Fifty kilometres north of Dublin on the N2, the village of SLANE grew up around Slane Castle, whose estate extends westwards from the large Gothic gate by the bridge over the River Boyne. The main entrance for visitors, however, is now round the back of the house, about a kilometre west of the village crossroads. The era’s finest architects – Gandon, Wyatt and Johnston – constructed the castle, with its mock battlements and turrets, from 1785 onwards, while Capability Brown designed the grounds. A devastating fire struck in 1991, however, and it took until 2001 for the castle to open again, with its interior redesigned in largely contemporary style as a venue for conferences and society weddings. Consequently, the guided tour smacks a little of Hello magazine, though there are one or two points of architectural interest remaining, notably the lofty ballroom, with its ornate fan vaulting and an original carved wooden chandelier, which was built by Thomas Hopper for George IV’s 1821 visit to his mistress, Lady Conyngham. The present Conyngham, Henry, Lord Mountcharles, is a friend of rock band U2, who lived here while recording The Unforgettable Fire in 1984, and mounts huge concerts in the grounds most summers.
From the main crossroads in the village, it’s a fifteen-minute walk north up to the Hill of Slane, which affords views over rolling farmland to the Irish Sea at Drogheda and the Wicklow Mountains. Here, in 433, according to tradition, St Patrick lit the Paschal (Easter) Fire for the first time in Ireland, signalling the arrival of Christianity. In this he challenged the pagan Bealtaine fire on the Hill of Tara, 15km to the south, lit by the High King, Laoghaire, to celebrate the arrival of summer. Laoghaire was soon won over, however, and although the king did not take on the new religion himself, he allowed his subjects to be converted. These included St Earc, who became Patrick’s great friend and follower and established a monastery here on the hill, which eventually evolved into a Franciscan house. Today you can see the extensive remains of its sixteenth-century church and fine bell tower, along with an associated college built around an open quadrangle.