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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Who was the Druid in the Bog of Allen?

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Lullymore in Kildare, ‘An island in the bog of Allen’, was legendary in Irish chronicles but today, if known at all, it is for the modest Heritage Park in the area.

It is a reminder that up to the late Middle Age the centre of the island of Ireland was a bog (the Bog of Allen) and that roads across jumped from it one fertile hill island to another by raised ‘togher’ causeways. Lullymore was one of those islands.

Excavations showed that it was a centre of pre-Christian Henge ritual before St Patrick brought a monk named Erc there to start a community. By the mid-5th century it had become one of the earliest and largest monastic centre in Ireland.

When the men of Connaught refused to pay taxes to the High King in 722 they took on the army of Leinster at the nearby Hill of Allen. One of their leaders, King Aedh Laighen, was mortally wounded and called out to his sons, ‘Do not leave me lads, your mother’s love for you will be greater if you take me with you.’

They carried him to the nearby sanctuary of Lullymore where he was buried. During their stay in the monastery they paid for their keep by digging a circular enclosure around the site that is still known as ‘the Connaught men’s ditch’. Unusually it followed the configuration of a prehistoric henge rather than the monastic design of that period.

My visit there made me curious about its founder, Erc. He seemed to have an interesting background and is recorded as the first abbot or bishop of Slane. But what was his connection with Slane and how did he get to Lullymore?

Erc was a lawyer druid at the court of the High King, Laoghaire, when St Patrick came to Ireland.

On the Celtic feast of Bealtailne, the Spring Equinox of 433, he accompanied the King on his dash to Slane to confront Patrick who had the audacity to light a fire there before the King lit the inaugural flame on Tara.

Patrick explained that it was the Christian feast of Easter and he was celebrating the light of Christ’s resurrection. The King saw not impressed. Erc was the only person who listened to what Patrick had to say and Patrick recognised a potential follower. He accepted Erc as a disciple and later ordained him as the first bishop of Slane.

It seems bishops in those days were not limited to one place. In 450 Patrick sent Erc to his native Munster to complete the missionary work begun there by Benignus. He is said to have escorted St Brigid to Munster before she settled in Kildare. Their conversions on the road are recorded in the annals! At Ardfert Erc founded a monastic school where Brendan the Navigator was trained.

Erc eventually returned to Slane where he built a simple hermitage on the banks of the Boyne (now in the grounds of Slane castle). He died there at the age of 90. Where Lullymore comes into this I don’t know. The fact is never mentioned outside Lullymore. Maybe there were two St Ercs, but both ‘abbots of Slane’!?

Thanks to my visits to Lullymore I have two more topics to explore: the role of the Sli Mor (one of the Five Great Roads of Ireland) in Irish history and how peaceful (or warlike) the country was when the ’Golden Age’ was starting.

I would give Erc’s Lullymore a seven for being ‘unknown’ and an eight for what it taught me about henges, Christian druids and the mobility of Irish abbots and bishops.


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