Darerca – A Neglected Saint

Ireland is ‘The Land of Saints’. The Catholic Online website lists 331 of them, but some get much better treatment than others. Last week we celebrated St Patrick – the news was full of it, as it always is on 17 March. Yet, just five days after Patrick’s Day – on 22 March – I was at a schoriacht and asked the assembled crowd who was the Saint for that day: nobody knew. It was the day for St Darerca and she is, unfairly, much neglected, especially since she is St Patrick’s sister. In order to redress the balance I have put together everything I can find on the story of St Darerca, and – because she has never been pictured (as far as I can tell) – I have illustrated it with some general Irish Saintly connections.

Land of the Saints: header picture – Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly – Ireland’s holy centre, and one of the oldest and most important early Christian settlements in Europe. Above – the beautifully located Kilmalkedar monastic site in Kerry has long associations with Saint Brendan the Navigator

St Darerca is first mentioned in the Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii (Tripartite Life of Saint Patrick), which some scholars believe was written in the sixth century – within a century of St Patrick’s death (possibly in 493 at the age of 120). In the Tripartite Life, we read that St Patrick had two sisters, and that when he came to Bredach in County Derry for an ordination, . . . he found there three deacons, who were sons of his sister Darerca . . . These deacons were eventually ordained bishops and became St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh, the . . . sons of Conis and Darerca, Patrick’s sister . . . 

Upper – St Patrick’s Bell; lower – inscription on another 10th century bell – both now in the National Museum, Dublin

In his own Confessio, St Patrick makes no mention of his sisters. The Confessio begins:

. . . My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many . . .

But it’s a very brief account of his life, and hardly qualifies as an autobioigraphy.

Medieval cross head, in the National Museum, Dublin

One version of the Tripartite Life suggests that both sisters were kidnapped from Britain along with St Patrick and returned to Ireland with him when he set out on his missions. A 17th century Irish hagiographer, John Colgan, collected fragments of information pertaining to Darerca . . . from Irish tradition . . . He asserted that St Darerca may have had as many as seventeen sons between two husbands, and that all of them became bishops. He also states that, according to tradition,  many of these became saints:

. . . By Darerca’s first husband, Restitutus the Lombard, she bore St Sechnall of Dunshaughlin; St Nectan of Killunche, and of Fennor (near Slane); of St Auxilius of Killossey (near Naas, County Kildare); of St Diarmaid of Druim-corcortri, in addition to five other children. By her second husband Conis the Briton, she bore St Reat, St Nenn, and St Aedh; ancient Irish authors also attributed her motherhood to St Crummin of Lecua, St Miduu, St Carantoc, and St Maceaith . . .

A 1950s photograph from Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh showing the annual pilgrimage to the summit of St Patrick’s holy mountain in Co Mayo, Croagh Patrick

St Darerca’s second husband, Conis, was said by some to be the King of the Bretons, although others only suggest that, by him, she gave birth to Gradlon the Great, who became King of Brittany. It’s really surprising (and a shame) that we don’t know more about Darerca: perhaps she has just always been overshadowed by her famous brother. As well as – perhaps – seventeen sons, she is supposed to have had four daughters, all of whom were also connected with the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Only two are named: St Eiche of Kilglass and St Lalloc of Senlis.

The Ardagh Chalice, National Museum, Dublin

There is a reference to Darerca as having another name: Moninna, said to have founded a convent at Killeevy, Co Armagh which was second in importance only to that at Kildare. A curious story is told to account for the change of her name to Moninna. The Irish commentary is translated into English by Whitley Stokes:

. . . Darerca was her name at first. But a certain dumb poet fasted with her, and the first thing he said after being miraculously cured of his dumbness was minnin. Hence the nun was called Mo-ninde, and the poet himself Nine Ecis . . .

Moninna studied theology, established convents in Ireland, Scotland and England and travelled to Rome. Perhaps most interestingly she is also known by the name Liamain, and there is a connection with an ancient stone on the island of Inchagoill in Lough Corrib. The ‘Pillar Stone’ on that island is known as Lugnaedon Pillar, a piece of Silurian grit stone, about two feet high with an incised cross on the north side, and two such crosses on each of the other sides. The inscription on the stone translates as . . . The stone of Lugnaedon, son of Limenueh . . . or Liamain. The pillar is said to originate in the 6th century, and would therefore be the oldest Christian inscribed stone in Ireland.

