St. Patrick – The Incident on the Hill of Slane

March 13, 2019

The Pastor's Page

Hill of Slane

One of the more memorable events in the ministry of St. Patrick (385-461) was an incident that took place at the Hill of Slane in 433 AD, one year after he returned to Ireland as its second bishop. Initially St. Patrick settled in County Down, but a year later he set sail southward, and he chose the Hill of Slane as a place to proclaim Christianity in the Boyne River Valley area.

The Hill of Slane is located in County Meath, ten miles inland from the coast of the Irish Sea and west of the modern Irish city of Drogheda. It is forty-five miles south of Armagh, thirty miles north of Dublin, and has an elevation of 518 feet above the valley below.

There was another important hill in the same region, the Hill of Tara, ten miles from the Hill of Slane, and when visibility was good, it was possible to see from one hill to the other. The Hill of Tara was a cultic center where people worshiped the Celtic god of the sun, Lugh. In a primitive, prescientific society, the sun was accorded exalted importance because it is the main source of light, it brings warmth, and it makes the plants grow, and without plant food, the people perish. Consequently, pagan sun worship was deeply embedded in the fabric of the Celtic people.

King Laoghaire (also Loegaire, Laoighre or Laoire), the Celtic High King, renowned for his ferocity and brute strength, resided in Tara, and he led a fire ceremony for the druids and his subjects each year at the time of the Beltaine Festival during the Spring Equinox called the Feast of Tara. The king lit a sacred fire at the top of the hill to honor the pagan sun god, and it was left burning for a number of days. The king strictly prohibited any other fires that could be seen from Tara during the entire duration of the festival.

St. Patrick was not intimidated and defiantly disregarded the king’s order. St. Patrick boldly and bravely lit and blessed the Paschal fire and the Easter Candle during the Vigil Service on Holy Saturday night. The fire was left burning and could be seen clearly from the Hill of Tara.

St. Patrick made an emphatic statement: Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12; 12:46), and none other, not even Lugh, the pagan sun god. Jesus is the true light that enlightens everyone (Jn 1:9), the light shining in the midst of the darkness (Jn 1:5a). On Easter Sunday, Jesus was the light rising in glory, the light that dispels the darkness of our hearts and minds (Roman Missal, 200), the light that inflames the hearts of believers with heavenly desires and purifies the mind (Roman Missal, 198), the pillar of fire that banishes the darkness of sin (Exsultet, 208), a light that mingles with the lights of heaven, and a peaceful light shed on all humanity (Exsultet, 209).

At one time King Loegaire and the druids planned to have St. Patrick killed, but St. Patrick was so convincing and persuasive, and the king was so impressed by his extraordinary devotion, that he allowed St. Patrick to continue his missionary work in his kingdom.

The Hill of Slane served for centuries as a monastery and religious school. Today remnants of the monastery chapel and friary can be seen, as well as a tower, the college building, and a cemetery with many distinctive Celtic crosses. A statue of St. Patrick is displayed prominently at the front of the ruins.

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About Father Michael Van Sloun

Father Michael A. Van Sloun is the pastor of Saint Bartholomew of Wayzata, MN. Ministerial interests include weekly Bible study, articles on theological topics, religious photography, retreats on Cross spirituality, and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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