A LOOK BACK
Introduction to “The Book of Tara” by Michael Slavin
Tara’s story is Ireland’s story. Tara’s symbols are Ireland’s symbols – the harp, the shamrock, the ancient gold. Prominent in our oldest myths and legends, the Hill has been at the centre of things Irish since the earliest times. In some mysterious way, Tara touches the very soul of Ireland. While its regal and heroic identity hark back to a legendary time long gone by, as a symbol Tara has survived right up to the present. Thus down the centuries great lovers of this land -like the United Irishmen of 1798, or Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator – have used Tara’s grassy banks as a backdrop for their dreams and their messages.
Tara’s fame extends far beyond our island shores. Every year thousands of infants around the world are given its distinctively female name. And at the same time, ranches, farms, ships and firms are called after it. One of the most famous mansions in cinematic history is Tara in Gone with the Wind.
Thanks to the Office of Public Works’ Discovery Programme, initiated in the early 1990s, Tara has been subject to closer scientific scrutiny than ever before. Along with recent historical studies, this research clearly highlights the imaginative rather than factual content of the legends surrounding Tara. Many of the stories which have proliferated around this sacred hill are not historically verifiable. Yet at the same time, Tara’s deeply ingrained popular and literary tradition is too colourful, entertaining and culturally important to be disregarded. In my telling of Tara’s story I have attempted to trace that tradition through the invasions legends, the romantic and heroic sagas associated with the hill, and what there is of written history.
Despite my enthusiastic love for this wonderful place, I have tried to be objective, taking recent academic discoveries into account. In some instances where the evidence is clear, I’ve had to let the critical historians hold sway. But where there is still overwhelming doubt about what did or did not happen here, I felt Tara and its legends deserved the benefit of that doubt.
Above all else, I have tried to portray Tara as a spiritual place. For, in the long run, it is not exclusively the domain of historians, archaeologists or scientists. It is also a place for dreamers, storytellers and mystics. I invite you to join me there.
The Hill of Tara
SONG OF TARA
There is a hill in this fair land, it was never owned and never can,
And from its prow, the eye can see, the very ends of Inishfree,
Here once stood the Royal Seat, and here once trod the Fianna feet,
Silent now but not forlorn, for this is still the Ard Riogh’s home,
Grainne, Cormac, Fionn, it was here they loved and lost and won,
Their secrets lie ‘neath Tara’s soil, known only to the Lia Fail.
WELCOME TO TARA
As you walk this historic hill called Tara, it is well to keep in mind that it is:
A Royal Place
In pre- history and in historic times 142 Kings are said to have reigned in the Name of Tara. The coronation stone called The Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny has Rested here down the ages. And it was here that the most powerful of Irish Kings held their great inaugural feasts and were approved by Earth Mother Goddess Maeve.
A Sacred Place
In ancient Irish religion and mythology Tara was revered as a dwelling of the gods and an entrance place to the Otherworld of eternal joy and plenty where no mortal ever grew old. In the legends of St. Carved Stone Inside Mound of the Hostages Patrick’s mission to Ireland he is said to have first come to Tara in order to confront the ancient religion in its most powerful site.
A Celtic Place
Tara is one of the largest complexes of Celtic monuments in all of Europe. In reading its landscape we are transported back in time to when the first settlers came here 6,000 years ago. They and the Celts who followed them choose Tara as a very special site. Join me as we walk the hill and talk of its landscape, its history, and its legends.
Tara is now Government owned. Entry to its 100 acres is free through the swinging gate at the north end of the parking area. But it was not always free – by a unique concession, previous private owners of the hill had the right to collect six old pence at the gate right up until the 1970’s. The only other site in Ireland that had this special right specified in its deeds was the royal seat of Munster at Cashel, Co. Tipperary.
One nineteenth century owner of Tara was British Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who inherited the hill as part of his Irish estates in 1839. His southern part of the hill became the property of the state in 1952. The government then bought the northern 50 acres in 1974. On the pathway toward the Church Yard you get the first sense of the magnificent view that Tara affords. Although little over 500ft (155m) in height, Tara still commands the surrounding countryside. One origin of Tara’s name is Teamhair, “place of great prospect”. On a clear day it is claimed that features can be seen from Tara in half the counties of Ireland.
