The Hill of Slane | Faces in Strange Places

The Hill of Slane is famous for its role as the place from which St Patrick first defied the pagan Kings. The story goes that one day in AD433, possibly in spring around the time of the festival of Bealtaine, as darkness fell across the land, King Laoighaire prepared his Druids to light the sacred bonfires at the royal site of Tara.

However, before they could do so, a golden bud of flame burst forth on the distant hill of Slane. Furious that such a sacred rite could be so flagrantly disregarded, the King sent his warriors and a number of Druids to extinguish the fire and bring the culprit to him.

The fire was not put out, however. The Druids claimed that Patrick’s power was mightier than theirs, and they were unable to extinguish it. They warned the King that if St Patrick’s fire was not put out, it would burn forevermore in Ireland.

Impressed with the stranger’s magic, and the strength of his religious conviction, Laoighaire allowed Patrick to continue his mission. Even stranger, Erc, the King’s chief Druid and adviser was so enamoured of Patrick’s might, that he converted to Christianity at once, and became the first Bishop of Slane.

Surprisingly, Erc was said to have been buried under a dolmen, the remains of which can still be seen in the graveyard at Slane today. This is a decidedly un-Christian burial more in line with his pagan roots. Which begs the question, why? If the remaining stones really are what is left of a dolmen, of course, and I’m not convinced that they are. I’ll let you decide.

Wherever there is a Christian church, there was once a pagan sacred site before it, and Slane is no exception. In amongst the trees to the west of the hill lies a motte of Norman origin upon which once stood a castle. Beneath this motte there is a burial mound believed to be that of Sláine, a king of the FirBolg.

It was Sláine who was responsible for clearing the land so that the mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth could be built. Quite a legacy.

Sláine, son of Dela, was said to be the first High King of Ireland. He landed at Wexford Harbour at the mouth of the River Slaney with his four brothers and 5000 men. They carved Ireland into five provinces and ruled one each, with Sláine ruling over them all. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long: he died at Dind Ríg in Co Carlow and was carried back to Slane to be buried. He was succeeded by his brother Rudraige.

Newgrange and Knowth can be seen from Slane, and the Hill of Tara is only shrouded from view by a belt of woodland. Clearly, this area was once a very significant one.

According to legend, a holy well is located near Sláine’s mound, which was used as a well of healing by the Tuatha de Danann for their warriors during battle, much like that of Heapstown Cairn at Moytura.

Sadly, the mound and well lie beyond sight on private land, and cannot be accessed by the public.  I have heard that there are some large trees growing through the motte and mound, and that their roots are causing terrible damage. There does not seem to be any plan in place to repair the damage in the near future, so once again, a precious site of enormous value to Irish heritage is being allowed to crumble into obscurity.

A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange, Knowth, Tara environs, the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea...
A tomb with a view. You can see Newgrange (red arrow), Knowth, Tara environs (yellow arrow), the town of Drogheda, the Mary Macalees Bridge, the sea…

Despite this, a visit to Slane is well worth it. The remains of the church, its tower, and the monastic college are impressive, and the uninterrupted views of the spreading landscape under a big sky just make you want to soar! The atmosphere is serene, and the light and energy of the site is compelling.

Want more mythology straight to your inbox? Sign up to my mailing list.

COMING SOON: Conor Kelly’s Guide to Ireland’s Ancient Places, an exclusive free gift for all newsletter subscribers, featuring all the sites and locations upon which The Tir na Nog Trilogy is based. WANT ONE? It’s FREE, and coming to a newsletter near you soon! All you have to do is sign up to my Marvellous Myths newsletter.

Or try one of these…

The Goddess in our Stars

boann the goddess in our stars
Boann | The goddess in our Stars

Boann strides up the path, her face composed with fierce determination, her little dog Dabilla trotting faithfully at her heels. The way is winding and covert, meant not for the feet of the uninitiated, but Boann has learned its secrets; thus she feels she has earned the right to visit this most sacred of places, the Tobar Segais, also known as the Well of Wisdom.

