Hill of Tara
The Hill of Tara is a low-lying ridge located between Navan and Dunshaughlin in Co. Meath. It is said that a quarter of the landscape of Ireland can be seen from the hill. Tara gets its name from Teamhair na Rí meaning ‘sanctuary of the Kings.' It is important as the traditional inauguration site of the ancient High Kings of Ireland. Although few of its monuments survived the test of time, it is an evocative place, much celebrated in Irish myth and legend.
The mythology of Tara
Tara is most synonymous in myth as the residence of the High King of Ireland (although the archaeology suggests there were no permanent residences on the hill). The legend of Conn of the Hundred Battles illustrates the importance of Tara and tells us how the Kingship of Ireland was granted by the otherworld.
Conn, his druids and his fili (poet seers), in their efforts to protect Ireland from the people of the otherworld mounted the ramparts at Tara. He stepped on a stone that let out several loud cries. Each cry represented a descendant of Conn's that would be High King. He had stood on the Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, said to cry out when a true King entered Tara. Conn was granted Tara by Lug, the good god. Lug instructed the beautiful goddess Medhbh, whom he proclaimed was “the Sovereignty of Ireland,” to serve Conn a drink of ale from her vat. Lug then instructed her to offer each of Conn's successors a drink from her vat until the Day of Judgement.
The archaeology of Tara
Tara was an important site long before the High Kings. A passage tomb known as Dumha na nGiall (meaning ‘the mound of the hostages') is the oldest visible monument and dates from around 3,000 BC. However, Tara became truly significant in the Iron Age (600 BC to 400 AD) and into the Early Christian Period. In 433 St. Patrick, on the nearby Hill of Slane, lit the Paschal fire in defiance of the Pagan King of Tara. Tara was the royal centre of Mide (meaning ‘the middle kingdom'), the fifth province of ancient Ireland. It incorporated the present Co. Meath and what is now Westmeath and large parts of Cavan and Longford. One of the most interesting monuments at Tara is the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny), which is a standing stone located within an area known as the Forrad (The Royal Seat). This was the inauguration stone of the Kings of Tara. According to tradition, when a true Irish or Scottish King placed a foot on Lia Fáil it cried out to announce his rightful reign.
Tara was finally abandoned, in 1022, by the then High King of Ireland Mael Shechlainn. However the hill has always retained its importance to the Irish identity. During the 1798 rebellion the United Irishmen in County Meath chose Tara as their rallying point, before they were heavily defeated by government forces. In 1843 an estimated one million people gathered there to hear Daniel ‘The Liberator' O'Connell speak against the Union of Great Britain and Ireland.
A group of calling themselves the British Israelites conducted a series of amateur excavations at Rath na Seanadh (The Rath of Synods) between 1899 and 1902. They believed the Ark of the Covenant was buried there, based on myths connecting the Bible, Egypt and Ireland. In 1902, in a letter to the Editor of The Times, Tara was described by Douglas Hyde, George Moore and William Butler Yeats, key figures in the Gaelic Revival, as ‘the most consecrated spot in Ireland. Eventually the digs were stopped, but not before significant damage was done. These myths were probably designed by the early Irish monks to draw connections between the Bible and the prehistory of Ireland.
Listen to some wonderful audio on the Hill of Tara - part of the Boyne Valley Drive:
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