The Hill of Tara, County Meath. In Irish myth this was the seat of Irish God-Kings, and later it was associated with the Historical High Kings. The site is archaeologically complex. Having been occupied, and evidently regarded as sacred, at least since Neolithic Times. As written down by the monks, the major Irish myths are prose tales, now preserved in manuscripts dating from the 12th century. Most of the tales belong to three great cycles. The Mythological Cycle, mainly recorded in The Book of Invasions, traces the beings who settled in Ireland from the time of the Flood, including Parthelon from Greece, the evil Fermorians, the Fir Bolg, and the Tuatha de Dannan, diving beings who were driven underground by the Gaels. The Ulster Cycle recounts the wars between Ulster and Connaught, while the Fenian Cycle describes the adventures of Finn MacCool and his warband, the Fianna.
Ancient Signs: From the air, the rings of Cormac's House, on the right, and the Royal Seat, are clearly within the Royal Enclosure, as is the Mound of the Hostages, in the foreground.
A heritage of fact, hearsay and legend has woven the name of Tara into the heart of Irish history - and nowhere more memorably than in Thomas Moore's poem:
The harp that once through Tara's halls The soul of music shed, Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls As if that soul were fled.
For centuries the hill was the seat of Celtic kings, and at its height, under King Cormac MacAirt in the 3rd century, Tara was one of the wonders of Europe, an Irish Camelot. Nothing remains of the wooden structures that once made up the hilltop's forts and houses. But the outline of the ditch and earthen rampart that enclosed the site - about 300 yds across - can still be seen.
"The place with a wide view" It is easy to see why Tara was chosen as a seat of royal power - the hill rises 300ft above the surrounding countryside, commanding an all-round view over the undulating, tree-studded pastures of Meath; in fact, Tara's Gaelic name 'Teamhair' derives from a word meaning 'the place with a wide view'.
There was another reason why the Celts chose this hill as the seat of their kings. It had formerly been a Stone Age burial site, the remains of which now form a steep knoll, and therefore had sacred importance.
Some time after the Celtic invasions of around 500 BC, Tara became associated with supreme royal authority. Whoever ruled Tara termed himself High King, claiming supremacy over all Ireland's other kings. But giving the claim reality was quite another thing, and no king of Tara ever ruled all Ireland.
To prove his claim was valid, according to myth, the High King stood upon a magic Stone of Destiny, the Lia Fail, which roared approval if the choice of king was apt. A stone known as the Lia Fail, which stands in Cormac's House today, was placed there to commemorate the deaths of 37 men in the 1798 Rebellion, but its origins are unknown.
Probably in the years before the Christian era, the Celtic kings built a number of circular 'raths', or enclosures. Two lie inside the huge Royal Enclosure. Another is named after Cormac's daughter, Grainne, whose flight from Tara with her lover Diarmuid forms an Irish Romeo-and-Juliet legend. Grainne was betrothed to Fionn mac Cumhaill, a hero, but ageing. To avoid marrying him she eloped with Diarmuid. The couple wandered around Ireland for years before Diarmuid was killed by a wild boar.
Feasts fit for Kings at one end of the hilltop are two parallel lines, said to be the foundations of what is now called the Hall of Banquets. This area - more than 250yds long and 30yds wide - is believed to have been a single immense hall, the site of a feast held every three years. The grandest of these feasts are associated with Cormac, who reigned as High King from 218 to 254; they are said to have been phenomenal events, at which 1000 people celebrated for a week.
Princes, poets, athletes and priests ate goose, mallard, venison, oxen and boar, and the higher their rank, the better they ate, The royal family and nobles gorged on ribs of beef; the druids and soothsayers ate the shins; the historians fed on the haunches, the musicians on shoulder of pork; and the jesters ate shoulder fat. It took 'thrice fifty steaming cooks' to prepare the meals, and 300 men to serve them.
Tara's decline Tara's loss of importance is associated with the arrival of Christianity. One of the enclosures, the Fort of the Synods, is named after the meetings of Christian and pagan leaders on Tara's Hill. The first confrontation was supposedly between High King Laoghaire and St.; Patrick in the 5th century, after the saint had challenged the king's authority by lighting a fire on the nearby Hill of Slane. Summoned by the king to explain his action, St. Patrick so impressed him that he was allowed to go free and preach Christianity. The king, however, said he was too old to change. A late 19th century statue of St. Patrick commemorates his visit.
The last feast was held in 560, and Tara was abandoned sometime afterwards. The wooden buildings rotted and the walls and ditches weathered down to their present haunting shapes. But history became legend, and the name of Tara became a talisman for those eager to conjure Irish nationalism from the misty past.
Rebal Meeting. In 1843 nearly 1 million people, with banners and symbols of Ireland, gathered on the Hill of Tara to hear the Irish patriot Daniel O' Connell speak against union with Britain.
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