Tara

You are currently browsing articles tagged Tara.

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 »

Most of the earthworks on the Hill of Tara are thought to have been dwelling or feasting places. A long depression runs up the hill from the road towards the Mound of the Hostages. The two sides are high, presumably man-made, earthen banks. This is known as the Banqueting Hall, and for years kids were told it may originally have had wooden walls and a roof. However, this interpretation may have been due to the existence of a seating chart for an ancient King’s banquet, and is likely a good example of people naming a feature to fit in with available relics. A more-likely explanation for this long earthwork is that it may be the remains of one of the five roads that were said to lead to Tara from the five corners of Ireland. It’s easy to see how it could have been a ceremonial entryway, with the high earthen embankments on either side, complete with “windows,” gaps that may have allowed views of significant local landmarks such as the Hill of Skryne on the other side of the Boyne valley, the various tombs of former kings, and possibly a few standing stones.

Artists' Impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara c.

Artists’ impression of The Arena on the Hill of Tara, c.1200 BCE
(Photo credit: RTE/Secrets of the Stones documentary)

“The Arena”/Ireland’s Stonehenge

Magnetic gradiometry and other non-invasive survey techniques have recently revealed the remains of a huge structure at Tara. Under the tall grass and several feet of dirt lies a deep ditch dug into the bedrock of the hill. The ditch runs in a circle around the site for about 170 meters (about the length of two football pitches!), encompassing the Mound of the Hostages (and probably the original site of the Lia Fail as well) and the present-day church grounds. This ditch seems to have been surrounded on both sides by an enormous “fence” of huge wooden posts. Circles of wooden posts are not uncommon at this time (1200BCE) — remains of one much-smaller circle have been found and partially reconstructed nearby at Newgrange — but the scale of this one is off the charts. Interestingly, the “banqueting hall” appears to terminate directly at the edge of this ditch, perhaps suggesting the hypothesis that it was a road or ceremonial entryway is more likely.

The exact purpose of this arena (or “woodhenge” as it has been dubbed) is unknown, but as it enclosed the burial chamber known as the Mound of the Hostages and then later the Christian church was built within its boundary, this would suggest it had deep spiritual significance to generations of people. It’s not known what, if anything, was placed on top of the wooden posts, but that hasn’t stopped fanciful artists depicting it as an Irish Stonehenge, with two concentric circles of wooden posts topped with horizontal wooden beams. It’s estimated that at least 500 immense (and old judging by the size of the post-holes) trees would have been required to provide the beams.

One theory holds that the remains of deceased Kings and nobles may have been left to rot inside the arena. Once the flesh was stripped from the bones by decay or birds, the bones would be separated and interred within the mound of the hostages. There is ample evidence of this practice of defleshing a body before burial from elsewhere in the country. Another interpretation is that the aspirant King needed to make a circuit of the arena as part of the spiritual journey toward kingship.

The RTE documentary "Secrets of the Stones" discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

The RTE documentary Secrets of the Stones discusses The Arena on the Hill of Tara at length.

500 years later, around 700BC, an iron age ring fort — simply a large, thick wall of dry-stacked rocks surrounding a building or buildings — was built on the Hill of Tara. This was an advance over the old raths, which were simply a deep ditch with the earth removed and piled up in a bank behind. This represented the labor of many people working together to transport rocks from a larger area and construct the thick protective wall. By this point, the wooden posts surrounding the ceremonial ditch would have rotted away, and evidently the people of that time did not valued the structure enough to replace or maintain it, although the importance of the top of the Hill of Tara appears to have remained undiminished.

This new ring fort was every bit as large as the fenced ditch, but surrounded the top of the hill more exactly (the ditch and ring of posts was on a slight slope). It encircled the rath of the kings and also reclaimed the mound of the hostages. In light of this series of constructions on the Hill which all incorporated the mound of the hostages, it’s obvious how important the inhabitants considered their ancestors, regardless of whatever changes occurred in their mode of worship.

 

Notes

This is the final part of a series of posts about the Hill of Tara.