The pool is silent and dark, reflecting neither sky nor earth, an upwelling of water from the deepest reaches of the Otherworld, bringing with it all the arcane knowledge and mysteries contained therein. Around it stand the Nine Ancient Hazels of Knowledge. Boann catches her breath in awe as she gazes at them, for their branches are laden with blossom, fruit and leaf all at once.

As she watches, nuts fall into the shaded water with a hushed splash, and the five spotted salmon which reside there rise up gently to eat them. Dabilla rushes to the water’s edge and snaps at the benign creatures excitedly, but they just flip their tails at her and sink back down to safety.

Boann’s heart is pounding; should she catch a salmon, and eat of its flesh to gain the knowledge she seeks? It feels like sacrilege, and besides would take time she might not have, for every moment she delays, she risks capture. Perhaps she should just eat the nuts, but how many would she need in order to gain enlightenment?

The fear of discovery, her long search for knowledge, and the proximity to her heart’s desire stir up a heady concoction of exhilaration and turmoil in her blood, which causes her to throw caution to the wind.  She begins her circuit of the lake, chanting as she goes, but her perambulations take her widdershins rather than deasal-wise.

Perhaps this is her undoing, or perhaps her presence uninvited violates this holy place. Perhaps she is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In any case, the waters begin to rise and stir. Wavelets grow into watery mountains which slop at the banks which contain them, chafing at their restraints like caged beasts.

Boann falters in her enchantment, gripped with sudden fear. Even as she turns to run, she knows in her heart escape is futile; she risked the wrath of the Gods, now she must pay. The roaring water towers above her, streaked with white foam and fury. It runs much faster than she; it sweeps her up as if she were no more than a feather, devouring everything in its path as it cascades down the hillside toward the call of the stormy grey ocean. Little Dabilla is tossed from wave to wave, like a sliotar between hurlers.

They say retribution was cruel; Boann lost an eye, an arm and a leg, her faithful pet, some even say her life in the lakeburst which carried her out to sea. And thus the River Boyne was formed and named after her, so that the tragic Goddess lives on forever in the landscape, and in the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland, gone but never forgotten.

One of the things I love about where I live is that on a clear night, the stars are intense. We are far enough away from collective civilisation that we have no light pollution. The stars really do look like glittering diamonds lit up and scattered across a black velvet curtain. It takes my breath away. How often do we raise our eyes and look?

Our ancestors did. There are many references to the stars in Irish mythology, and they left much evidence behind in their stone monuments which indicate their abiding fascination with the sky and the celestial bodies found in it.

The most well known is perhaps that of the Goddess Boann and the complex of monuments known as Newgrange, or Brúgh na Boínne in Irish, which is popularly translated as ‘the bend in the Boyne’. Some believe it means ‘home of Boann’, or even ‘womb of Boann’, and for obvious reasons; the dark chamber of the mound can be seen as womb-like, but what mysterious wonders did it give birth to?

Boann was a woman of the Tuatha de Danann people, Goddess of the River Boyne, and her story is told in the Lebor Gebala Erenn, and the Dindshenchas. She was the daughter of Delbáeth, and granddaughter of Elatha. Her husbands are variously given as Nechtan, Elcmar and Nuada, although not all at once, and I suspect some of this may be attributed to the ‘Chinese whisper’ effect of thousands of years of the oral tradition of lore keeping,  and later scribe confusion or mistranslation.

Her name derives from the Old Irish Bó Find, meaning ‘white cow’. In Ptolemy’s book, Geographia, written during his life c. AD100-170, the River Boyne is referred to as Bubindas, from the proto-Celtic Bou-vinda, also meaning ‘white cow’.

NewgrangeInterestingly, the galaxy we know as the Milky Way was known in Irish mythology as Bealach an Bó Finne, which means ‘the way of the white cow’, and its shape in the sky was thought to be mirrored on earth by the route of the River Boyne.

