A few miles south of Navan, Co. Meath lies the Hill of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland.
Unlike our modern conception of a capital city, however, Tara appears to have been a symbolic or ritual capital, rather than a large center of commerce, administration, and public life. Evidence of extensive dwelling space or large-scale defensive earthworks have not been found, suggesting its use was primarily ritualistic: it was where one went to be crowned, set down laws, or settle disputes.
The archaeological remains suggest that the settlement was never more than a small cluster of hill-top raths, various wooden buildings and animal enclosures alongside some sacred monuments. The population would have swelled for feasting or other ceremonial occasions, but otherwise the hill may have sustained a much smaller number of inhabitants, possibly druidic caretakers and masters of ceremony.
Seat of the High King
Its Irish name is Teamhair na Rí, the Hill of the King, but it’s important to note that the high kingship was not hereditary — although many high kings would have liked to make it so — and different families from all over the country held the high kingship over time. This was probably only possible because Tara was a neutral or communal space.
When you stand on the top of the hill on a clear day, you can easily see why the site was of such significance to the early Irish. From the hill top one can see the other major hills in the midlands and east of the country, many of which boasted settlements or culturally significant tombs: the Hills of Slane, Skrne, and Tailte, the Hills of the Witch/Slieve na Callaigh near Oldcastle, The Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath, and Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains in Co. Down. A bronze-age chieftain standing on top of his rath would have felt he could see the entire country from that point. It’s no wonder they came to think of themselves as the High King. The passage tombs of Newgrange and Loughcrew (if not others) were specially topped with white quartz to be seen glittering at a distance. On feast nights, the bonfires from these and other hilltops would probably have been easily visible, giving a feeling of solidarity and community to those watching from the best vantage point, the high ground: Temair, the Hill of the King.
Tara was the seat of the High King at least from the Iron Age through to the Norman Invasion (1st through 12th centuries) and a place of importance long before that. Ancient legends name Tara/Temair as the seat of the the king from the arrival of the Tuatha de Danaan, and its symbolic importance endured long after the High Kings were but memory, with the patriot Daniel O’Connell choosing Tara as the site of an enormous political rally (drawing three-quarters of a million people, by contemporary accounts) in 1843. The recent outcry over the encroachment of a new motorway across the hill’s boundary showed that even in the modern world, Tara retains an emotional importance for the country.
There are visible remains of almost 30 man-made monuments around the hill, and traces of as many more can be detected under the vegetation using modern non-invasive survey techniques. All of the buildings on the Hill of Tara — except of course the modern church — seem to have been wooden and have now rotted away. Archaeologists have found post holes and evidence to suggest huge structures, possibly for banqueting and hosting important meetings. The remaining evidence of inhabitation are large earthen ditches and banks, known as raths, which were built up around the dwellings.
Ráith na Ríogh/The Rath (Fort) of the Kings is the largest and most-visible of these enclosures, an iron-age hill fort containing two smaller raths. This is thought to have been the most-important rath within the settlement, the house of the king, and this enclosure takes up the summit of the hill. This rath is relatively speaking a latecomer to the hill top, enclosing several much older and more more significant monuments, including the mound of the hostages and the lia fail. I find it curious that in the later days of high kingship, no king attempted to fortify Tara, even the Normans — who built motte and baileys on every high point they could — respected the sanctity of the hill.
Outside the Rath of the Kings lies several other raths, or bank and ditch enclosures. Several are thought to have enclosed the dwelling places, and others to have been tombs. (Unlike Newgrange or Knowth, there has been comparatively little modern excavation at Tara.) Between the walls of the modern churchyard and the mound of the hostages there lies a seemingly chaotic series of mounds and ditches, known as the Rath of the Synods. These are the remains of another mound within a circular rath, which was crudely excavated by British Israelites at the turn of the last century hunting for the Ark of the Covenant. The same group of amateur archaeologists blew up the passage tomb at Dowth during their quest, and probably did more to destroy Ireland’s ancient heritage than any other group since the Vikings.
Christianity on the Hill of Tara