Two photographs of the 6th century Lugnaedon Pillar on Inchagoill Island. It is also known as the Rudder Stone because of its shape

The Benedictines say that Darerca’s name is derived from the Irish Diar-Sheare which means ‘constant and firm love’. And, finally, a piece of local folklore say that St Darerca blessed a poor man’s beer barrel so that it provided an endless supply of beer ever after!

Lives of the Saints – a detail from a stained glass window by George Walsh in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyries

So there you have it – scraps gleaned from many sources, some of which are not named – from which we can piece together an incomplete picture of an Irish saint who may well have done as much in her day for Christianity in Ireland as her famed brother. How about giving Patrick a rest next year and, instead, celebrating the day of St Darerca?

More on Martinmas

Today – November 11 – is Martinmas. That’s the feast day of St Martin of Tours: the picture above is Harry Clarke’s representation of the city of Tours, which we can see in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend, here in West Cork. St Martin was a saint of Hungarian origin who founded a monastery in Marmoutier, in north-eastern France in 372. As far as we know, he never visited Ireland, yet he is widely celebrated here… Why?

Marmoutier Abbey, near the city of Tours (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Well, one reason could be that St Martin was the sister of St Patrick’s mother, Conchessa. Or, perhaps he was her uncle – we don’t have definitive records from that time, but we do have plenty of stories. The one everyone seems to know about St Martin is that he came across a naked beggar while travelling in the middle of winter. He immediately split his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which Jesus told him that it was he who had received the gift of the cloak from Martin. From then on Martin determined to spread Christianity wherever he went.

Here is St Martin, depicted in Harry Clarke’s Castletownshend window. Finola tells the full and fascinating story of this wonderful window here. He is depicted as a soldier, and is the patron saint of soldiers. Confusingly, he is also the patron saint of conscientious objectors! In fact, he was the first recorded conscientious objector as he became converted to Christianity while he was serving in the Roman Army. Because of his beliefs he refused to fight but – to prove he was not a coward – he was prepared to go into battle unarmed and stand between the opposing parties in the name of Jesus. Miraculously, on the eve of the battle an armistice was declared. Martin was given a discharge and was able to pursue his calling. Eventually he was made Bishop of Tours and founded his Abbey across the River Loire.

This is the beggar who received the gift of St Martin’s cloak – also from the Harry Clarke window. Here in Ireland there were once many customs associated with Martinmas. I set out some of these in a previous post a few years ago. For me, the most interesting is that no wheel should be turned on St Martin’s feast day. This is because the saint met his death by falling under a mill wheel. Below are two of ten 14th century frescoes from the San Martino Chapel in Assissi, setting out the stories of the saint: these depict his death and his funeral.

In County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, St Columba founded a church in the sixth century and named it after St Martin: Díseart Mhartain or ‘Hermitage of Martin’. Fascinating that this European saint should have such a following in Ireland: I found at least four churches dedicated to him in the Republic. One thing I touched on in my earlier post was the custom of killing a goose or cockerel on the day and sprinkling its blood in the four corners of the house to ensure well-being for the next year. I have since found that it is correct to say ...In onóir do Dhia agus do Mháirtin… while doing this (In the Honour of God and St Martin). I hope I’m not too late to wish you a good Martinmas! And I’m leaving you with the full image of the Harry Clarke window…

Journey into Purgatory

I was excited to be travelling to one of Ireland’s oldest – and most important – pilgrimage sites. Finola studies stained glass windows and their artists, and she knew that some particularly impressive Harry Clarke windows can be seen in the Basilica on Station Island, Lough Derg, in County Donegal. The roof of the Basilica, completed in 1931, towers over the island in the picture above, taken from the quay at Ballymacavany. Finola obtained special permission for us to visit the island to view and photograph the windows, after the main pilgrimage season was over: her account of them will appear in Roaringwater Journal in the near future.

It’s salutary to learn how many people and families we know have taken part in the pilgrimage at Station Island. It’s a particularly austere experience, involving a three day cycle of prayer and liturgies, bare-footed and with very little food or sleep. Finola’s father undertook the pilgrimage in the 1950s: the photograph above was taken at around that time, when pilgrims were ferried over in large open boats once rowed by eight oarsmen and subsequently motorised. One of these historic boats is kept on display at Ballymacavany (below). Nowadays the journey is made in a modern covered launch, as seen in the header photo.

