Tara (Co. Meath)
Tara is an area of archaeological and historical importance around the Hill of Tara, located near the River Boyne. Many of the ancient sites scattered across the local landscape can best be appreciated from the air.
The Hill of Tara (Cnoc na Teamhrach / Teamhair / Teamhair na Rí, deriving from Old Irish for “[Royal] place with a view”), rising 93m / 300ft above the surrounding countryside, is not an impressive mountain, but on a clear day the summit commands panoramic vistas over a quarter of Ireland. (Photo – www.mythicalireland.com)
This may be one reason why prehistoric rulers chose Tara to erect a significant number of circular raths / ringforts and other monuments, some now only apparent from the sky. Archaeological excavations have also revealed circles of post holes, indicating the construction of substantial wooden buildings.
Trying to understand what these ancient sites were for is complicated by the sheer weight of myth, legend and folklore shrouding them, to the extent that they bear fanciful names which have almost as little to do with reality as some of the truly bonkers theories put forward by cranks, crackpots and nuts from all over the world.
By far the oldest hilltop monument is a small Stone Age passage tomb constructed around 3,400 BC, inaccurately known as Dumha na nGiall / the Mound of the Hostages on the unfounded supposition that it was used by the ferocious Niall Noígíallach / of the Nine Hostages (c. 365 – c.405 AD) to hold his victims. (Excavations have found cremated human bones and Roman coins). The prominence of this monolith and the carvings on a stone at its entrance may have inspired later rulers to regard the site as sacred.
The tomb lies within the much later Iron Age ditch / bank surrounding the Ráith na Ríogh (“Fort of the Kings”) / Royal Enclosure, measuring 318m /1,043 ft north-south by 264 m / 866 ft east-west.
The most prominent earthworks within these boundaries are the linked bivallete ring barrow called the Forradh / Royal Seat and the bivallate ringfort known as Teach Chormaic (“Cormac’s House”), named for Cormac MacAirt, a semi-legendary ruler whose reign (218 – 254 AD) was supposedly the zenith of pre-Christian Irish civilization, with Tara as a sort of Gaelic Camelot, allegedly one of the wonders of Europe, right up there with Athens, Rome and the like.
Not very surprisingly, no trace has been found of the grave of Queen Tea / Tea Tiphi, daughter of Zedekiah, last king of Judah, and second wife of Heremon, son of Milesius, the mythical Iberian founder of the Gaels. Heremon is supposed to have built a palace in her honour on the hill, said by some C19th etymologists to have derived its name (Teamur / Teamhair) from her; according to folklore, she was buried “between the Foradh and the Royal Enclosure“.
The Lia Fáil
In the middle of the Forradh is a priapic Standing Stone, believed to be the Lia Fáil (“Stone of Destiny”) at which the High Kings were crowned. According to legend, when touched by the rightful Ard Rí the stone would emit a roar / screech (or three) that could be heard all over Ireland. (Photo by murphman61)
Although it looks like a fertility symbol, some say the Lia Fáil was the Pillow of Jacob mentioned in the Old Testament, brought here by the mystical Tuatha Dé Danann.
Some claim that the real Stone of Destiny was moved from Tara by King Fergus of Scotland and renamed the Stone of Scone, which then became the coronation stone of British monarchs at Westminster Abbey until returned to Scotland by John Major’s government in 1996. Many historians accept that the present granite pillar at Tara is the true Stone of Destiny, but a number of people still contend that the Stone of Scone is in fact the real thing.
Formerly located just north of the Mound of the Hostages, the Stone was moved to its current site c.1824 to commemorate the insurgents killed on the hill by British soldiers during the 1798 Rebellion.
Teach Miodhchuarta / the Banqueting Hall is a long, narrow rectangular feature, about 250m long and 30m wide. This was long believed to have been a single immense hall, the site of a feast held every three years. These were said to be “phenomenal events, at which 1000 people celebrated for a week. Princes, poets, athletes and priests ate goose, mallard, venison, oxen and boar, and the higher their rank, the better they ate, The royal family and nobles gorged on ribs of beef; the druids and soothsayers ate the shins; the historians fed on the haunches, the musicians on shoulder of pork; and the jesters ate shoulder fat. It took ‘thrice fifty steaming cooks’ to prepare the meals, and 300 men to serve them“. Alas for such fantasies, the site is now thought by archaeologists to have been a ceremonial avenue or Neolithic cursus monument.
