By V. Rev. G. Rice.
It is an extraordinary accident of history that our knowledge of St. Patrick as a person comes from his own time; our knowledge of what he did and where he went comes from sources three hundred years after his death.His own “confessions”, as they are called, are short on detail but rich in character. He is a person to whom we can relate as to someone of our own time whom we know.
Two people chiefly put together in the eight century the saga of Patrick’s coming. It is in their accounts that Slane figures for the first time. It is a pity that accounts of St. Patrick are not more contemporary with himself. After three hundred years, the stories as they say, lose nothing in the telling. Patrick himself is transformed from the talented, humble, grace gifted man of his confessions into someone with a touch of the miraculous and magical about him.
In any case the story of his travels take him from Saul in Co. Down down the Irish Sea to Colpe south of Drogheda where he was reputed to have landed at the mouth of the Boyne near Mornington and found his way, presumably up the Boyne, to Slane. He reached Slane on Holy Saturday and how better could he proclaim the Christian faith than by lighting the Paschal Fire. Christ, the Light of the World would banish the darkness of unbelief.
The story goes that Laoire, king of Tara, king of the Middle Kingdom, where all fire save the kings own fire was forbidden, saw the fire at Slane ( the hills can be seen one from the other ), perceived it as a challenge, as indeed it was, and set out for Slane to assert his kingship. The story further goes that Laoire stopped with his entourage some distance from Patrick’s fire and his monks summoned him to the presence to intimidate him, and to further intimidate him ordered that no one should greet him in a friendly fashion. There was one who disobeyed the order of course – Erc, son of Dago, and it was he to whom that Patrick entrusted the Christian mission of Slane. It was strange indeed that there were no Irish martyrs at the beginning of Patrick’s mission. There seems to have been something in the Irish religious values which resonated tunefully with Christianity; something of the same resonance seems, in the recent past, to have brought the Igbo people of south east Nigeria in abundance to accept Christianity too.
In any case Erc and his successors thrived in Slane. Dean Cogan, a native of Slane, in the nineteenth century called him a man of great sanctity and usefulness; two attributes which are not necessarily to be found in the one person. Patrick by some scribe is reputed master of a quatrain.
“Bishop Erc – Everything he judged was just
Everyone that passes a just judgement – Shall receive the blessing of Bishop Erc”.
His feast day is the 2nd of November; he died on that day, reputedly aged ninety years, a desirable day on which to welcome sister death. The greatest tribute that one can pay to someone like him is that his memory has been honoured to the present day. Such was the impact he made on his contemporaries that in spite of time ( 1500 years ) constant destruction of even the very structures of society, in spite of new races coming and obliterating the way of life of their predecessors, Erc’s name is still held in honour in Slane. On the hill of Slane near the ruins of the Franciscan monastery of the sixteenth century is a stone gabled grave, its style is early Christian, and traditionally it has been honoured by Slane people as the grave of St. Erc. In the ninth century one Probus commented; Erc. son of Dego, whose relics are now venerated in the city which we call Slane.
The monastery of Erc on the hill of Slane had an honourable history of at least six hundred years. Erc ” in his declining years and retired from the active duties of his mission” retired also to a small hermitage on the banks of the Boyne, the successor of which is still there in Slane castle demesne. But the monastery did thrive in those six hundred years. The entries in the annals are diverse and interesting. The abbot, Colman, died in 843, abbot of Slane and of other churches in France and Ireland. In 847 the cross which was on the green of Slane was raised up into the air; it was broken and divided so that part of its top landed at Teltown and at Fennor. One wonders if there was a connection between that singular event and the discovery by Fr.Dooley in 1991 of fragments of a Celtic high cross dating from the ninth century in the graveyard at Fennor. Stranger things have happened! In 948 the bell tower of Slane, ” full of relics and distinguished persons”, was burnt by the Danes. Saints too were associated with Slane. Saint Maelodran, whose feast is on the 31st May. Saint Dochata, holy bishop and anchorite, ” finished his virtuous life in this world and resigned his spirit to heaven “, (837). But after the first millennium the entries in the annals are increasingly gloomy. In 1002 Slane was plundered by the Vikings, in 1053 it was burned by the son of Maelnambo, in 1150 by Turlough O,Brien, in 1158 by Diarmuid MacMurrough, in 1161 also and finally in 1170 by Diarmuid MacMurrough, king of Leinster, and his English allies. It is as if great Caesar fell not under one but under many blows and the monastery of Slane , after six hundred years of history, fell into oblivion.
One of its more interesting legends is recounted by a Slane rector, Mervyn Archdall, who unfortunately does not give the source of his stories. The king of Austrasia ( a kingdom in eastern Gaul ) Sigebert died aged twenty one leaving a son as his heir. Dagobert was two years of age and was replaced by the chief minister or mayor of the palace as king. The child was made a cleric by being given tonsure, a minor order, and above all places was sent to Slane for his education. Why Slane? We do not know. Was it a reputation for learning that Slane had, some French connection, or merely that it was pretty far from Austrasia and it could be presumed that he would not appear on the scene at home again. But that did not happen. The chief minister was deposed and Dagobert after twenty years was called from Slane to greatness and died as king of Austrasia. Dean Cogan bore witness that the tradition was alive and well among the ordinary Slane people in his time about 1860.
It was the Flemings who became Norman barons of Slane in the twelfth century. Their first settlement, the classic motte and bailey, is still to be seen on the east of the hill of Slane. The buildings on the top of the hill, ruins of a Franciscan friary, and a college were Fleming foundations of the sixteenth century. The friary and monastery had a short life; founded in 1502 they were suppressed in 1540 though the family supported a house of Capuchins there in the 1630’s.
The Flemings were replaced after the plantations of the seventeenth century by the Conyngham family with whom is associated most of the developments which constitute modern Slane. The Protestant church was built in 1712 and had its tower, designed by Francis Johnson, built in 1797. There have been gathered bits and pieces of stonework from neighbouring and closed Protestant churches, tombstones from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, a clerical effigy from the thirteenth century.
The Protestant church replaced the friary church on the hill still in use until the end of the seventeenth century. The Catholic church, after two centuries of persecution, and rather ephemeral centres of worship, built a church in 1802 through the patronage of the Conyngham family. It has a tablet on the west door proclaiming it to be the Mountcharles chapel, but not unreasonably, the name did not stick. It has an imitation round tower, separate from the church, as a belfry; the separation made possible the use of a church bell until then forbidden by the Penal Laws. One of the treasures of the church is the fragment of a high cross dating from the ninth century which was found at Fennor just across the river Boyne on the hill out of Slane to the south. Behind the church is a plain medieval font formerly in the friary but presented to the church by the Conyngham family in the nineteenth century.
Slane castle incorporates the tower the Flemings built when they moved from the motte and bailey at the top of the hill. It was built in the eighteenth century and many of its features were designed by Francis Johnson. One of the Conynghams, Burton Conyngham, was an antiquary. It seems that when the old abbey at Navan was being cleared to lay foundations for a military barracks, he removed to Slane the tomb of a former abbot, John Bole, who died in 1471 Archbishop of Armagh. It is a table tomb with the top containing the bishop’s effigy vertically inserted into a wall in the castle yard and the sides, carved out of one stone with effigies of the apostles surrounding it, now called the ” Apostles’ Stone ” near St. Erc’s hermitage in the castle grounds. The hermitage itself, a sixteenth century building, which replaced various hermitages dating back to St. Erc’ time is in ruins, but the Tudor roses which decorate the window surrounds reveal it to have been built after 1500 when Tudor motifs became the fashion in Irish stonework.