From this eastern side of the hill the view reaches all the way to the Mountains of Mourne in the north east. Somewhat closer in the same direction is the Hill of Slane where St. Patrick is said to have lit his Pascal fire prior to making his way to Tara in the year 433 A.D. To the east can be seen The Hill of Skryne where Saint Columcille founded a monastery in the sixth century. Tara’s unique prominence on the landscape results from it being a ridge of shale which over millions of years did not decompose so quickly as the limestone plain.
2. THE CHURCH AND CHURCHYARD
Here ancient Celtic Tara and Tara of the Christian era meet. The present church building and churchyard wall date from 1822. There were two previous churches here on the hill – the first one was built in the early 13th century. A much larger church succeeded it. Part of this second church’s outer wall can be seen near the top of the steps in the churchyard. The earliest grave stones here date from the seventeenth century. A memorial stone of the local Dillan family in the church itself is dated 1595.
The present church building was deconsecrated in May 1991 when it became the property of the Board of Works. However, once a year it reverts to its previous use for a service on St. Patrick’s Day. The church now houses an interpretative centre. A sound and picture presentation on Tara’s story is given two or three times an hour during the tourist season. Staff at the centre conduct guided tours of the hill. In the church yard contact is made with ancient Celtic monuments of Tara. To the right at the top of the stairs there are two stones – remnants of a time when there were many stone monuments on Tara.
The taller of these two remaining stones is thought to feature a figure of the celtic fertility god Cernunnos. However, in the early histories it was noted that on this section of the hill there once stood a monument called The Cross of Adamnan commemorating a seventh century saint who called a church synod at Tara to enact laws that gave greater rights to women. The ancient documents about Tara named many standing stones on this section of the hill – Dall, Dorcha, Maol, Bloc and Bluicna. Could the smaller stone be one of these monuments going back thousands of years on the hill?
These two ancient stones also recall the legend that candidates for the High Kingship of Tara had to drive their chariots toward two sacred stones standing closely together. They remained closed for the non-accepted candidate and opened a path only for the rightful king.
3. ON THE HILL
Another swinging gate at the south west corner of the church yard leads to the open spaces of the Hill. Here you can take your bearing to the main monuments. To your immediate right as you go out the gate is the Rath of the Synods; in front of you is the Mound of the Hostages; further to the south and to your left are the two royal mounds – the Kings Seat (on which stands the coronation stone of Tara) and King Cormac’s House.
Surrounding the Mound of the Hostages, the Kings Seat and Cormac’s House is the outer bank and ditch that encloses the 16 acres that make up The Rath of the Kings – Rath na Riogh. Part of this outer ditch was recently excavated and it proved to be a huge earthworks – seven feet wide at the top and gauged 11 deep into solid black rock. The ditch had a bank on the outside rising to six feet and it had a large wooden palisade on the inside. This circular bank and ditch dates from before the time of Christ. It was sacred rather than defensive in nature and intended to keep the good spirits in Tara and the bad spirits away from Tara.
The Golden Torques of Tara
In 1810, near where the church wall now bisects the Mound of the Synods, the magnificent Golden Torques of Tara were found. Initially it is thought there were three of them but now two remain and are preserved at the National Museum on Kildare Street, Dublin.
4. THE RATH OF THE SYNODS
The now rather scattered mounds to the right of the swinging gate as you enter on to the hill were once symmetrical concentric circles. These were the remains of a section of Tara that from about 200 B.C. up until 700 A.D. had a number of round wooden buildings on it. Perhaps it could well have been the site of some of the great triennial festivals held at Tara in pre-Christian times. For festivals like these, the Celts were known to have built large circular buildings from wood, wattle and thatch. They were sometimes burned down at the conclusion of festivities.
