Exploring the archaeology, landscape and history of Slane, Co. Meath

St. Patrick’s Church

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St. Patrick’s Church, from the south east.

The hilltop church, dedicated to St Patrick, is often mistakenly referred to as a Franciscan friary church. There is a Franciscan foundation in Slane – St Erc’s Hermitage – which is in the grounds of Slane Castle and first mentioned in the thirteenth century. St. Patrick’s served as the parish church for Slane until the early 18th century when the present Church. The long rectangular nave was probably rebuilt in the thirteenth century. Manning recently argued for pre-Romanesque date for an earlier phase noting that the sandstone stonework at the E end of the nave suggests the presence of antae, a projecting feature common on masonry churches from the early ninth to the eleventh centuries.

The extensively rebuilt chancel at the E end unusually has no window but includes a reused sandstone window head. A fifteenth century bell tower was added at the W end with a fine gothic window above the doorway and an anthropomorphic corbel at the top of its south face. Around this time the S aisle was added containing a chantry chapel. This involved rebuilding the S wall with a new door, twin light windows and a reused sandstone window. This chapel, separated from the nave by an arched arcade contains a piscina (liturgical drain) and aumbry (cupboard).

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Plan of St. Patrick’s Church showing phasing (after Manning 2008).

The Monastery at Slane

We know that an important monastery existed at the site from the 6th Century, reputedly founded by St. Erc. From the eighth century AD, this monastery was frequently documented as an important legal centre  with links to French monastic sites. The bones of St. Erc were revered at the hilltop church site, the most powerful in Northern Brega and a life of St Patrick may have been written and held at the monastery further demonstrating its authority. The hilltop was a contested political centre for the northern Uí Chellaig Breg kings and in 1161 Muirchertach úa Cellaig, Rí Bhreg and his wife Inderb, daughter of the king of the Cenél Lóegaire, were killed there by Máel Seachlainn Ua Ruairc. The Annals of the Four Masters refers to abbots, bishops and archinneachs (monastic officials) at Slane between 512-1001. It was raided by the Hiberno-Norse in 833 and 948 and by the Irish in 1150 and 1161. These references describe an oratory, the first mentioned round tower (cloigteach) burnt in 948 by the ‘foreigners’  of Dublin, and a wooden church (dairthech) which collapsed in 1028 and which was probably followed by the first phase of construction of the extant stone church. Remains of an early medieval gable shrine, known locally as St. Erc’s Tomb or The Bishop’s Tomb may be the grave of the founder.

 

High Cross Fragments

In a fanciful twelfth century story the high cross of Slane was miraculously shattered into pieces. Harbison described the most recently found fragment, built into stonework in the church and subsequently removed to OPW headquarters in 1994. The fragment’s interlace panel is compared by Harbison to crosses at Clonmacnoise and Kells suggesting a date of c.950-1000 AD. The head of a high cross was found at the medieval church at Fennor, S of Slane Bridge, now housed in St Patrick’s Church in Slane. Westropp noted other fragments within a house in the village, whose location is no longer known.

 

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