November 2 is the feast of Saint Erc (Erk, Herc) of Slane, County Meath, a saint who features in the hagiography of Saint Patrick. In the account below, taken from his diocesan history of Meath, Father Anthony Cogan gives us the story of the saint's life beginning with a summary of the famous episode of the kindling of the Paschal Fire at Slane. Saint Erc is a particularly attractive figure as he straddles both the old world of pre-Christian Ireland and the new Christian world of Saint Patrick:
The first ecclesiastical notice we have of Slane is the kindling of the Paschal fire by St. Patrick on its hill, within view of the palace of Tara. This fact is noticed in all the lives of St. Patrick, and we take the following condensed report from Dr. Lanigan's Ecclesiastical History [Vol. i., pp. 222, 223, 224]:
"On the following day, which was Easter Eve or Holy Saturday, St. Patrick continued his journey, and arrived in the evening at a place called Ferta-fer-feic, now Slane. Having got a tent pitched there, he made preparations for celebrating the festival of Easter, and accordingly lighted the Paschal fire about nightfall. It happened that at this very time the King Laogaire and the assembled princes were celebrating a religious festival, of which fire-worship formed a part. There was a standing law that, at the time of this festival, no fire should be kindled for a considerable distance all around, until after a great fire should be lighted in the royal palace of Temoria or Tara. St. Patrick's Paschal fire was, however, lighted before that of the palace, and being seen from the heights of Tara, excited great astonishment. On the king's inquiring what could be the cause of it, and who could have thus dared to infringe the law, the magi told him that it was necessary to have that fire extinguished immediately, whereas, if allowed to remain, it would get the better of their fires, and bring about the downfall of his kingdom. Laogaire, enraged and troubled on getting this information, set out for Slane with a considerable number of followers and one or two of the principal magi, for the purpose of exterminating these violators of the law. When arrived within some distance from where the tent was, they sat down, and St. Patrick was sent for with an order to appear before the king and give an account of his conduct. It was arranged that no one should show him any mark of respect, nor rise up to receive him. But, on his presenting himself before them, Herc, son of Dego, disobeyed the injunction, and standing up, saluted him, and receiving the saint's blessing, became a believer. He was afterwards Bishop of Slane, and celebrated for his sanctity".
Erk, "the sweet spoken judge", was, in all probability, a native of Munster, and is said to have been page to King Laogaire at the time he showed this respect to St. Patrick. He was consecrated some time before the year 465, and was the first bishop of the ancient diocese of Slane, and abbot of the monastery which was erected there by St. Patrick. He is said to have been the preceptor of St. Brendan, and was an intimate friend of St. Brigid. At the synod of Mag-Femyn, in Tipperary, it is related that Erk spoke highly of the great abbess of Kildare, and of the miraculous favours with which she was endowed by the Almighty. He assisted at the consecration of Conlaeth, first bishop of Kildare, and took an active part in all the ecclesiastical movements of the age.
In his declining years he retired from the active duties of the mission, and founded a hermitage on the banks of the Boyne, where in solitude, mortification, prayer, and the practice of every virtue, he prepared himself for eternity. The Four Masters say he died on the 2nd of November, 512.
"His age was four score years and ten when he departed. This Bishop Erk was judge to Patrick. It was for him Patrick composed this quatrain:
Everything he judged was just;
Every one that passes a just judgment
Shall receive the blessing of Bishop Erk".
That St. Erk was a man of great sanctity and usefulness, the respect in which he was held by St. Patrick, the honourable mention made of him in our annals, and the veneration with which the people of Slane still regard his memory after the lapse of thirteen hundred years, are a sufficient testimony. In the Martyrology of Donegal, his festival is marked at the 2nd of November. Colgan says that, in the old calendars, Ercus is treated of on 2nd of October and 2nd of November. Probus, writing of him in the tenth century, says: "Hercus, filius Dego, cujus reliquiae nunc venerantur in civitate, quae vocatur Slane".
Rev. A. Cogan, The Diocese of Meath Ancient and Modern. Vol. I. (Dublin and London, 1862), 59-61.
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