Dowth, one of the monuments of the Newgrange complex is said to be where Boann’s body was laid to rest. Originally known as Dubad, meaning ‘darkness’, it won its name when King Bresal commanded all the men of Ireland to build him a tower tall enough to reach the sky. A disease had afflicted all of Ireland’s cattle leaving only seven cows alive. It seemed that Bresal was looking to the sky to find an answer for this serious problem. His sister, who was a druid, secretly stopped the sun in the sky so that the tower could be built in a single day. As the men continued working, they became exhausted. However, the spell was broken when Bresal and his sister committed incest, (Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of an odd one!). Night immediately fell, and the men abandoned their work, claiming the mound would be known forever more as ‘Darkness’.

Dowth has several decorated kerbstones, one of which displays what appears to be seven rayed suns or stars, six of them enclosed within circles. It is thought that Dowth could therefore be linked with the constellation of Taurus, which contains a group of stars called Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters. These seven suns/ sisters are thought to represent Bresal’s seven surviving cows.

My favourite story is of the Lightning God, Lugh, and his grandfather, Balor, giant-king of the Fomori. Lugh defeats his grandfather in battle by killing him with a spear through the eye. Some say this story is a version of the David and Goliath story. In any case, it is represented in the stars; Lugh is the constellation Bootes, his sling (or spear) is the Corona Borealis, and Balor is the constellation of Orion. It is suggested that this story is of Sanskrit origin, dates to about 3500BC, and is supported by scenes found on the Gundestrop Cauldron.

Lugh is also associated with the constellation of Perseus, with which Pegasus, the white winged horse is also linked. In Ireland, he is known as Aonbharr, and belonged to Manannán, God of the sea, who was said to have fostered Lugh, and loaned him Aonbharr and various other magical possessions on occasion.

"OrionCC" by Till Credner - Own work: Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
“OrionCC” by Till Credner – Own work: Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

In Celtic myth, Orion the Hunter was known as the Horned God, Cernunnos (possibly called Uindos in Irish); the Irish called this constellation Caomai, meaning ‘the armed king’. Cernunnos appears on the Gundestrop cauldron seated in a decidedly lotus-like position.

I see Orion and the Big Dipper most regularly over my house on a clear night. To be honest, my eyes just aren’t good enough to recognise any others. The Big Dipper forms just a part of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear. The two stars which form the outer edge of the Big Dipper’s bowl point towards the Pole Star, also known as the North Star, and Polaris. In Irish, it is known as an Mól Thuaidh, but I prefer its other rather more poetic name, An Gaelin, ‘beam that lights the way home’.

Danu, also known as Anu/ Aine, is thought to be the mother Goddess of the Danann and as such appears in the night sky as Llys Don, meaning ‘the court of Don’. This constellation is more well known as the W-shaped Casseopeia.

Not much is known about Danu. No stories of her seem to have survived, which is very strange, considering the role ascribed to her. It’s nice to think though, that even if mankind can erase her memory, she still lives on in our stars.

You can find out more here;

Knowth | Legend of a Forgotten Queen

I call Knowth the Forbidden Mound because no one is allowed inside. I’m not sure why this is. From my image below, you can see how safe and unrestricted the passage is. According to the archaeologist, George Eogan, who excavated the site in the 1960s, the passages and inner chambers were accessed with relative ease on the days they were discovered. I can’t help but wonder, what could be in there that no one wants us to see?

Of the Bru na Boinne complex, Knowth holds for me the most mystique and allure. Roughly on a size and scale with the more famous Newgrange, Knowth contains not one but two long passages opposite each other alighned east/ west. The eastern passage is forty metres long, while the western passage is thirty four metres long. Surrounding this large central mound are eighteen smaller ones, all facing inward.

In Irish mythology, Knowth (sounds like mouth), from the Irish Cnoc Bui, meaning ‘Hill of Bui’ is said to be the final resting place of Bui, or Buach. a wife of the God of Lightning, and High King of the Danann, Lugh Lamfhada.

I have had to piece her story together from several legends, as sadly, it seems to have been lost in time. She was the daughter of either Daire Donn, known as the King of the World, who led a great battle against Fionn mac Cumhaill in the C3rd, or of Donn of the Milesians, who later came to be known as Lord of the Dead. In terms of time periods, the latter fits far better.