Records of the number of pilgrims who travelled to Station Island have only existed in comparatively recent times. The peak seems to have been just prior to the famine around 1846, when over 30,000 went there in one season. The drawing above is by William Frederick Wakeman, who was a draughtsman with the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, and was probably made at that time. Through the twentieth century numbers seldom fell below 10,000 pilgrims each season, but in many years was considerably more. This news item from the RTE Archives demonstrates the strength of the pilgrimage in the year 2000.

The island’s long history takes us back to the time of St Patrick. Despairing at the arduousness of persuading the Irish people to accept his Christian teachings he appealed to God to help. The story is admirably recounted by Dr Peter Harbison, Honorary Academic Editor in the Royal Irish Academy:

…St Patrick … was having difficulty convincing the pagan Irish of the 5th century of the truth of his teaching about heaven and hell; they were not prepared to believe him unless one of them had experienced it for themselves. To assist Patrick in his mission … Christ showed Patrick a dark pit in a deserted place and told him that whoever would enter the pit for a day and a night would be purged of his sins for the rest of his life. In the course of those twenty four hours, he would experience both the torments of the wicked and the delights of the blessed. St Patrick immediately had a church built, which he handed over to the Augustinian canons (who did not come to Ireland until the 12th century), locked the entrance to the pit and entrusted the key to the canons, so that no one would enter rashly without permission. Already during the lifetime of St Patrick a number of Irish entered the pit and were converted as a result of what they had seen. Thus the pit got the name of St Patrick’s Purgatory…

(from Pilgrimage in Ireland: the Monuments and the People by Peter Harbison, Barrie & Jenkins, 1991)

The entrance to this cave is on Station Island, and is the reason for the enduring popularity of the pilgrimage, which has persisted there for over 1500 years. In the medieval illustrations above, the gateway into Purgatory can be seen on the right, while on the left is a knight – Owein – whose terrifying adventures in the cave in medieval times have been written about in many languages: a summary can be found here.

St Patrick’s Purgatory: the name is over the entrance at the reception centre at Ballymacavany, the point of departure for Station Island. The cave which marks the entrance into Purgatory was permanently sealed up in October 1632 when the pilgrimage was suppressed by order of the Privy Council for Ireland; in the same year the Anglican Bishop of Clogher, James Spottiswoode, personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Later, in 1704, an Act of Parliament imposed a fine of 10 shillings or a public whipping …as a penalty for going to such places of pilgrimage… The site of the cave entrance lies under the bell tower, seen above. In front are the penitential beds where pilgrims perform rounds to this day. It is thought that these formations are the remains of monks’ cells or ‘beehive huts’.

On the left is a map of Station Island by Thomas Carve, dated 1666. The words Caverna Purgatory, centre left, show the site of the cave entrance. In spite of the efforts of the Penal Laws to suppress the observances, pilgrimages have continued unabated. Above right is a photograph from the Lawrence Collection, dated 1903, showing pilgrims about to embark for the island.

A young St Patrick portrayed as a pilgrim stands in front of the island: the Basilica is on the right. This view indicates the huge development  of the island since its complete destruction in the 18th century and shows the facilities provided for the many thousands who have come here over the generations.

The Basilica is the focus of the pilgrimages today: it was formally consecrated in 1931. The entrance door is a modern interpretation of Romanesque architecture, while the tabernacle is an impressive example of fine bronze work.

Ireland’s great poets and writers have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory, and have responded to the experience:

Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1244) “Chief in Ireland for poetry”:

Truagh mo thuras ar loch dearg
a Rí na gceall is na gclog
do chaoineadh do chneadh’s do
chréacht
‘s nach faghaim déar thar mo rosg.

(Sad is my pilgrimage to Lough Derg, O King of the cells and bells; I came to mourn your sufferings and wounds, but no tear will cross my eye)

Patrick Kavanagh:

Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal,
Christendom’s purge. Heretical
Around the edges: the centre’s hard
As the commonplace of a flamboyant bard.
The twentieth century blows across it now
But deeply it has kept an ancient vow.

