The 5,000-year-old Hill of Tara is located in Boyne Valley, Co. Meath. To the undiscerning eye, it appears to be a series of grassy mounds. Yet Tara was the seat of Ireland’s high kings. Moreover, it is a significant archaeological site. These mounds are the remains of ancient forts and burial grounds. The Hill of Tara has played a major part in Irish history, hosting legendary figures such as Brian Boru, St Patrick, and Daniel O’Connell throughout the years.
The rightful king
Tara granted high kings of Ireland a supernatural right to rule through the Stone of Destiny. Called the Lia Fail in Irish, the Stone of Destiny was one of the four legendary treasures of mythical Ireland. It came to Ireland with the Tuatha De Dannann, an ancient and magical Irish people.
In Mythical Irish Wonders, Mark Joyce writes that the Lia Fail would shout in joy when the true high king of Ireland stood or sat on it. Additionally, it could grant the king a long reign and the power of rejuvenation. The hero Cu Chulainn split the stone in half when his foster son, Lugaid Raib nDerg, stood beside it and it failed to roar. Lost and buried, it did not shout again until Conn of the Hundred Battles accidentally walked on it while he was at Tara. It shouted again when the last high king of Ireland, Brian Boru, was crowned in 1002 AD.
St Patrick’s fire
John G. O’Dwyer recounts St Patrick’s visit to Tara in Wild Stories from the Irish Uplands (Currach Books).
Patrick entered the rich, well-watered lands of what is now Co. Meath, where he faced his first big test. It was essential that the Irish High King, who reigned on the Hill of Tara, should come on board with the Christian faith and so this is the place where we interrogate one of the best-known Patrician mythologies. With heroic – or as most of us would think – foolhardy indifference to the protocols of royalty, Patrick went about the process of ingratiating himself in a most unusual way by immediately defying the King.
Ascending the nearby Hill of Slane, he broke all custom and precedent by lighting a pascal flame in advance of King Laoghaire’s fire at Tara celebrating the Bealtaine Festival. The reckless act made an unexpectedly favourable impression on the King.
According to tradition, Laoghaire’s soldiers were unable to extinguish Patrick’s fire. Recognising the great power of the Saint, the King allowed his subjects to convert to Christianity but did not do so himself. St Erc, who was first at Tara to pay homage to Patrick, then founded a monastery on the Hill of Slane. The symbolism was clear: Patrick had triumphed over paganism.”
The National Museum of Ireland hosts an exhibit on Tara’s Mound of Hostages. This mound is a passage tomb built in 3,000 BC. It was used to bury the dead of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age eras. However, in medieval Ireland, warring people would meet at the tomb to exchange hostages. Thus, it became known as the Mound of Hostages, or Duma na nGiall in Irish.
In 1798, a battle of the United Irishmen’s Rebellion took place at the hill because of its strategic and nostalgic merit. However, the rebels suffered an overwhelming defeat. Because of its symbolism and ancient place in Irish identity, Daniel O’Connell chose to speak out against British rule in Ireland from the Hill of Tara forty-five years later. Now, open year-round, the Hill of Tara is an unquestionably cherished cultural destination.