She was said to have had an affair with Cermait Milbél (which means ‘honeymouth’), a son of the Dagda. Lugh was so furious that he challenged Cermait to a duel and killed him. Cermait’s three sons decided to avenge their father’s death, and killed Lugh in, or beside the lough named after him on the top of the Hill of Uisneach. A cairn was raised over his body there.

If this wasn’t tragic enough, Óengus Óg who was Cermait’s half-brother, discovered that Lugh’s poet, who is not named, had told Lugh a malicious lie; Buach and Cermait had not slept together, after all. He avenged the deaths of his brother and Lugh by killing the poet. What became of poor Buach is not known.

Knowth and the rest of the Newgrange complex are known collectively as Brú na Bóinne, which means ‘the bend in the River Boyne’; you can see this quite clearly in the map, the Boyne cradling the ancient sites like the curve of an arm.

In Irish mythology, the river Boyne is named after the Danann goddess, Boann. Her name, from the Old Irish Bo Find, means ‘white cow’. According to an ancient text named the Lebor Gabála Érenn she was the daughter of Delbáeth of the Tuatha De Danann, and she was married to Elcmar.

She had an affair with the Dagda, and thus conceived her son, Óengus Óg. In order to conceal their infidelity from Elcmar, the Dagda made the sun stand still in the sky for nine months; therefore, Óengus was conceived, gestated and born in one day, and sent to be fostered with Midir all before Elcmar came home.

Boann was killed when she went against her husband’s wishes seeking knowledge from Connla’s Well, where the nine enchanted hazel trees dropped their nuts into the water for the salmon to eat. The water rose up at her defiance and carried her out to sea where she perished, and that was how the River Boyne was formed.

The River Boyne is thought to be linked to the Milky Way; in old Irish, it was known as Bealach na Bó Finne, meaning the ‘Path of the Bright/ White Cow’. Interestingly, it was also known as ‘Lugh’s Chain’, or Slabhbra Lugh.

Could it perhaps be then, that Knowth with its many satellite mounds represents planets going around a sun? Or a constellation of stars? Perhaps it is simply the burial site of an ancient beloved Queen.

Irish Hurling | Is it Crazier than Quidditch?

In Irish mythology, hurling was the sport of the Tuatha de Denann. It is still played in Ireland today, and is reputed to be the fastest and oldest field sport in the world. It is certainly the only sport I can think of which is more dangerous, and crazier, than Quidditch! Hardly surprising then, that the Irish won the Quidditch World Championship…

Sadly, Quidditch isn’t a real sport, but hurling is. Here’s what happened when film of the game was shown to American spectators…

Hilarious, right? I can certainly understand their reactions. It’s fast, it’s furious, and emotions run very high indeed.

Although the game had been played for many hundreds of years, perhaps even longer if the tales of mythology are to be believed, the rules of the game were only formalised in the latter part of the C19th by the Gaelic Athletic Association.

It was amalgamated from two variations of the sport played in different areas of Ireland.

In the north, the game was played similarly to Scottish shinty, with a narrow stick and a hard ball, with the action mainly taking place on the ground… no, we ARE talking hurling here, not Quidditch, I promise you!

The second variation was known as Leinster hurling. The stick was broader, and the ball was softer. Players could pick up the ball, catch it, and strike it with their stick. Thus, more of the action took place off the ground.

Here are the rules, according to the GAA;

“Hurling is played on a pitch that can be up to 145m long and 90m long. The goalposts are similar to those used on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than in rugby and slightly higher than a soccer one.

“You may strike the ball on the ground, or in the air. Unlike hockey, you may pick up the ball with your hurley and carry it for not more than four steps in the hand. After those steps you may bounce the ball on the hurley and back to the hand, but you are forbidden to catch the ball more than twice. To get around this, one of the skills is running with the ball balanced on the hurley. To score, you put the ball over the crossbar with the hurley or under the crossbar and into the net by the hurley for a goal, the latter being the equivalent of three points.”

