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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

The Flame on Slane!

It began at Lullymore, ‘An island in the bog of Allen’, once legendary but today, if known at all, it is for the modest Heritage Park in the area.

Excavations showed that the (then) island was a centre of pre-Christian Henge ritual with raised Togher roads for access. St Patrick brought a monk named Erc there to start a community and 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 and took on the army of Leinster at the Hill of Allen in 722, they came off the worst for it. 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 with the community 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 monastic design of that period.

My curiosity turned to its founder, Erc. He seemed to have an interesting background as a druid and is recorded as the first bishop of Slane, a long way off in county Meath.

I went to Slane to find out more. It is a dramatic and historic site worth visiting but has little to say about Eric (St Patrick is the star attraction).

However I discovered that Erc was a practicing 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. Among his entourage Erc was the only one open to listening to what Patrick had to say and Patrick recognised a potential follower. He accepted Erc as a disciple and ordained him as the first bishop of Slane.

Later he was to say of the lawyer/druid, ‘Bishop Erc, everything he judged was just. Everyone that passes a just judgement shall receive the blessing of Bishop Erc.’

There are many stories of Erc’s later expeditions out of Slane but only in Lullymore is there mention of his going there. Had I stumbled on a previous unknown fact? Probably not.

Visiting one historic site in Ireland tends to lead you to another but rarely to the full picture of an absorbing heritage.


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