Hill of Tara

Hill of Tara - Co. Meath

The Lia Fail - Hill of Tara

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The Hill of Tara, ("Hill of the Kings"), located near the River Boyne, is an archaeological complex that runs between Navan and Dunshauglin. It contains a number of ancient monuments, and, according to tradition, was the seat of Árd Rí na hÉireann, or the High Kings of Ireland. The importance of it cannot be understated in the context of pre-historic Ireland.

At the summit of the hill, to the north of the ridge, is an oval hilltop enclosure measuring 318 metres (1,043 ft) north south by 264 metres (866 ft) east-west and enclosed by an internal ditch and external bank, known as Ráith na Ríogh (the Fort of the Kings, also known as the Royal Enclosure). The most prominent earthworks within are the two linked enclosures, a bivallate ring fort and a bivallete ring barrow known as Teach Chormaic (Cormac's House) and the Forradh or Royal Seat. In the middle of the Forradh is a standing stone, which is believed to be the Stone of Destiny at which the High Kings were crowned. According to legend, the stone would scream if the would-be king met a series of challenges. At his touch, the stone would let out a screech that could be heard all over Ireland. To the north of the ring-forts is a small neolithic passage tomb known as Dumha na nGiall (the Mound of the Hostages), which dates to ca. 2000 BC.

To the north, just outside the bounds of the Ráith na Rig, is a ringfort with three banks known as Ráith na Seanadh (the Rath of the Synods). Excavations of this monument have produced Roman artifacts dating from the 1st-3rd centuries.

Further north is a long, narrow rectangular feature known as the Banqueting Hall, although it is more likely to have been a ceremonial avenue or cursus monument approaching the site, and three circular earthworks known as the Sloping Trenches and Grainne’s Fort. All three are large ring barrows, which may have been built too close to the steep and subsequently slipped.

To the south of the Royal Enclosure lies a ring-fort known as Ráith Laoghaire (Laoighaire's Fort), where the eponymous king is said to have been buried in an upright position. Half a mile south of the Hill of Tara is another hill fort known as Rath Maeve, the fort of either the legendary queen Medb who is more usually associated with Connaght.

The most familiar role played by the Hill of Tara in Irish history is as the seat of the kings of Ireland until the 6th century. This role extended until the 12th century, albeit without its earlier splendor. Regardless, the significance of the Hill of Tara predates Celtic times, although it has not been shown that Tara was continuously important from the Neolithic to the 12th century. The central part of the site could not have housed a large permanent retinue, suggesting that it was used as an occasional meeting place. There were no large defensive works. Certainly, the earliest records attest that high kings were inaugurated there, and the "Seanchas Mor" legal text (written down after 600AD) specified that they had to drink ale and symbolically marry the goddess Maeve to acquire the high-kingship.

Previous scholarly dispute over Tara's initial importance advanced as archaeologists identified pre-Celtic monuments and buildings dating back to the Neolithic period around 5,000 years ago.

A theory that may predate the Hill of Tara's splendor before Celtic times is the legendary story naming the Hill of Tara as the capital of the Tuatha De Danann, pre-Celtic dwellers of Ireland. When the Celts established a seat in the hill, the hill became the place from which the Kings of Mide ruled Ireland. Although there is much debate among historians as to how far the King's influence spread; it may have been as little as the middle of Ireland, it may have been all of the northern half. The high kingship of the whole island was only established to an effective degree by Malachy Ist. Irish pseudo historians of the Middle Ages made it stretch back into prehistoric times.

The Hill of Tara as a hill and as a capital seems to have political and religious influence, which diminished since St. Patrick’s time when the patron saint famously lit a fire there. At one time, it was a capital offence to make a fire within sight of Tara.

A grave was found near the hill that is supposedly that of King Leogaire, who was said to be the last pagan King of Ireland.

In 1843, the Irish political leader, Daniel O’Connell hosted a peaceful demonstration on Hill of Tara in favour of repeal of the Act of Union, which drew over 750,000 people, indicating the enduring importance of the Hill of Tara.

The M3 motorway constructed in 2008 will pass through the Tara-Skyrne Valley - as does the existing N3 road. Protesters argue that since the Tara Discovery Programme started in 1992, there is an appreciation that the Hill of Tara is just the central complex of a wider landscape. This was borne out in 2007 when ruins of an extensive settlement were discovered north of the Tara site at Lismullen, on the route of the M3 motorway. To their eternal shame, the Government of the day (including the Green Party who had charge of the Ministry of Environment brief), allowed construction of the road to continue through Lismullen with recording of discoveries only allowed.

The Hill of Tara was included in the Worlds Monuments Fund’s 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world.


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