Here are the top 5 hurling goals of last year.

Each team is made up of 15 players. The stick, or hurley, is also called camán in Irish. It is curved outwards at the end, to provide the striking surface. The ball, or sliotar, is similar in size to a hockey ball but has raised ridges. I have played hockey in my youth, and believe me, that’s where the similarity ends. I’ve never played hurling, because I don’t have a death wish.

In Irish mythology, the Tuatha de Denann were said to have played hurling with their enemies, the Fir Bolg, before the Battle of Moytura commenced, according to an ancient text known as the Cath Maighe Tuireadh. The only surviving copy of this text dates to the C13th.

According to Lady Gregory in her book, ‘Of Gods and Fighting Men, this is what happened;

“It was on a Midsummer day they began the battle.
Three times nine hurlers of the Tuatha de Danaan went
out against three times nine hurlers of the Firbolgs, and
they were beaten, and every one of them was killed.”

So the Fir Bolg won the game, but unfortunately for them, went on to lose the battle. In some versions, they actually played with the heads of their enemies, instead of a ball.

There are other legends referencing hurling, too.

Midir, son of the Dagda of the Tuatha de Denann was said to have lost an eye in a hurling match, which Dian Cecht replaced for him. The story goes that he was watching a group of youths play hurling at Bru na Boinne (Newgrange) with Oengus mac Óg, when a fight broke out amongst the youngsters. Midir went to sort it out, but was  accidentally hit on the head by a hurley thrown in the heat of the moment.

Diarmuit mac Cerbaill, who became High King at Tara in AD560, ordered the young Prince Curnan of Connacht executed for accidentally killing a man during the playing of a hurling match.

But it is Ireland’s most well loved hero, Cuchullain, who is responsible  for bringing the ancient game of hurling into the spotlight. When he was only seven years old, the age at which fostering was most common, he went to live with his uncle, King Conor mac Nessa, at Emain Macha (Navan Fort). Along the way, he entertained himself by hurling his bronze sliotar great distances, and then throwing his hurly after it, so that it met the ball in mid air.

When he arrived, he joined in a hurling match, in which he single-handedly defeated 150 other boys. He is most famous, however, for killing one of Cullen’s fierce guard dogs by smashing his hurling ball into its face… what a way to go! Cullen was understandably distraught at the demise of his favourite hound, so Cuchullain offered to serve in it’s place, which is how he obtained his name; Cuchullain means ‘hound of Cullen’.

Irish Mythology | The Dagda’s Cauldron

Replica of the Dagda's Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre
Replica of the Dagda’s Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre

Irish mythology tells of four mysterious artefacts the enigmatic Tuatha de Denann brought with them when they invaded Ireland. These items were known collectively as the Four Treasures of Eirean, and consisted of Nuada’s Sword of Light; Lugh’s Spear; the Lia Fail, and the Dagda’s Cauldron. They were said to be talismans of enormous magical power.

I always felt that the Dagda’s cauldron seemed a little ‘out of place’ amongst these treasures; the Lia Fail was the sacred stone of knowledge which recognised and proclaimed the High King’s right to rule, the sword and the spear were symbols which upheld this right, testament to his strength and power.

But the cauldron is surely a domestic item. Not only that, but it is also a very female one. So how did it wind up in the hands of one of ancient Ireland’s best loved Kings and deities, and why was it considered such a precious treasure?

We know that ancient peoples venerated fertility, of the land, of animals and of themselves; it was fundamental to their success and continuity. Fertile land meant plentiful crops and food to sustain them. Fertile livestock perpetuated that theme. According to the Temple of Danann, the cauldron, chalice and cup are feminine symbols which represent the womb, the ultimate place of creation, and thus cannot possibly be owned by a male, but protected by him.

We see these exact qualities represented in the Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos. In Irish mythology, he was called Uindos. As the Lord of the Hunt, he was associated not only with animals, but with abundance, virility and fertility. He was also the Consort of the Mother Goddess, in other words, not her husband, king or master, but her guardian and protector. He was the defender of the sacred womb which ensured the success of those mortals who worshipped her.

