Monday, February 13, 2012

Saint Erc’s well, Slane

The Hill of Slane

In Irish Slane (Baile Shlaine) means ‘homestead of fulness’ and it is a small, picturesque village in County Meath. Just outside the village is the Hill of Slane which commands spectacular views out across the county.  Today you can find the remains of a twelfth century Norman motte and bailey (built by Richard Fleming in the 1170’s), the ruins of a friary  and the remains of a college. The friary operated in this area up until 1723 when it was abandoned.

Slane Castle

The famous event on the Hill of Slane involved a tale recounted by Muirchu moccu Machtheni a Leinster monk , who in the seventh century recorded the account of Saint Patrick lighting his paschal fire in defiance of the pagan king at Tara (in ‘Vita sancti Patricii’). Historians today suggest that this tale moves the account to Slane from Knowth. Despite the doubts over the events of defiance at Slane, it is more certain that Patrick consecrated Saint Erc as Bishop on this site. Personally I see no reason to doubt the accounts of the fire lit at Slane as Erc is the only person to give homage to Saint Patrick in his own writings of the confrontation with the pagans at Tara. In his own writings Erc is also quite specific that the confrontation tales place in 433 and that it takes place on Slane.

A statue of Saint Patrick on Slane

Saint Erc  was originally part of the retinue of King Laoghaire, but he broke rank to escape and follow Saint Patrick. He is said to have been trained by Saint Brendan the Navigator at his church in Ardfert and later in life; moved to a religious life he became a hermit on Slane where he was baptized by Saint Patrick. It is suggested that the remains of the hermitage of Saint Erc have been incorporated into the castle at Slane. Saint Patrick consecrated him Bishop of Slane and his feast day is recorded as the 2nd November. The saint’s grave can be found on the top of Slane, marked by two large stones. Smaller stones dotted around the area mark the graves of his followers, clergy and subsequent monks that lived in the area. Saint Erc’s foundation flourished for almost six hundred years.

Saint Erc's hermitage

The relationship between Erc and Patrick was said to have been very close and it is told that Patrick greatly admired Erc’s inner stillness and sound judgement. Legend tells of how Patrick composed a short poetic quatrain that is part playful mockery and part sober deference, on the wisdom and judgement of Saint Erc as a blessing on all who received his counsel.

O God who granted the blessed Saint Erc a deep understanding of justice and a wise councel, grant us who benefit from his faithfulness a sound judgement in all things, a stillness of body, mind and soul and a faithfulness of heart that in all things we may honour your name and proclaim your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.

Saint Erc's Tomb

Saint Erc’s well - sometimes also known as Saint Patrick’s well, is within the walls of the ruined friary church. As you face the large remaining Gothic tower, to the right, very close to the wall, is the well housing. This area is pretty much deserted and the well is extremely deep. As a result, in their wisdom, the local council has decided to fill it in with rocks for fear of anyone falling in.  It is something of a shame, but understandable nonetheless. It is said to have been the site that Saint Patrick baptised Saint Erc and where Saint Erc subsequently baptised his followers.

 The filled in well

This area is steeped in Irish myth about the confrontation between the pagans and the Christians, bit casting all of that aside it has also been a place of learning. Saint Erc’s foundation was said to have been prized as a place to send children for valuable education. In 653 the King of Austrasia died young (at 21 years of age), leaving the throne to his two year old son, Dagobert. His chief ministers at the time felt it was necessary for the child to receive the best education that Europe could offer and the child was sent to the foundation at Slane to be educated. The Franciscan’s who settled the foundation under the auspices of the Fleming family later, also maintained a college at Slane in acknowledgement of its scholarly past.

The remains of the friary

Lord Jesus Christ, you have called us to be your disciples. Deliver us from the pride of thinking we have learnt all we need to know, done all we need to do, and become all we need to be. As we remember that disciples are learners, enable us to continually learn as we follow you; for your name’s sake. 

A view from Slane

How to find it:
Approaching the village form the East coast, enter until you come to a crossroads, then turn up the hill to the right. Not far up this hill you will see signs to the left for the Hill of Slane. Follow the signs to the car park at the top of the hill and cross the field to the site. Inside the walls of the ruined friary you can find Saint Erc's tomb on the left of the tower and the filled in well by the wall, on the right of the tower.


  1. Congratulations on a very interesting article - I have visited the Hill of Slane without realising St. Erc's Tomb and Well were there. Will re-visit with new eyes.

    How and when can St. Erc's Hermitage be accessed?

    1. Thanks Ethna. The hermitage is part of the castle on the right hand side as you go up to the top of the hill. If you enter the door of the castle, the hermitage is on your right. It's a small shale built structure in an arch with the castle built around it and on top of it.

    2. Hi Andrew, Are you on Facebook? there is an active group called 'Ancient Wells of Ireland', whose aim is to document and record the Wells of Ireland in an attempt to advertise their existence and protect them. You may be interested. Gearóid O Branagáin

    3. Great, thanks, will take a look

  2. So interesting..arrived here researching St. Erc, my village having been named after him, he having supposedly sailed from Eire to convert the heathens of Cornwall! along with his sister? St. Ia.(St. Ives). We (now called St. Erth) still celebrate 2nd November as his/our Feast Day. I may be attending an art workshop tomorrow on the Cornish Saints so thought I'd best research a little..there is very little on him though.

  3. Hi I always thought St. Erc's Hermitage was on the grounds of Slane castle, I remember been shown it years ago and it has fallen into serious neglect, Here is a link I found