Slane, County Meath

Slane, County Meath

Looking north across the Boyne, Slane is a pretty sight. The main road sweeps down beside a ruined church to a long, narrow bridge, and beyond that, on a hillside, rises the well-planned 18th-century village. The octagonal focal point where the roads meet at its centre is distinguished by four dignified Georgian houses built diagonally opposite each other.

This stretch of the Boyne, a playground for picnickers, walkers and canoeists, is dominated by Slane Castle, a mile upriver. A late 18th-century creation for the Marquis of Conyngham, the castle had several architects, mainly because they were antagonised by the marquis’s temper. He also hired Capability Brown to plan the gardens, which he did – at a safe distance – from England.

The present owner, the Earl of Mount Charles, has turned the castle into a restaurant, but visitors may see the ground floor, which includes a superb Gothic Revival circular ballroom, and a library built in the early 19th century. Lady Elizabeth Conyngham, the first Marchioness, was the last mistress of George IV, and the house contains several gifts that he sent her, including a spectacular portrait of himself, which now hangs in splendour in the round ballroom.

Above the village is the Hill of Slane, where the first Easter fire was lit by St Patrick in 433 to symbolise the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. This act defied an order by Laoghaire, the High King of Tara, but when St Patrick explained himself, Laoghaire was impressed by his message and gave him permission to preach the gospel.

The hill was also the site of a 6th-century monastery and church. These buildings and those that succeeded them were ravaged in tum by Vikings, Normans and Cromwell’s troops. Today’s ruins are those of a 16th- century priestly college and a church, which were abandoned in 1723. The church tower has a narrow spiral stairway that leads to a flat roof with panoramic views of Meath.

At the foot of the hill, on the village side of the bridge, an 18th-century mill houses a Folk and Transport Museum. It contains vintage and classic cars and motoring memorabilia, as well as traditional interiors, and has a tea room.

Slane is a hidden gem that is worth a visit on your tours of Ireland.