The Irish Castle Saved by Rock ‘n' Roll

Slane Castle throws some of the best concerts in Europe. You might even run into U2.

It was raining that day in 2019, pouring even—common for Ireland in June. Up the hill to the side of the waiting crowd loomed a gray castle, brooding and drenched. And then the rain stopped and somewhat absurdly, a double rainbow appeared, followed shortly by Metallica lead singer James Hetfield to the stage, almost aerodynamic with his black Flying V guitar. The setlist of course included a Metallica-ized version of the Irish trad “Whiskey in the Jar,” riling up a crowd of 80,000 pumping fists and the occasional orange, white, and green Irish flag.

Metallica requested to play this gig. Hosting only one concert in a typical year, Slane Castle was a bucket-list venue for the band, and one of the most legendary outdoor venues in Europe. Who wouldn’t want to play in front of a castle? And who wouldn’t want to see that show?

The crowd for Queen in 1986. | Independent News and Media/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Designed and built in 1703 by the Conyngham family—Scottish settlers who acquired property during a British land grab called the Plantation of Ulster—the location of Slane Castle was probably chosen, like most castles, with protection in mind. Its geography has played out fortuitously well for throwing concerts: On one side, the River Boyne provides a barrier to control crowds, and the castle’s sloping hillside doubles as a natural amphitheater.  

Slane Castle’s current heir is 46-year-old Alex Conyngham—or Lord Alexander Burton Conyngham, Earl of Mount Charles, if you want to get formal about it. The castle’s more recent history as a legendary rock venue begins with his 69-year-old father, Henry—the 8th Marquess Conyngham—and a phone call. 

It was the late 1970s and Henry, then an Earl, was living and working in England. The castle was faltering and proving difficult for his father to keep up. 

“Grandpa rang Dad late one evening and said ‘I’m either going to have to sell the castle, or you have to come home and figure it out,’” explains Alex. “I was one year old, and Dad had a promising career in publishing. He dropped it all and came home and tried to figure out how the hell he was going to keep the show on the road.”

Lord Henry opened a restaurant and wine bar in the castle, which later became a nightclub visited by the likes of Mick Jagger and members of U2.  And then in 1980 he had an idea: throw a concert. It would be an open-air bash on the family’s expansive 1,500 acres with the castle as the backdrop. 

In 2001 Bono had an appetite for cameras. | Chris Bacon/PA Images/Getty Images

But there was pushback. And admittedly, the timing didn’t seem great. Here was an Anglo-Irishman proposing a frivolous concert in the midst of IRA hunger strikes and the recent death of their hero, Bobby Sands. The village of Slane was adorned with black flags supporting the strikers, and the castle gates were tagged with graffiti like “Brits out,” among other unpleasantries. Lord Henry even received death threats. But he decided to go ahead with the concert anyway.

“He felt that everybody needed to forget about their troubles for a day and come together through music,” says Alex.  “So he persuaded Thin Lizzy to headline, and U2 was one of the supporting acts. And that day back in 1981 changed the future of Slane forever.” 

A ticket for the show cost only 8 punts (the Irish pound, its currency prior to 2002) and the crowd of 30,000 descended because, as Henry presciently foretold, they needed the release. The fears of destruction were never realized: The worst that happened was someone threw a bottle on stage while U2 was performing.

The Hill of Slane is older than your grandparents even. | Remizov/Shutterstock

Slane is about a 45-minute drive from Dublin, cradled in the green northeast of Ireland. On its 364 non-concert days, it’s a sleepy town of 1,369. Before 1981, if you’d asked someone how to get there they’d probably have had no idea what you were talking about.  

But they would definitely have been familiar with its lush Boyne Valley surroundings, a historic region with artifacts predating both the pyramids and Stonehenge. Here is the seat of Brú na Bóinne: one of the largest and most important prehistoric sites in Europe. It includes Newgrange, a rounded megalithic monument with a roof-box above the entrance that, on the winter solstice, aligns with the rising sun to dramatically illuminate the whole chamber (A lottery held at the end of September decides who can witness the event).

The valley was also the location of the Battle of the Boyne, one of Ireland’s most famous battles where deposed King James II failed to regain the British crown, and home to the Hill of Tara, used for over 5,000 years for assembly and burial, and the inauguration site of the ancient High Kings of Ireland.

St. Patrick and his flowers on the Hill of Slane. | Derick Hudson/Shutterstock

And famously in sight of the Hill of Tara is the Hill of Slane, a haunt of St. Patrick. Today we associate St. Patrick with clovers and all things jolly and Irish, but before all that he was a Christian missionary who in 433 AD sailed up the Boyne River with the goal of converting Ireland’s Celtic pagans. He chose the Hill of Slane to announce his arrival, lighting the first Easter fire in Ireland in competition—and direct sight—of the spring solstice fires of the High King on the Hill of Tara. Today if you visit the Hill of Slane you’ll find ruins from the 12th century, and a 16th century friary abandoned in 1723.

“I’ll never forget [Axl Rose] going onstage in tight white lycra shorts and opening up with Paradise City."

The history of Slane Castle may be youthful by comparison, but it’s no less monumental for rock fans. That first concert in 1981 kicked off a tight relationship between the Conynghams and U2, further cementing the castle’s music cred when the band used it to record their 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire (the crumbling castle on the album cover is some other castle, but the video for Pride (In The Name Of Love) has some cool interior footage). Returning to play Slane in 1983 and a double-header in 2001 (one of the few times the castle hosted two shows in a single year), U2 recorded the second installment of the concert video U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle, Ireland.

Over the years, performers have ranged from rock heavyweights like the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Queen, and the Foo Fighters to Madonna, REM, and Eminem. The crowds topped out at 100,000 for Bruce Springsteen in 1985. And when Guns n’ Roses played in 1992, Alex recalls the unpredictable Axl Rose causing ire by being extremely late—but turning the tides as soon as he stepped into the spotlight. “I’ll never forget him going onstage in the tight white lycra shorts and opening up with Paradise City,” he said. “It was one of the great Slane moments for me.”

In the horse stables is where you'll find the booze. | Photo courtesy of Slane Castle

Though the town of Slane has now become synonymous with the concerts, the region is thriving with entrepreneurial activity, its farmland used to cultivate everything from honey to grapeseed oils. You can stop off at The Cider Mill for some award-winning keeved cider, try some bleu goat cheese at Boyne Valley Farmhouse Cheese, and meet two brothers trying to modernize potatoes. Paddle the route of ancient farmers with Boyne Boats, in an actual currach, or traditional Irish boat, used in Game of Thrones. (The company’s founder Ross Kenny was a boat builder on set.)

Within walking distance of Slane Castle is the Rock Farm Slane, an organic farm, eco-lodge, and glamping site opened in 2010 by Alex and his wife Carina. Yet another example of how the Conyngham family has managed to maintain the castle by diversifying, in 2017 Alex and his father Henry opened Slane Distillery in the horse stables. Their whisky utilizes home-grown barley and water from the River Boyne, and has already garnered notoriety in Ireland.

The horse stable-turned-distillery served as a VIP area during the Metallica show—the last concert of late, due to the pandemic—and also brings the castle back to its historic roots when stonemasons, carpenters, farmers, and stable hands worked the grounds.

“In more recent times we don’t have a high demand for farm labor,” says Alex. “But what’s been lovely about the distillery project is that once again we’re employing people in the old stables and farmhouse buildings. We’re once again a significant local employer. So it’s kind of come full circle.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She misses live concerts. Luckily, she has lots of whisky.