Monday, February 17, 2014

Teamhair na Rí - Tara of the Kings

by Arthur Russell

“Sneer not at the Irishman’s veneration for this spot. The history of its long faded glories is still preserved; the memories of Tara have remained a silver thread in the garment of sackcloth he has worn for centuries”

Quote from ‘Beauties and Antiquities of the Boyne’ by William R Wilde [Oscar’s father]; written during the late 19th century.

Tara is one of the most famous of all of Ireland’s ancient historic sites. Its name has travelled across the world, and can now be found applied to homes and farms built by the Irish Diaspora as they established themselves in their newly adopted countries. (Think of the home of Gerald and Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’). The old name is also a favourite name for many girls, and not just those of Irish parentage or descent.

Tara is located on the southern side of the River Boyne near Navan, the capital town of County Meath. It is a low hill that elsewhere might not merit a second glance; but in the middle of a broad plain affords a spectacular view over much of Central Ireland. It was probably this strategic feature of the hill that attracted the early tribes who lived in that part of Ireland, and caused them to establish Tara Hill as a vantage point, from where they could rule the central Kingdom of Meath, (this name derives from the Gaelic for ‘Middle Kingdom’); which covered the vast Central Plain of Ireland as far as the River Shannon. Archaeologists have established that human activity on Tara goes back to the Neolithic era; about five and a half thousand years ago. It is thought that the first human usage of Tara was as a burial site.

A Royal Palace

The island of Ireland had four more locations from where its ancient kings ruled.

- The northern province of Ulster was ruled from Eamhain Mhaca near Armagh.

- The western province of Connacht was ruled from Cruachan, just west of the River Shannon.

- Munster in the southwest was ruled from the huge rocky outcrop on which the royal palace of Cashel and subsequent Ecclesiastical buildings were built.

- Leinster in the Southeast was ruled from another hill on which Dún Ailainne (The Beautiful Fort) was built.

Note – Ireland’s capital city of Dublin was much later founded as a strategic trading port by the sea-faring Vikings in the 9th century AD. It did not assume importance until after the Norman Invasion in 1169, when they made it the capital of the territories occupied by them.

What marked Tara apart from the other 4 royal strongholds was that the ruler of the central Kingship of Meath came to be considered Ard-Rí or High King of all Ireland. As Ard-Rí he could, in theory at least; demand the fealty of the other Provincial kings; provided always that he was strong enough to militarily do so. It was inevitable that the High Kingship became a much disputed title among the ruling families, and many battles were fought over the centuries to defend or challenge the position.

Tara’s history gives it a significance and uniqueness, which many consider still makes it the symbolic capital of Ireland.

“Standing at the top or southern extremity of this remain, and bearing in mind the various prose and bardic histories of the Irish annalists, one cannot help reverting to ancient heroic times, and again, in imagination, peopling it with its early occupants. Here sat in days of yore, kings with golden crowns upon their heads; warriors with brazen swords in their hands; bards and minstrels with their harps; grey bearded ollamhs; druids with their oak leaf crowns”. (William R Wilde)

Notable Ard-Ríthe (High Kings)

Among the 142 holders of the title, over two millenia were two pre-Christian Ard-Ríthe, Cormac Mac Art and Niall of the Nine Hostages.

The former ruled during the fourth century AD, and is considered to have been Tara’s and pre-Christian Ireland’s wisest and most able administrator. He was responsible for introducing many enlightened legal concepts that governed early Irish Society, including some legislating for gender equality that were not accepted in Europe until the 20th century.

The latter (Ard-Rí Niall - the 115th in the line of Tara kings) is widely considered to have been the strongest and most militarily successful Ard-Rí of all. He even led raids on the west coast of post Roman Britain and was responsible for the raid that saw the teenage boy Patrick taken from his home to become a slave tending sheep on an Irish mountainside where Patrick nurtured the vocation that resulted in the ultimate peaceful conversion of the Irish to Christianity during the 5th century.

One story associated with the beginning of Patrick’s Mission, was his first visit to the Ard-Rí’s court at Tara, to defend himself against the charge of breaking an age-old sanction after he had lit the Easter Eve or Paschal fire on the nearby hill of Slane celebrating Easter of 432 AD; which clashed with the Druidic Feast of the Flames which ordained that the Ard-Rí should be the first to light any fire in the land on that night. The legend tells of Patrick’s defence of his action and his explanation of the Divine Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost); when he plucked a shamrock from the grass in front of him and used its trifoliate form to illustrate the three persons of the Trinity.

From this the shamrock emerged as an enduring symbol of Ireland and the Irish.

The reigning Ard-Rí Laoghaire (Niall’s son), was so impressed with the foreigner and his religion, he not only forgave Patrick his ‘fire offence’ of the previous evening on the Hill of Slane, but gave him leave to preach the Christian Gospel throughout his realm. Tara provided an ideal starting point for Patrick’s mission, being the hub from where five major roads radiated throughout Ireland.

The story of Ireland’s rapid Christianisation during Patrick’s lifetime (he died in 461AD) is subject of popular legends.

Niall – Father of the Irish

Ard-Rí Laoghaire lived and died true to the ancient religion of his ancestors, saying that he had to remain true to the religion of his famous father who would not have approved of his conversion to the new faith.

It is of interest to note that genealogical studies broadly agree that many Irish families can now trace their DNA to the charismatic Niall of the Nine Hostages. There was obviously a lot more to the man than his military prowess!