W B Yeats:

Round Lough Derg’s holy island I went upon the stones,
I prayed at all the Stations upon my marrow-bones,
And there I found an old man beside me, nothing would he say
But fol de rol de rolly O.

Most impressive of all, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney whose moving contemplations took him back through his life experiences and produced twelve memorable poems in a volume entitled Station Island:

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
although it is the night.
That eternal fountain, hidden away,
I know its haven and its secrecy
although it is the night.
But not its source because it does not have one,
which is all sources’ source and origin
although it is the night.
I know no sounding-line can find its bottom,
nobody ford or plumb its deepest fathom
although it is the night.
And its current so in flood it overspills
to water hell and heaven all peoples
although it is the night.
And the current that is generated there,
as far as it wills to, it can flow that far
although it is the night.

Finally, here’s a contemporary journalist’s view, well worth the read!

 

Looking for Patrick

Patrick lights the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone

A joint post – text by Robert, images by Finola

Last week we talked about Ireland’s very first saint – Ciarán (or Piran), who was born on Cape Clear. His aim in life was to convert the heathen Irish to Christianity, but they were having none of it: they tied him to a millstone and hoisted him over the edge of a cliff. Fortunately – and miraculously – the wondrous millstone floated him over to Cornwall where he became their Patron Saint and is celebrated with great acclaim on March 5th every year.

A typical representation of Patrick, older and bearded, in bishop’s robe, holding a shamrock in one hand and a crozier on the other. Skibbereen Cathedral

To return the favour of gaining an important saint from Ireland, the British have given Ireland their special saint – Patrick – and he is being celebrated this week in similar fashion. So here’s the story of Saint Patrick, seen through the eyes of an Englishman (albeit one with Cornish connections) and illustrated by Finola with a series of images from her collection.

Still traditional – looking fierce – but this one has beautiful detailing, including the interlacing surrounding the cherubs. St Carthage Cathedral, Lismore

Of course, there’s the real Patrick – the one we know through his own Confessio. The best summary we’ve come across of what can be deduced from the historical documents is the audio book Six Years a Slave, which can be downloaded from Abarta Heritage, and which is highly recommended (be warned – no snakes!). But what you’re going to get from me today is the good old-fashioned Patrick, with all his glamour and colour and centuries of accrued stories – just as he’s shown in Finola’s images.

Six Years a Slave – this Harry Clarke window in the Church of The Assumption, Tullamore, seems to depict Patrick tending sheep during the period of his captivity

Patrick was born and brought up somewhere in the north west of Britain. He was of Romano British descent: his father was a a decurion, one of the ‘long-suffering, overtaxed rural gentry of the provinces’, and his grandfather was a priest – the family was, therefore, Christian. In his own writings Patrick describes himself as rustic, simple and unlearnèd.  When still a boy, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to be a slave in Ireland. He was put to work on a farm somewhere in the west and spent the long, lonely hours out in the fields thinking about the Christian stories and principles he had been taught back home.

Patrick is visited by a vision – the people of Ireland are calling to him to come back and bring Christianity to him. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone.  Read more about Richard King and the Athlone windows in Discovering Richard King

After six years he escaped from his bondage and made his way back to Britain – apparently by hitching a lift on a fishing boat. Because he had thought so much about Christianity during those years away, he decided to become a bishop which, after a few years of application, he did. Although he had hated his enforced capture he was aware that Ireland – as the most westerly outpost of any kind of civilisation – was one of the only places in the known world that remained ‘heathen’, and he was nagged by his conscience to become a missionary there and make it his life’s work to convert every Irish pagan.

Detail from Patrick window by Harry Clarke in Ballinasloe

When you see Patrick depicted in religious imagery he always looks serious and, perhaps, severe. You can’t imagine him playing the fiddle in a session or dancing a wild jig at the crossroads. In fact he was well know for his long sermons: on one occasion he stuck his wooden crozier into the ground while he was preaching and, by the time he had finished, it had taken root and sprouted into a tree!

Patrick with his hand raised in a blessing, accompanied by his symbols of the Paschal Fire and the shamrock. Harry Clarke Studio window, Bantry

Perhaps it was his severity that caused him to be respected: while giving another sermon (at the Rock of Cashel) he accidentally and unwittingly put the point of his crozier through the foot of the King of Munster. The King waited patiently until Patrick had finished sermonising then asked if it could be removed. Patrick was horrified at what he’d done, but the King said he’d assumed it was all part of the initiation ritual!