Very early in the 20th century a group of devout Israelites came to Tara with the conviction that the Ark of the Covenant was buried in this very spot. For several days they dug up the Mound of the Synods in search of the Ark but found only some Roman coins. However, their disturbance of the mounds is still very evident. In the 1950’s there was an official excavation conducted here. Many circles of post holes were found, indicating that substantial buildings were constructed here. Evidence of smelting, Roman artefacts and other materials pointing to contact between Tara and the Continent were also found.
The mound gets its name from three church meetings of abbots and bishops that are said to have taken place here at Tara after the time of St. Patrick. The last was called by Adamnan in 697 A.D.
5. THE MOUND OF THE HOSTAGES
This ancient ritual and burial mound is the oldest visible monument on the Hill, dating back to about 2,500 B.C. Just inside the entrance to the left can be seen the engraved stone. Its symbols relate to the sacred Celtic festivals and are thought to have images of the sun, moon and stars. They may have had an even deeper religious meaning than that to the person or persons who chiselled them thousands of years ago.
The name Mound of the Hostages derives from the custom of over- kings like those at Tara retaining important personages from subject kingdoms to ensure their submission.
One of the legendary kings of Tara was named Niall of the Nine Hostages in recognition of the fact that he retained hostages from all the provinces of Ireland and from Britain – one each from the central kingdom of Meath and the other four provinces of Ireland plus four from Britain. Niall is the founding ancestor of the O’Neill dynasty that had 28 kings rule in the name of Tara between 400 and 1022 A.D. Extensive excavations were carried out at the Mound of the Hostages between 1955 and 1959.
It was found to contain more than 200 cremated or inhumed burials. Some of the cremated remains were placed under upturned earthenware urns along with burial gifts. Different types of urns relating to the burial customs of the peoples that successively inhabited the area around Tara between 2,000 and 500 B.C. were found in stone cysts created around the edges of this mound.
Professor Ruaidhrí de Valera then wrote “the mound yielded the most comprehensive series of grave goods yet available from any example in Ireland.”
Also found in the mound was the skeleton from the Bronze Age inhumed burial of a fourteen year-old boy. Around his neck were the beads of a very decorative necklace made from bronze, amber, jet and faience. This young man must have been a person of great importance.
Recent archaeology investigations by the Discovery Programme at Tara have revealed the underground presence of a huge henge circle which some 5,000 years ago encompassed the whole top of the hill.
It appears to have been a wide three meter trench with rows of large posts erected at a distance of one meter on either side of it – if reconstructed now it would be a very imposing monument that would bear a resemblance to that of Stonehenge.
6. THE KINGS SEAT (FORRADH)
The more westerly if the two conjoining circular mounds at the centre of Rath na Riogh is called the Kings Seat. Indicating its prime importance, it has two outer banks and ditches rather than a single one as with the other circular mound beside it. The King’s Seat dates from the early centuries A.D. and it was built over a number of older mounds. In the legends, it is stated that under it is a grave of the Spanish princess Tea. She wished to be buried on the fairest hill in Ireland and her husband, Milesian leader Erimon choose Tara. One derivation of the name Tara is releated to this legand – Temair or The Wall of Tea.
Atop the King’s Seat in ancient times there could have stood a circular house. The old Irish name for the mound is Forradh or place of judgement. This could also have been the sacred sit set aside for the inauguration of kings. For 100 years a cement statue of St. Patrick stood on this mound. It fell into disrepair and was removed by the Office of Public Works in 1922. In March 2000, local people saw to it that a new marble representation of Patrick was erected on the hill where he is said to have confronted the High King Laoghaire.
Also atop the Royal Seat stands the most famous of Tara’s monuments – Ireland’s ancient coronation stone – The Lia Fail or Stone of Destiny. Brought here by the godly people, the DeDananns as one of their sacred objects, it was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara. The Lia Fail was formerly sited just north of the Mound of the Hostages. However, after the battle of Tara in the United Irishmen revolution of 1798 it was moved to its present spot to mark the graves of some 400 rebels who fell here during the fight along this ridge. It shares the site with a headstone erected here in 1938.
Some think that the true Stone of Destiny was formerly the Pillow of Jacob from the OId Testament. They also claim that it was flat and that it was moved from Tara by King Fergus of Scotland and was named the Stone of Scone which then became the coronation stone of British Kings at Westminster Cathedral. It was lately moved back to Scotland. However, most historians accept that the present upright granite pillar is the true Stone of Destiny.