Part 1: A Brief History of the Hill of Tara…

Part 2: The Mound of the Hostages…

Part 3: The Lia Fail…

 

 

The Mound of the Hostages before the current restoration project. (Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The Mound of the Hostages in 2009, before the current restoration project.
(Photo credit: Victor Bayon/formalfallacy @ Dublin via flickr)

The oldest — and perhaps most important — monument on the Hill of Tara is the misleadingly named “Mound of the Hostages,” a neolithic passage tomb of a much smaller scale than Newgrange (which is visible from the top of the hill on a clear day — but you’ll need binoculars). Due to the thick metal bars on the entrance, generations of Irish schoolchildren (and tourists) came away from brief tours of the hill erroneously assuming that this was a prison mound. This small tomb is similar to the satellite tombs that surround the principle cairns at Loughcrew, Newgrange and Knowth, but in rather better condition. The passage is very short (about 13 feet) and the chamber is simply where the passage deadends, rather than an elaborate cruciform chamber with carved bowls like some others. Despite its relative simplicity, the passage has a solar alignment, this time with the “cross-quarter” days (Feb. 4 and Nov. 8) which correspond to the Celtic festivals of Imbolc and Samhain, and boasts some fine carved rocks. Unlike Newgrange, which controls access to the chamber at the solstice by lottery, anyone can walk up to the Mound of the Hostages and observe the solar alignment through the bars on cross-quarter days — weather permitting!

The tomb is called the Mound of the Hostages/Dumha na nGiall after one of the most-famous High Kings of Ireland, Niall Nolligach, who — like all Iron Age kings — took members of other royal families “hostage” to deter aggression, hence his nickname, Niall of the Nine Hostages. The iron bars on the tomb entrance gives the misleading impression that these hostages were thrown into the tomb to rot, but the truth is that the main tribes of Ireland sent children to be fostered by other leading families to create alliances and engender goodwill, so treating them that harshly would rather have defeated the purpose.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction. The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.

The Mound of Hostages during reconstruction (June 2012). The exposed orthostats and lintels have been protected from the elements with plastic sheeting.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

One striking fact about the Mound of the Hostages is that it remained in use centuries after all the other passage tombs had fallen into disuse. Whatever the exact reasons for this change in burial practice were, it appears that Tara was considered more important than the other tombs; when the mound was excavated in the 1950s, the volume of human remains filled the passage and chamber almost to the roof. Indeed, archaeologists have found that our ancestors began interring people in graves around the mound at a certain point; whether this reflects new beliefs or the simple fact that the tomb had reached capacity is open to debate.

In late 2011, the National Monuments Service began work to stabilize and repair the front of the mound. The two slopes adjacent to the entrance had become very eroded, and the integrity of the structure was judged to be at risk. Workers removed the earth covering the passage and chamber, affording visitors an unparalleled look at the construction of the passage. Needless to say, this work was very controversial (note protest sign in the photo above right), not least because it began on the day of the winter alignment and blocked the solar alignment during the time when work was underway. (The workers charged with carrying out repairs are said to have had no idea about the alignment — although I learned that nugget of gossip from the protestors, so take with a pinch of salt — which, if true, reminds us of how little-appreciated this monument is.) I have not been able to visit the site thus far in 2013, but a recent picture (below) shows the new facade close to completion. Doubtless there will be a sustained argument over the integrity of the interpretation, as still continues over Newgrange.

Plan to check out the new Hill of Tara on your Irish vacation

The almost-complete new facade of the Mound of the Hostages in spring 2013.
(Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor)

 

Hill of Tara: a must-visit part of any Irish vacation.

Explanatory signage detailing the reasons for reconstruction which was erected during the 2012 conservation work. Click through to a higher resolution image if you want to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

History of the Hill of Tara. Background research for any Irish vacation.

Interpretive signage erected during the 2012 conservation work at the Mound of the Hostages. Click through to a higher resolution image if you wish to read the text.
(Photo credit: atriptoIreland.com)

 

Notes

[This is part two in a series of posts on the Hill of Tara. Part one, dealing with the history of the Hill of Tara can be read here. The third post in this series will deal with the Lia Fail, the fabled stone of destiny.]

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.]

 

What are the true Celtic roots of Halloween?