In Richard King’s enormous Patrick window in Athlone, the saint is depicted as youthful and clean-shaven. Here he is using the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity

Patrick first landed on the shores of Ireland just before Easter in 432 AD and established himself on the Hill of Slane – close to the residence of the High King. In those days the rule was that only the King himself was to light the Bealtaine Fire to celebrate the spring festival, but Patrick pre-empted this by lighting his own Paschal Fire on the top of the hill, thus establishing his authority over that of the High King (see the first image in this post). Somehow, he got away with it – and the fire has been lit on the top of the Hill of Slane every Easter from that day to this.

Another panel from the Richard King window – Eithne and Fidelma receive communion from Patrick. They were daughters of the King of Connaught; Eithne was fair-haired and Fidelma a redhead, and they were baptized at the Well of Clebach beside Cruachan

St Patrick seems to have been everywhere in Ireland: there are Patrick’s Wells, Patrick’s Chairs (one of which in Co Mayo – the Boheh Stone – displays some fine examples of Rock Art), Patrick’s Beds and – on an island in Lough Dergh – a Patrick’s Cave (or ‘Purgatory’) where Jesus showed the saint a vision of the punishments of hell.

Patrick blesses St Mainchin of Limerick. Detail from the Mainchin window in the Honan Chapel, by Catherine O’Brien for An Túr Gloinne

The place which has the most significant associations with Patrick, perhaps, is Croagh Patrick – the Holy Mountain in County Mayo, on the summit of which the saint spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying, before casting all the snakes out of Ireland from the top of the hill – an impressive feat. To this day, of course, there are no snakes in Ireland – or are there? See my post Snakes Alive for musings on this topic (it includes a most impressive window from Glastonbury!)

Like many Patrick windows, this one, By Harry Clarke in Tullamore, shows Patrick banishing the snakes. This one has all the gorgeous detailing we expect from Clarke, including bejewelled snakes

When Patrick considered that he’d finished his task, and the people of Ireland were successfully and completely converted, he returned to Britain and spent his retirement in the Abbey of Glastonbury – there’s a beautiful little chapel there dedicated to him.

This depiction of Patrick on the wall of his Glastonbury chapel shows him with familiar symbols but also several unusual symbols – an Irish wolfhound, high crosses, and Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain

It’s logical he should have chosen that spot to end his days as it must be the most blessed piece of ground in these islands, having been walked upon by Jesus himself who was taken there as a boy by his tin-trading uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. St Bridget joined Patrick there in retirement and they are both buried in the Abbey grounds, along with the BVM who had preceded them to that place a few centuries earlier.

From the George Walsh window in Eyeries, Patrick returns to convert the Irish

A depiction of Patrick below comes from St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownsend where he is shown alongside St George. The window dates from before Irish independence and is an attempt to show the unity of Britain and Ireland through their respective patron saints. Perhaps meant to represent friendship between the countries, nevertheless nowadays it seems to display a colonial overtone that is an uncomfortable echo of past mores.

The window is by Powells of London and dates to 1906

So let’s leave Patrick doing what he came back to do – a last panel from the Richard King window in Athlone shows him performing his saintly task of converting the Irish – one chieftain at a time.

The Navel of Ireland

eyes of the goddess

Today we happened upon the Navel of Ireland. That’s the name given to the Hill of Uisneach in the townland of Loughanavally, in the barony of Rathconrath, in the county of Westmeath. It’s an archaeological centre of powerful cultural significance, one of (possibly) six ‘royal’ sites in the island of Ireland.

palace rendering

Seen in the developing visitor centre below the Hill – an artist’s reconstruction of the ‘Royal Palace’ on the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath

Today, Ireland is divided into four provinces: Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht. The Irish word for this division is cúige, which literally means ‘fifth part’. That’s confusing, until you learn that there was, before the Norman invasion, a fifth province, known as Mide. The Irish word Midhe means ‘middle’. Mide has survived as a county – Meath; but this large county was divided in two during the time of Henry VIII, and we now have both Meath and Westmeath.