7. CORMAC’S HOUSE
The royal name most associated with Tara is that of King Cormac Mac Airt. Topping his mound at one time would have been an oblong building made of large posts, wattle and thatch. It bears the name Cormac’s House.
Cormac’s reign is said to have lasted some 40 years between 220 A.D. and 260 A.D. His time coincides with the legends of the great Finn Mac Cool and his warrior band the Fianna.
In the written accounts this king hovers between legend and history; between deity and humanity. His reign was termed “a golden age of plenty”. One description of him drawn from oral tradition and written in a 10th century poem said, “When Cormac was in Tara, a kingly equal of his was not to be found in all the world.”
Cormac is credited with composing the ancient Brehan Laws of Ireland. He is also said to have established the first water-driven mill in Ireland. It was on the river Gowra that flows out of a well on the south east corner of the hill and was created for use by Cormac’s lover Cernaith.
8. THE WEST SIDE OF TARA
As you go from the royal sites at the centre of the hilltop to the wooded area on the north west side of the ridge there are a number of other features hat should be noted.
Half way down the southern slope lies the remains of another large circular mound called Rath Laoghaire. It is named after the King who was at Tara when St. Patrick came here in 433 A.D. Laoghaire died in a battle with the Lenistermen as he attempted to impose a tax on them. He is said to be buried at the centre of his mound, standing upright and with a sword in hand also that his enemies would never know he was dead.
In the farm below this spot is small triangular field called Fooden or Little Sod – one of the smallest townlands in all of Ireland. It contains one of the most beautiful of Tara’s six wells – The Calf Well. The field also had an ancient mound called Cormac’s Kitchen.
9. THE SLOPING TRENCHES AND RATH GRAINNE
Beside the oak and chestnut wood on the north west rim of Tara are three more important circular monuments – the two Cloenfhearta or Sloping Trenches and Rath Grainne. All are thought to be burial mounds but they also have mystical legends associated with them. This part of the hill is called An Grianan, or the Women’s Sunny Place.
The two large Sloping Trenches are positioned on a steep slope. In the legends it is stated that they slid down the hill. The more southern of the two was said to have shifted after the Leinster King Dunlaing attacked Tara in 222 A.D. and, when the High King was away, massacred a great number of the maidens of Tara. This gives rise to the theory that at one time there was a school of vestal virgins here at Tara.
The northern Sloping Trench is said to have slid down hill when a king at Tara Lugaid Mac Conn gave a false judgement. The judgement concerned the compensation that a woman should get when without her permission another woman’s sheep grazed her lands. Lugaid said she should get the sheep. Cormac Mac Airt said that she should only get the wool since both the grass and the wool would grow again. Cormac’s was the true judgement and he became king.
Just north of the Cloenfherta is Rath Grainne named for a princess of Tara, who fled Tara with her beloved Dermot rather than take part in a fixed marriage with Finn Mac Cool, who was old enough to be her father. Their poignant love story is a classic in celtic literature.
Just west of these three monuments there is a lovely walking area through the wood.
10. THE BANQUETING HALL
Between Rath Grainne and the entrance you cross a long rectangular monument named The Banqueting Hall. Up until recently it was thought that this was the site of the great hall mentioned in the legends related to the triennial festival feasts at Tara.
The Banqueting Hall was described in The Book of Leinster as being three hundred feet in measurement and that it had 150 sections with 50 heroes in each. Great detail was also given as to the portion of food that should be given to each category of guest.
However, it is now thought that the Festival of Tara to which the kings and princess of Ireland came was held in a more temporary structure somewhere else on the hill and that this monument is indeed the ceremonial entrance to Tara.
The legends also note that the five great roads of Ireland had their junction here at Tara: The Asail Way to the north west; The Great Way to the west that divided Ireland into two; The Dhala Way to the south west; The Cualann Wayto the south by Dublin and Wicklow Mountains; The Mhidh-luachra Way to the north and Ulster all fanned out from here at Tara.