Halloween, or Oíche Samhna in Irish, perplexes me. Read any wikipedia or general-interest article about the holiday and you find tradition heaped on tradition: Christian rite on pagan festival, local Scottish habit projected onto other nations, early-Christian folklore labeled as Druidic belief, and modern-day pagan reinvention regarded as ancient rite. As somebody whose chief interest is in what old Celtic beliefs really were, it’s hard to cut through the layers of tradition that have grown up around Halloween and come to be repeated endlessly as “fact.”

The popular imagination (and those ubiquitous articles) generally assumes Halloween to have ancient roots from pre-Christian times, yet when you poke into the origins of the major features of the festival, they appear to have largely begun during the medieval period.

The site of the Banqueting Hall on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath — One of the tales in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology tells how Tara was burned every Samhain by Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, before he was kiled by Fionn, who then became leader of the Fianna.

Mythological Origins

In ancient Irish mythology, Samhain (pronounced Sow-an) is a feis at the beginning of winter (or, translated literally, at the end of summer — indicating that then, as now, we Irish had a tendency to see the glass as half-full).

There are tales of Irish kings and warriors having grand feasts and (as usually happens when a lot of men get together for a serious drinking session) starting big fights or being goaded into doing stupid things. No jack-o-lanterns, no bonfires* beyond that required to keep warm, and no mention of the dead roaming the land.

However, while Irish society was very tradition-oriented, we should remember that the chiefs and great warriors were a class apart in this society. There’s no reason why they should not have had their own private drinking session distinct from the general Samhain celebrations.

*Although, there is tale in the Fenian cycle which tells how Áillén the Burner, one of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the gods of the Irish Celts (or possibly pre-Celtic Irish, depending on how you interpret origin myths written down by hostile Christian monks) caused havoc by burning down the King’s dwelling on the Hill of Tara every Samhain until Fionn defeated him. Was this an early “trick” or the start of the tradition of supernatural beings running amuck on Samhain?

Odd carving found in the 8th Century Churchyard on Inis Mór, Aran Islands. Is this a trickster figure, a breaded man, or an older motif?

Folkloric Origins

It seems to be accepted that Samhain was at heart an agricultural festival marking the successful harvesting of food, and probably involving or preceding the slaughter of cattle for the winter. Warriors likely didn’t spend much time in agricultural labor, so perhaps for the majority of people Samhain was a ritual celebration of harvest and less a manly drinking session (of this, more in the next post)…

Samhain is definitely a time of change; one has only to look at the trees to see that. Celebrated as the Celtic New Year (at least nowadays by new age pagans), Samhain is indisputably a “liminal” period when one year ends and the next begins, and a time when treachery and the intervention of supernatural forces are to be expected and feared.

Several Celtic warriors and kings seem to have met their downfall on Samhain or had the circumstances leading to that downfall set in motion, so it appears a little ironic that it was viewed as a day of peace in the heroic age. Of course, this does establish the tradition of gods and supernatural beings walking the land on Samhain; but it should be said that supernatural forces were always at work in the prehistoric age (i.e. before history was regularly — if not reliably — recorded) — so, perhaps Samhain wasn’t particularly unique in that regard?

Mouth of a passage grave at Carrowkiel, Co. Sligo. Tradition held that tombs opened on All Hallow’s Eve and the dead might visit the living.

To paraphrase something I read recently, these times of change from one thing to another (old year to new, life to death, singletonhood to married) are times of danger: you’ve opened the door to change and anything might come in. So although there may not be a wealth of canonical legend about the dead walking the land, there is plenty of folk tradition.

The sidhe were said to walk the land and people would leave food and milk for them. Others feared the spirits of the dead would rise up and visit their kin — even going so far as to leave windows open and offerings of food out for them. I’ve always regarded this as symbolic, but the discovery of 8th century zombies in County Roscommon makes me wonder. (Curiously, the 8th century was when the Pope moved to replace Samhain with the churchified feast of All Saints Day (the day after All Hallows Eve), so perhaps there was some genuine fear of the undead among the people and the Church’s action took advantage of this?)

I haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, but for now I’ll have to file it away under “must read more…”

 

Notes

A post about the history of jack-o-lanterns and bonfires…