The Hill of Tara – Inauguration site of Ireland’s High Kings

stephenMonuments, News

The Hill of Tara – Inauguration site of Ireland’s High Kings

The Hill of Tara: the traditional inauguration site and political seat of the ancient High Kings of Ireland. A wealth of history and legend associated with the site makes it one of Ireland’s premier historical attractions. Located near the River Boyne, in Co. Meath, the Hill commands sweeping views across the plains of Meath, and on a good day, it is said that over a quarter of the country can be seen from its summit.

There are over thirty monuments visible on the hill today. These include a Neolithic passage tomb, numerous standing stones, circular mounds, and barrows, most of which are located within a huge (over 200m in diameter) ceremonial enclosure known as Rath na Ríogh (The Fort of the Kings).

However, perhaps the most important ritual feature of the Hill of Tara is completely invisible to the modern visitor. In 2009, geomagnetic surveying on the hill revealed another massive circular enclosure overlapping the northern section of Rath na Riogh.

The enclosure consisted of a ditch, 6m wide and 3m deep, cut into the bedrock. A ring of around 150 postholes were discovered around the outer perimeter of the ditch with another similar amount around the inner perimeter. These postholes are believed to be the foundations of an enormous circular structure similar to Stonehenge but made from wood.

This ‘wood-henge’ structure links the cursus (ceremonial/processional routeway) monument known as ‘the Banqueting Hall’ with the other monuments located within the main ‘Rath na Ríogh’ enclosure. The area where the wood-henge monument overlaps with Rath na Ríogh, deliberately encloses the oldest monument on the hill – The Mound of the Hostages. A Neolithic Passage Tomb built c. 3000 BCE, which during the next 1,500 years, was to be the final resting place for more than 300 men, women, and children.

The most famous monument within the Tara complex is a standing stone, believed to be the mythical ‘Lia Fáil’ (Stone of Destiny), the inauguration stone of the High Kings of Ireland. According to legend, at the touch of the rightful king, the stone would let out a scream that could be heard all over Ireland. The stone – which now sits on the monument known as the ‘Forradh’ – was moved from its original position beside (or on) the Mound of the Hostages; within the area where the wood-henge monument and Rath na Ríogh overlap.

Archaeologists could find no clear evidence of an entrance to the wood-henge monument and it is thought that it must have been somewhere within the un-surveyed area in the adjacent churchyard. However, within this churchyard is a pair of ancient standing stones, known as Blocc and Bluigne, which are traditionally said to mark the gateway to Tara. According to legend, these stones would part for the would-be king to drive his chariot through on the way to be crowned at the Lia Fáil.

The most prominent monuments visible on the hill today are the two linked earthen enclosures; a bivallate (double-ditched) ring fort, known as Teach Chormaic (Cormac’s House) and a bivallate ring barrow known as the Forradh (which can be roughly translated as ‘viewing platform’). It may be, that it is from here, that the high-status guests – regional kings, queens & druids ? – would have viewed the ritual/ceremony taking place.

According to the Dindshenchas (Lore of Places), Tara – Known as ‘Teamhair’ in Irish – derives its name as the burial place of Tea, the daughter of Lugaid, Tara’s first king. From Lugaid, as many as 142 different (mythical & historical) rulers may have reigned from the hill, until Diarmait mac Cerbaill, the last High King to follow the pagan rituals of inauguration.

Although abandoned in the 11th Century, Tara has always retained its importance to the Irish identity. During the 1798 rebellion, the United Irishmen chose it as the place to make their last stand at the Battle of Tara and in 1843 Daniel O’Connell addressed an estimated one million people gathered on the hill. The Hill of Tara is – as the poet W.B. Yeats said – “probably the most consecrated spot in Ireland.”