Now the importance of the cauldron and all it represents begins to make sense, and we can see why it has earned such a lofty place among the treasures of the Gods.

The most famous vessels which spring to mind are the Holy Grail of Arthurian fame, and the Gundestrup cauldron.

The former is a mythical chalice associated with Joseph of Arimathea, the Last Supper, and the crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph was said to have received it from Jesus in a vision and sent it with followers to Great Britain.

Some dispute that this object was ever a cup at all. Building on the theme of the sacred womb, some believe that the Holy Grail was in fact Mary Magdelane, who was pregnant with Jesus’s child. This theory has been made popular by the writings of Dan Brown, for example, in his novel The Da Vinci Code.

The Gundestrup cauldron is a real silver vessel discovered in a peat bog in Denmark. dating back to the La Tene period of the Iron Age (200-300 BC) and measuring 69cms in diameter, it is richly decorated on its exterior and interior surfaces, indicating ceremonial use rather than practical. The depictions show several bearded male figures and several females accompanied by various animals and mythical creatures. Cernunnos is represented on one of the inner engravings.

Interestingly, there is also a scene in which a large being is holding a smaller one head first in a cauldron; some say this represents ritual sacrifice by drowning, but if one considers the cauldron as a symbol of the sacred womb, it is more likely to symbolise a kind of baptism or rebirth.

But what of the Dagda’s cauldron? Well, the Dagda was seen as something of a protector and father-figure to the ancient people. In fact, one of his epithets is Eochaid Ollathair, meaning ‘all-father’.  He was many-skilled like Lugh, a big powerful man with great magic and knowledge, a warrior and accomplished harper, and became High King of the Denann, ruling for seventy to eighty years. He certainly sounds like a fitting candidate for the guardianship of the cauldron.

According to the Lebor Gebála Érenn, the cauldron was made in the northern city of Muirias by a skilled druid named Semias, and was known as the Coire Unsic, or ‘the Undry’, because it never ran dry of food. It says of the cauldron that ‘no one ever went from it unsatisfied’. It’s power was so potent, that it overflowed with abundant food, could heal any wound, and even restore life to the dead.

So what did it look like? Well strangely, I have not as yet been able to find a description for this wondrous object, other than that it was large. Perhaps this has something to do with the Christian scribes who collected and wrote down these stories, who refused to see the divine or the magical in such feminine symbolism, or perhaps such knowledge has simply just been wiped from memory by the passage of time.

A four foot granite stone basin found in the great central mound at Knowth, part of the Brú na Boinne complex (also known as Newgrange) has been tentatively identified with the Dagda’s cauldron.  The interior is decorated with a rayed solar design. The outside has a band of seven horizontal grooves running around it, and is bisected on the front by an engraving of a circular solar or lunar motif. There are also four vertical grooves carved on the outer right hand side of the cauldron. Archaeologists think it is more likely to be a repository for the cremated remains of the dead.

A Swedish academic by the name of Ulf Erlingsson believes that the circular engraving on the outer surface of the vessel depicts the three concentric lakes of the city of Atlantis as described by Plato. It is an interesting theory which raises more questions than it answers. He’s certainly not the first to have suggested Ireland as the location for this mystical island.

If you want to see the cauldron for yourself, you can view a replica in the Visitor Centre at Newgrange. The original artefact remains buried deep within the mound where it was found, safe from curious mortal eyes, or so we are told. After all, whilst such a powerful magical object ‘from which all leave satisfied’ could do much good in the world, just think of the harm it could do if it fell into the wrong hands…



Knowth is part of the Newgrange complex at Bru na Boinne, on the banks of the River Boyne in County Meath.  These grand monuments were constructed around 32ooBC, which means that they are even older than the more famous sites of Stonehenge in England, and the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

The central mound at Knowth was built over 5000 years ago, sometime after Newgrange itself was constructed, and before Dowth. 

Continue reading