Ráith na Seanadh / the Rath of the Synods is a ringfort with three banks just to the north of Ráith na Riogh, named as the venue for meetings between Christian and pagan holy folk. The first confrontation reportedly took place in 433 AD, after Saint Patrick lit an Easter / Paschal Flame on the nearby Hill of Slane in blatant breach of a prohibition of beacon fires. Summoned by king Laoghaire mac Neill (d. c.462 AD) to explain his action, the saint apparently made such a good impression that he was allowed to go free and preach Christianity, although the ruler said he himself was too old to change. Excavations here have produced C1st – C3rd Roman artefacts and coins.
The Sloping Trenches and Gráinne’s Fort are three circular earthworks which may have been built too close to the steep slope and subsequently slipped. The third and last is named after Cormac’s daughter Grainne; romantic accounts of her flight from Tara with her lover Diarmuid and their subsequent wanderings have long been amongst the most popular Irish legends.
Ráith Laoghaire / Laoghaire’s Fort, a ringfort to the south of the Ráith na Riogh, is where the last pagan king of Ireland is said to have been buried in an upright position.
Rath Maeve, another hill fort a mile south of the Hill of Tara, is the fort of either the legendary Queen Maebh of Connacht, or the less well known Medb Lethderg, usually associated with Tara.
Tara – the Truth?
Attempts to work out the truth behind the enigmas of Tara have been made for centuries, far too often by pseudo-historians with their own political or religious agendas and without reference to archaeological evidence.
The popular nationalist version represents the Hill of Tara as Ireland’s political and spiritual capital from the time of the first Celtic influences c.600 BC, and the seat of the Ard Ri / High King of Ireland until the C6th AD, which despite losing its splendour after the spread of Christianity, continued in ceremonial use for 600 more years until the coming of the evil Norman invaders.
This heady heritage of hearsay, legend and patriotic fantasy was expressed memorably by Thomas Moore (1779 – 1852): The harp that once through Tara’s halls / The soul of music shed, / Now hangs as mute on Tara’s walls / As if that soul were fled. / So sleeps the pride of former days, / So glory’s thrill is o’er; /And hearts, that once beat high for praise, /Now feel that pulse no more. / No more to chiefs and ladies bright/ The harp of Tara’ swells; / The chord alone that breaks at night / Its tale of ruin tells: / Thus freedom now so seldom wakes; / The only throb she gives/ Is when some heart indignant breaks / To show that she still lives!
Early antiquarian investigations included an extraordinarily destructive dig by the British Israelites, an influential group in the first years of the C20th (members included King George V and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). They believed that the inhabitants of the British Isles were the Lost Tribe of Israel, and that the Ark of the Covenant was buried on the famous hill, but sadly failed to unearth it. (A modern anti-Semitic organisation holds that “the Jews” buried “their secret hoard of treasure” beneath the summit of Croagh Patrick!). Other theorists have suggested that Tara was the ancient capital of the lost kingdom of Atlantis, or a sort of Celtic pyramid, or a landing site for extra-terrestrials, or a communication point between alternative universes, or a laboratory run by pan-galactic multi-dimensional entities, and so on and so forth.
Scholarly disputes over Tara’s initial importance advanced as archaeologists identified pre-Celtic monuments and buildings dating back to the Neolithic period around 5,000 years ago.
One of these structures, the so-called Mound of the Hostages, has a short passage which has been shown to be aligned with sunset on the true astronomical cross-quarter days of 8th November and 4th February, the ancient Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc. As pointed out by Martin Brennan, in The Stones of Time, the daily changes in the position of a 4m-long sunbeam are more than adequate to determine specific dates.
So the significance of the Hill of Tara clearly predates Celtic times, although it has not been shown that Tara was continuously important from the Neolithic to the C12th, nor that the same reasons always applied (the later Celts may have known nothing of the astronomical significance of the mound).
Certainly the earliest records attest that High Kings were inaugurated at Tara, and the Seanchas Mor legal text (written down after 600AD) specified that they had to drink ale and symbolically marry the goddess Maeve / Medb to be invested with the high-kingship.