Lia Fáil – The Stone of Destiny

This is located in the centre of the Forrad, the higher of two conjoined earthworks on the hill, which are situated inside The Royal Enclosure. This stone was reputed to shout when the true King laid his hand on it. This derives from the legend of the inauguration of King Conaire when his chariot touched the stone, causing it to screech his name to the assembly. Archaeologists believe Lia Fáil is a fertility symbol and is now a favoured place for engaged and newly married couples to pose for photographs.

Tara Abandoned

Tara fell into disuse in the 9th century arising from a dispute between secular and ecclesiastical authorities which caused the ancient site to be abandoned in favour of a royal site (Uishneach) further west, which was closer to the geographic centre of the Kingdom of Meath.

The old, mainly wooden palatial structures as well as their fortifications, which were made of earthen banks topped with timber palisades; soon disintegrated, leaving only the mounds and banks to indicate where “Tara’s Halls” once stood. All that was left of the once proud royal site was a series of grass covered earthen banks, most of which have survived to this day. These convey some idea of what life was like for the 142 kings who ruled from Tara over two millennia. They include a number of royal enclosures, where it is supposed the royal court presided and the king’s family lived (Cormac’s Seat and the Royal Enclosure).

Near the entrance to the royal site are two long parallel earthen banks that mark the location of the huge Banqueting Hall which features in many stories and legends from the glory days of Tara. Possibly the most significant structure that endures almost intact, is the Mound of the Hostages which contains a short passage tomb, where it is presumed many of those who were sent by their tribes as token of their loyalty to the Ard-Rí; were buried after living as captives for many years of their lives.

Elsewhere on the hill are structures that bear such evocative names as – Grainne’s Rath, Rath of the Synods, Laoghaire’s Rath, Maeve’s Rath, Rath Lugh.

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 still she lives.
 Thomas Moore (1779-1852) 

The Mythical Power of Tara

Despite its abandonment, Tara continued, and still continues to exert a certain power on Ireland and the Irish as “the real mythical capital” based on the wealth of legends and stories for which it provided focus. These include a treasure trove of stories of Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna (the name of Fionn’s army was adopted by the Nationalist rebel Fenians in the mid 19th century).

Others include the story of Oisín (Oscar) who went with the fairy queen to Tír na nÓg (Land of Youth), dwelling there for 300 years before returning to a much changed Ireland where Christianity had replaced the old religion.

Tara also provided the backdrop to the tragic love-story and elopement of Grainne and Diarmaid (Dermot).


The North Leinster United Irishmen, who sought to establish an all Ireland Republic based on the model being promoted by the French Revolution, chose the ancient hill to make their last stand against Government forces on May 26th 1798. Here four hundred so-called “Croppies” were slaughtered and were buried in mass graves all over the hill. The enigmatic Lia Fail actually serves as a monument to the place where many slain insurgent mortal remains rest.

The 1798 Rebellion is considered by some to be Ireland’s Peasants’ Revolt; as most of the insurgents came from that down-trodden section of the population; though it was led by aristocratic and academic idealists who were inspired by the principles and ideals of the French Revolution.

Peace be round the Croppies grave 
Peace to your souls, ye buried brave 
Tara’s Hill when crowned and free 
Had never nobler guests than thee

Daniel O’Connell and Tara

Less than 50 years after the bloody events of 1798, Daniel O’Connell addressed the largest “Monster Meeting” on the summit of Tara. Here an estimated 750,000 people (The London Times claimed the attendance was closer to 1 million) converged to hear the Liberator speak against the Union of Great Britain and Ireland, which had been established under the Act of Union in 1801.

The issue at that huge Tara gathering on August 15th 1843 was Repeal of the Act that had cost Ireland her own Parliament and its absorption into the United Kingdom Parliament in London governing England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

This was designed by its authors to be ‘the Final Solution for the Irish Problem’, but never succeeded in completely addressing, much less solving many of 19th century Ireland’s social and structural problems.

Exploring Tara’s Secrets 

Ongoing archaeological work continues to unravel the secrets of Tara and its historic landscape. Most recent was the discovery of a huge circle of postholes on the eastern side of the hill which suggested that there had been an ancient hengelike structure made not of standing stones with massive rocky lintels – but a larger wooden version of what was later constructed at Stonehenge. While it can never be confirmed, it is presumed, like so many ancient structures in Ireland, Britain and Europe; this structure was aligned to specific movements of the sun during the seasons of the year.


The Book of Tara by Michael Slevin.
Beauties and Antiquities of the Boyne by William R Wilde.
Pagan Celtic Ireland: The enigma of the Irish Iron Age. By Barry Raftery (1994)
The Kingship and Landscape of Tara by Edel Bhreathnach,
"10 Must-See Endangered Cultural Treasures", The Hill of Tara, Ireland, Where Kings Once Tread by Amanda Bensen (Smithonian Staff - March 2010),

Arthur Russell is author of the historic fiction book ‘Morgallion’ which follows Cormac MacLochlainn and his family; and their adventures during the invasion of Ireland by Edward deBruce and his Scottish army in 1314 AD.

‘Morgallion’ has been recently awarded the indieBRAG Medallion.

More information on

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post--thanks! When I did my research for my new novel,
    Wind Raven, I wanted to name the Irish heroine Tara and so dived into the story behind the place of the Irish high kings. In my further research, I was surprised (and delighted) to learn that Tara was also the name of the Polynesian sea goddess. It worked for my seafaring romance.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.