Justin the guide 2

catstone in context 2
Upper picture – Justin, our tour guide, explains the significance of the earthwork known as the ‘Royal Palace’. Lower picture – approaching the Navel of Ireland, the focal point of the Hill of Uisneach

Uisneach was probably the ancient headquarters of the fifth province, but was also particularly important because it was the place where all the provinces came together. The provinces were formerly administered by the dynasties, or ruling families of the day, and it is likely that they met up here to ensure that laws were fair and consistent through the whole of the land, and also to exchange news and stories, to feast, and to hold contests. In that latter context the tradition survives – rugby and hurling contests between the provinces in Ireland are madly important events – and their followers positively tribal!

ancient trackway 2

distant fort 2

Upper picture – an ancient trackway appears to lead to another circular enclosure on a distant hilltop (shown in the lower picture)

Uisneach is privately owned – and a working farm – but we are fortunate that the owner fully appreciates the significance of the place and allows access – by permission – through the services of a number of guides who are well versed in its known history and traditions. Our tour guide today was Justin – a complete Uisneach enthusiast. We followed him for two hours and were shown many of the currently accessible sites. There are very many more: access to others is being worked on, as is a small visitor centre, so a visit to Uisneach is an evolving experience. Some of the hill was excavated, intermittently, over a period of years during the 1920s by R A S Macalister and R L Praeger. In 2001 a long term project was started by Dr Roseanne Schot  of NUI Galway: this is continuing. Future plans for the archaeological investigations include aerial Lidar surveys which could uncover hidden features and artefacts without excavation.

Justin talks about the first archaeological excavators of the Hill (left) and (right) describes the ‘wood henge’ which has been found by laser scanning on the Hill’s summit

While the science of archaeology is being focussed on Uisneach, the equally important investigations of folkore and mythology (the stories of the hill) are also in full swing. Naturally, St Patrick made an appearance on the hill back in the day (we were shown his stone ‘bed’) and I was fascinated to read, later, that Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 11th century History of the Kings of Britain tells how stones from Uisneach were magically transported to Stonehenge. From the top of the hill it is said that you can see twenty counties – and all four (five?) provinces. The day of our visit was not quite clear enough for this, but we did ascend to the summit, where we could see the remains of a passage tomb – perhaps five thousand years old – although these had been disturbed and disbursed by the Ordnance Survey, who placed a trig point there back in the 1800s.

walking to the catstone

Our visit to The Catstone, an enormous glacial erratic which became the meeting place of the chieftains of all the provinces of Ireland

The goal of our little expedition was the Navel of Ireland – by tradition the centre of the whole land, and the place where the meetings of dynasties took place. It’s a little way on from the summit of the hill and only enjoys some of the views, but it is marked by an enormous natural boulder set into a circular earthwork of human construction: Justin painted a word picture for us of each of the chieftains sitting at the head of his own province on the banks of the earthwork and facing the stone while all the important affairs of state were discussed. Culturally this was where the provinces met. In relatively modern times the boulder has been called The Catstone: some say this is because it resembles a cat, others would have it that a cat is a traditional symbol for a place where our world meets the ‘otherworld’.

decorating the goddess

Upper left – the entrance to Uisneach symbolises the Bealtainne Fires which have been celebrated on the hilltop. Upper right – an image of Lugh on the shores of the lake (middle pictures) where he is said to have met his end. Lower picture – Eriu being adorned with autumnal hues

On our way down from the hill we met with a large crowd coming up. They were off to the Catstone for a ceremony of their own which involved drumming and singing – and, possibly, making contact with the ‘otherworld’ themselves. I think there’s a continuity here: a gathering place imbued with some deep significance and referenced to Irish mythology through Eriu, a goddess who gave her name to Ireland, and Lugh – a god or ancient hero who, according to the stories, met his death in a lake near the summit of the hill. Whatever your beliefs, there’s no denying that the Hill of Uisneach has been an empowering place in ancient times, and remains so today.

With thanks to Justin for such an erudite and enthusiastic tour of the Hill, and great appreciation of the interest and generosity of the Clarke family in allowing the Hill to be researched and visited

Below – off to the ceremony on Uisneach Hill

ready for the ceremony

Hill of Slane

abbey + college

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.

Over the gate

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:

41s5jHsihjL…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!

croagh patrick 6

croagh patrick 5

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.

watching saint p