One theory is that the Hill of Tara was originally the capital of the pre-Gaelic Tuatha Dé Danann, and later became the place from which the kings of Mide / Meath ruled. There is much debate among historians as to how far the their influence spread; it may have been as little as the middle of Ireland, or may have been all the northern half.
Although not clearly demonstrated, it may be that whoever ruled Tara was termed Ard Rí / High King, claiming supremacy over all Ireland’s other kings; but giving the claim reality was quite another thing. Many modern historians doubt the real importance of these titular monarchs, some arguing that the concept itself is mostly mythical. Others claim that, despite the rich narratives derived from legend and folklore, Tara was not so much a true seat of kingship a a sacral site associated with certain royal rituals. In any event, what is clear is that real political high kingship of the whole island was only established to any effective degree in the C11th.
Tara has no trace of large defensive works. The central part of the site could not have housed a large permanent retinue, suggesting that it was used as an occasional meeting place. It is undoubtedly significant that all five ancient roads of Ireland converged at Tara.
Currently, the most widely held view is that Tara was a place of symbolic importance, used for at least some of its history as a venue for regular annual or triennial assemblies attended by representatives from far and wide, at which athletic competitions were run, music was played, poetry was recited, learned discussions and legal debates were conducted, judgments were handed down, laws were pronounced, religious ceremonies were held, food and drink were taken and a good time was had by all (except possible sacrificial victims).
However, several researchers suggest that the real story of the Hill of Tara and the wider area around it has yet to be understood.
During the 1798 Rebellion, a large number of insurgents camped on the hill were attacked and defeated by British troops in the Battle of Tara on 26th May 1798. The Lia Fáil was moved to mark the graves of those killed.
In 1843 over 750,000 people gathered with banners and symbols on the Hill of Tara to hear Daniel O’ Connell speak in favour of repealing the Act of Union.
A late C19th statue of Saint Patrick commemorates his visit.
The Visitor Centre, housed in the former St Patrick’s church (CoI) on the Hill of Tara itself, is well worth dropping into before touring the ancient sites, in order to watch an audio-visual presentation that provides a context for what there is to be seen.
The Hill, best enjoyed outside peak times, is also a good place for plant and animal spotting. Mystical experiences may be anticipated by those who like that sort of thing.
Boots are essential, as there are no proper paths, and visitors will sometimes have to scramble through the ditches at the mercy of slippery grass and sheep droppings. Warm clothing and rain gear are recommended.
The shop / tea-room next to the car park has plenty of literature on Tara and Irish mythology, and serves very good snacks at reasonable prices.
The M3 motorway, opened in June 2010, passes through the Gabhra / Tara-Skryne Valley, as does the already existing N3 road, now relabelled the N147. The distance between the motorway and the Hill is 2.2 km. Protesters, ranging from tree-hugging grungies and burrow-dwelling perroflautas to elderly clergyfolk, lawyers and television personalities, argue that since the Tara Discovery Programme started in 1992, there is an appreciation that the Hill of Tara is just the central complex of a wider landscape, and claim that an alternative route approximately 6 km west of the hill would be straighter, cheaper and less destructive.
On Sunday 23rd September 2007 over 1500 people, including actors Stuart Townsend and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, met on the hill of Tara to take part in a human sculpture representing a harp and spelling out the words “SAVE TARA VALLEY” as a call for the re-routing of the M3.
The Hill of Tara was on the World Monuments Fund’s 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world, and in 2009 it was included by the Smithsonian Institution in a list of the 15 must-see endangered cultural treasures in the world.
Tara Hall, on the north side of the Hill of Tara, was the birthplace of the widow of Edward “Ned” Brabazon, 4th Earl of Meath (d.1707), Dorothea (née Stopford), whose subsequently marriage to General Richard Gorges was satirized by Jonathan Swift in his humorous epitaph Dicky & Dolly. The last descendant to own the much reduced estate was the renowned aviator and WWI flying ace John Moore-Brabazon (1884-1964), ennobled as Baron Brabazon of Tara in 1942. The first Englishman to pilot a heavier-than-air machine under power in Britain, he became a Conservative politician and served as the UK’s Minister of Transport and Minister of Aircraft Production during WWII. He had the roof of the old mansion removed in 1956 and subsequently sold the property.