Our travels took us to the Hill of Slane. On its summit overlooking the River Boyne a depleted Saint Patrick (he’s lost his hands) looks forever out to the east, facing towards the mound of Millmount at Drogheda, about 15 kilometres away according to our Crow. Millmount is reputed to be the site of an ancient passage grave – and the burial place of Amhairgin mac Míled, who was regarded as the originator of the arts of song, poetry and music. The very first Irish poem The Song of Amhairgin was recited by him as he entered Ireland from the River Boyne, below the mound. Here’s a version of it translated (from the original Irish) by Lisa Gerrard:
I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean
I am the bull with seven horns
I am the hawk on the cliff-face
I am the sun’s tear
I am the beautiful flower
I am the boar on the rampage
I am the salmon in the pool
I am the lake on the plain
I am the defiant sword
I am the spear charging to battle
I am the god who put fire in your head
Who made the trails through stone mountains?
Who knows the age of the moon?
Who knows where the setting sun rests?
Who took the cattle from the house of the Warcrow?
Who pleases the Warcrow’s cattle?
What bull, what god created the mountains’ skyline?
The cutting word – the cold word?
The Saint lit the Pascal Fire on the Hill of Slane soon after his mission in Ireland began (the flame is still lit at Easter). That seems to me a symbolic action: a challenge issued, perhaps to the pagan traditions that had gone on for generations before the new religion arrived. Patrick’s fire-raising activities are also a comparatively recent addition to the lore of the hill: according to the Metrical Dindsenchas – combining poems from the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Rennes Manuscript, the Book of Ballymote, the Great Book of Lecan and the Yellow Book of Lecan – all sources well over a thousand years old and themselves most likely compiled from the timeless oral traditions of the Bards – Slane is the burial place of an ancient king:
…Slaine, whence the name? Not hard to say. Slaine, 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 Slaine, and was buried there: and from him the hill is named Slaine. Hence it was said: Here died Slaine, lord of troops: over him the mighty mound is reared: so the name of Slaine was given to the hill, where he met his death in that chief abode….
(Translated by Edward J Gwynn in 1903)
The ‘mighty mound’ must surely be the enigmatic earthworks hidden in the trees to the west of the abbey and college ruins: these are variously described as a barrow or a motte.
Top: medieval profile; Above left: ‘Creature of Slane’ decorating the walls of the old college, and Above right: the tower of the monastery which dates from the 16th century
Mostly what we see today on the summit here is medieval: the hill remained a centre of religion and learning for many centuries after St Patrick. A friary church was established on the site of an earlier monastery in 1512: it was abandoned in 1723. Beside it is a medieval college, probably also 16th century. The stonework here includes some extraordinary carvings, sadly much dilapidated.
I musn’t shy away from another tradition associated with Slane Hill: the authors of this book make a convincing case for an alignment right across Ireland that takes in several historically important sites:
…The Millmount-Croagh Patrick alignment stretches over 135 miles from the east coast of Ireland to the west, and has significant St Patrick associations … we found that 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…
If nothing else, the theory at least demonstrates that St Patrick’s influence stretches the length and breadth of the country: witness his statue looking out from the Hill of Slane and another looking across from the lower slopes of The Reek!
Pilgrimage for St Patrick on The Reek: Photos from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
St Patrick (his day was last week), Easter (this weekend), the Boyne neolithic monuments, Irish poetry, ancient kings and their battles, a little bit of astro-archaeology, the commemoration of the 1916 uprising in Dublin, the fight for Irish freedom… All seem to have joggled along beside each other in our recent explorations. Somehow they fit together and define an Irish-ness which is all-encompassing but not overwhelming. History is dancing all around us: alive and relevant.