonderful Hill of Tara and discover why it is one of Ireland's most important historical sites try our audioguide available for just €1.99 from – full of original music and sound effects it's a wonderfully immersive and fun experience. Follow the link for a free preview.

The Hill of Slane is well signposted from Slane, just head north up the hill on the N2 through Slane and take a left turn at Chapel Street/N2.

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