Meath

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By summer, most fairy trees in Ireland are sagging under the weight of misguided offerings. Many are dying from the accumulated damage. Yesterday, my kids and I joined in an effort to save the rag trees on the Hill of Tara.

Fairy Trees in Ireland

Rag trees on the Hill of Tara after cleaning. (Click the picture to see what they usually look like in summer.)

The Tara & Skryne Preservation Group organized a clean up because the two rag trees on the Hill of Tara (they grow together, so appear to be one) were becoming not just unsightly under the weight of inappropriate offerings, but were actually being damaged by them. After seeing the call-to-arms on Facebook, we joined 30-or-so other old souls who cared enough to spend some time cutting the clutter away. Read the rest of this entry »

From Falias was brought Lia Fail which is in Temair,

and which is used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland.”

Lebor Gabala Erenn

 

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background. (Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

The Lia Fail with the Mound of the Hostages in the background.
(Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com)

On top of the Hill of Tara, in the middle of the rath known as An Forradh, “The King’s Seat,” there stands a large carved stone. This is the Lia Fail, the stone of destiny, one of the powerful totems the Tuatha de Danaan, the god-like ancestors of Irish Myth, are said to have brought with them to Ireland. Legend has it that when the kings of Ireland assembled at Tara to choose a new Ard Ri, or High King, the stone would shout its approval when the candidate touched it. This was one of what appear to be several trials a would-be High King had to pass.

Two standing stones in the  churchyard of St. Patrick's Church on the Hill of Tara. (Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com

Two standing stones in the churchyard of St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara.
(Photo credit: www.atriptoIreland.com

 

Standing Stones

Another was driving his chariot through two nearby standing stones which would jump out of the way if he was worthy. There were traditionally a number of standing stones around the hill, but few now remain (at least overground). Two still stand side by side in the adjacent churchyard — one featuring a very-weathered sheela-na-gig carving. However, there does not appear to be space between them to drive a chariot through.

The Lia Fail originally stood near the Mound of the Hostages, but was moved to its present position in 1798, to mark the graves of 400 rebels who were buried on the hill after a battle.

 

Controversy

Whether this is the real Lia Fail or simply one of the other standing stones the annals tell us stood around the Hill of Tara is a matter of some conjecture. One theory holds that the original Lia Fail was stolen and brought to Scotland, where it became known as the Stone of Scone, and has been used to crown Scots and English monarchs ever since — Oh, we Irish never tire of bashing the English. Another story holds that the real Lia Fail was hidden away for safekeeping until Ireland is ready for a High King again — if so, it’ll have a long wait.

Note
This is the third part of a series looking at the Hill of Tara.

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 Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King

The Lia Fail, the phallic stone that is said to scream for the rightful High King.

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.

Maps are essential when planning an Irish vacation.

Old Map of Tara.
(Photo credit: wikipedia commons)

Monuments/Ruins

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.

The church is now a visitor center for the Hill of Tara.

St. Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara
(Photo credit: Neil Forrester/wikipedia commons)

Christianity on the Hill of Tara

The importance of Tara is illustrated by the siting of an early Christian church among the more-ancient monuments atop the hill. The early Christians were adept marketers, and knew that they needed to adopt many of the practices and customs of pre-Christian spiritual practices in order to win converts. The usual tactic was to build a church or hold services on sites important to the ancient Celts. The current church is naturally named St. Patrick’s Church, but it has been deconsecrated and currently serves as a visitor center, although a couple of services are still held there annually in continuation of a ritual tradition that spans at least 5000 years.
Tara is the site where St. Patrick is said to have converted the High King Laoire, paving the way for the conversion of the country. In brief, Patrick is said to have lit a pascal fire on the hill of Slane (or possible at Brú na Bóinne), thus incurring the wrath of the High King, who reserved the honor of lighting the first Beltaine fire (the Celtic feast co-opted as Easter). Laoire’s druids are said to have warned him that that fire must be extinguished or it would burn forever, but rather than punish Patrick, the King is said to have been converted by him instead. This tale is generally considered to have been cooked up by Patrick’s hagiographers, rather than being literal fact, but that hasn’t stopped it becoming an important part of the Tara myth.

 

Note
[It would take an immense post to cover all the significant monuments and history of the Hill of Tara. As internet attention spans are short, I’m splitting this topic into a series of posts. Join me tomorrow when I’ll cover the oldest and possibly most-significant monument on the hill, the Mound of the Hostages.]