The Hill of Slane in County Meath is steeped in Irish myth, legend and history. The site is positioned on the top of a hill that rises to nearly 160 metres (525 feet) and offers commanding views across the rich historical landscape of County Meath. This elevated position has long made the Hill of Slane a place of strategic importance. The range of archaeological monuments, dating from the Bronze Age to the later-medieval period that can still be seen on the summit today, are testament to it being a place of significance for millennia. According to Irish mythology, this was the burial place of Sláine mac Dela. He was the King of the legendary Fir Bolg, and was buried here at Dumha Sláine, giving the site its modern name.
In recent years, Dr Conor Brady and the Hill of Slane Archaeological Project have sought to examine the story of the site, through a process of geophysical and topographical surveys and historical analysis. You can find their website here. So far, the earliest features identified on the Hill include a prehistoric barrow, a type of burial monument surrounded by a circular ditch, that typically dates to the Bronze or Iron Age.
A large motte also stands outside the main enclosure and graveyard, on private (inaccessible) land within a tree plantation. This demonstrates the strategic importance of the hill with its panoramic views. The motte is believed to have been raised during the early phase of the Anglo-Norman incursions into Ireland. The Song of Dermot and the Earl features a motte castle at Slane. This was destroyed, and its garrison massacred, in 1176 by Maol Sheachlainn Ó Lochlainn, king of Cinéal Eóghain in the Annals of Ulster.
‘The castle of Slane, wherein was Ricard Fleming with his host, wherefrom the Airgialla and Ui-Briuin and Fir-Midhe were being pillaged, was destroyed by Mael-Sechlainn, son of Mac Lochlainn, king of Cenel-Eogain and by the Cenel-Eogain themselves and by the Airgialla; where were killed one hundred or more of the Foreigners, besides women and children and the horses of the castle that were killed, so that no person escaped alive out of the castle.’
Though this motte on the Hill of Slane has not as yet been archaeologically investigated to establish when it was first constructed. It may well be the motte referred to in the Song of Dermot and the Earl, or that motte may have once stood where Slane Castle stands today. This motte on the hill may be a rare example of a ‘pre-Norman’ motte, raised by an Irish king or noble as a place of inauguration and ceremony.
This theory of pre-Norman mottes has been suggested by Professor Tadhg O’Keeffe (UCD), who has postulated that before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the Irish elite had already been influenced and began to adopt European styles of architecture and culture. As seen in the proliferation of Romanesque style churches like at Cormac’s Chapel, Kilmalkedar or Killeshin.
If the Irish elite are willing and eager to commission European style ecclesiastical buildings as a symbol of their power and prestige, could they also have adopted the Northern-European, largely French, style of earthen castle building? Perhaps the most famous of these ‘Irish mottes’ – steep sided earthen mounds – can be seen at the Forradh on the Hill of Tara, very close to the Hill of Slane. This motte on the Hill of Slane may well prove to be Anglo-Norman, but only archaeological investigation could give a definitive answer. To hear a discussion on this subject between Neil and Tadhg check out this episode of Amplify Archaeology Podcast.
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