[Originally published in February 2011]
Éire, or Ireland, is a place where the magic of the earth still shimmers on the surface. Traditional folklore mixed with religious devotion, strong agricultural traditions and the heartfelt song of far-flung immigrants fills the land with myth and legend.
In this article, we travel to the Hill of Slane, Co Meath to see the sites of some of the deepest wounds in Éire’s national consciousness, where St Patrick defied the Pagan High Kings and where ancient gods came to rest after battle.
A View of Massacre and Segregation
Taking in the view from the Hill of Slane is a breathtaking experience. It juxtaposes the mythical and legendary power of Ireland with remembrance of deep traumas to the national consciousness arising from British colonialism and Protestant/Catholic segregation.
The largest settlement that can be seen is Drogheda, the setting of the most notorious massacres ever inflicted in Ireland. The town contained a garrison of Royalist militia seeking to find allies among Irish Catholics during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and his armies completely besieged the town and issued notice to surrender to the incumbent military leaders. The order was ignored and on 11 September 1649 more than 2000 soldiers and between 500 and 2000 civilians were killed, intentionally bloody even by the standards of the time to serve as a fearsome example to other Royalist enclaves raising armies in Ireland.
Also in view is Oldbridge, site of the Battle of the Boyne, where the Protestants defeated the Catholics in 1690, securing Protestant succession in Ireland. Most Irish consider this battle as an important step towards the complete colonisation of Ireland by the British. Some years later, in 1795, the Orange Order was established to protect Protestant interests and its annual marches commemorating this victory served as a focal point for the racial segregation in Northern Ireland in the late 20th Century, often erupting into violence at the height of The Troubles.
A View of Hope and Inspiration
The view from the hill does not only evoke memories of slaughter and division, there is both ancient and modern history of healing and hope. In 2007, Reverend Ian Paisley, the Protestant leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, was invited by the Irish Government to visit the battle site at Oldbridge as First Minister of the devolved government of Northern Ireland. Paisley, who had been a loud and controversial anti-papist and staunch defender of Protestant interests during The Troubles, surprised Irish Catholics with his grace and humility. He commented that the visit “would help to demonstrate how far we have come when we can celebrate and learn from the past so the next generation more clearly understands.” A walnut tree was planted in the grounds of Oldbridge by Paisley and the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern to commemorate a positive step in the healing of the Protestant/Catholic rift that has so blighted Ireland.
Ancient inspiration can be drawn from the sacred sites in the Boyne Valley and also the Hill of Tara, all also visible from the Hill of Slane. The Hill of Tara was the seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland and recognised as an important political and spiritual centre. The Boyne Valley is known as Bru Na Boinne in Irish, after the Celtic water goddess and the lover of the king of the Celtic Gods, Boann, who formed the Boyne River out of a mythical well of inspiration before drowning and becoming part of the river herself.
Worship of Boann and other deities inspired the construction of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the valley, three of the most important megalithic sites in Europe. Dated at around 3200 BC, Newgrange is 500 years older than the pyramids of Egypt and 1,000 years older than Stonehenge in England and is spectacularly well preserved and inspiring to visit and view. From the Hill of Slane, the river and its sacred sites emit a gentle, watery, even womblike energy.
The Power Within
The Hill of Slane itself is known to have ritualistic significance in both Christian and Celtic pagan faiths. Ancient Celts believed their Gods came to the Hill of Slane to rest and heal their wounds after battle. There are also reports that the High King who cleared the Boyne Valley for the construction of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth was buried inside the hill. Neopagans have made studies of the astronomical alignments connecting the Hill of Slane to a network of other sacred sites in Ireland, including the sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick on the opposite coast of Ireland.
However, the most famous myth surrounding the Hill of Slane involves St Patrick, who lit a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane in defiance of the High King Laoire, at Beltane (May Day) 433AD. Local pagan traditions dictated that the first Beltane fires be made on the Hill of Tara, and then transmitted to other beacon points like children following their ancestors. By lighting a fire on the Hill of Slane before the fire on the Hill of Tara was complete, St Patrick asserted his authority in view of people for miles around as a figure of spiritual influence and symbolised the coming of a new religious order.
A Franciscan friary was eventually established on top of the Hill of Slane, its ruins stand today among the tombstones of the local cemetery.
Prayers and Reflections
Full of powerful energetic, political, religious and historic connections, the Hill of Slane is a great place to pray for deep healing and renewal, for repose after a period of inner conflict or for inspiration and healing of creative blocks or fertility problems, or for balance of masculine and feminine.
Travel undertaken between 1990 and 2011
Hill of Slane, Siege of Drogheda & Oliver Cromwell: http://www.suite101.com/content/oliver-cromwell-in-ireland-1649-a115750
Hill of Slane, Battle of the Boyne: http://www.lookaroundireland.com/scenicinteractive/riverboyne.htm
Ian Paisely’s Historic Visit to Oldbridge: http://www.opw.ie/en/LatestNews/Title,13330,en.html
Hill of Slane, Boyne Valley: http://www.suite101.com/content/neolithic-tombs-of-the-boyne-valley-a112207; http://www.decoycountrycottages.ie/uploads/images/61492_2%20Boyne%20Valley%20Brochure%20Interactive%20(final).pdf
Hill of Slane, myths and alignment with Croagh Patrick: http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/slane/index.html
St Patrick’s journey across Ireland from Hill of Slane to Croagh Patrick: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Island-Setting-Sun-Irelands-Astronomers/dp/1905785054/mythicalireland
Hill of Slane, Myth of St Patrick: http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/travel_in_ireland/33966; http://www.philipcoppens.com/uisneach.html