The Hill of Tara: Tracing the Footsteps of the High Kings of Ireland
The Hill of Tara is said to be one of the most ancient sacred sites in Ireland. Predating the Celts by thousands of years, the archaeological site is covered in tombs, monuments, and Neolithic earthworks, many older than the ancient Pyramids of Egypt. According to legend, Tara is where the mythological Tuatha De Danann reigned, the God-like race of peoples of pre-Christian Ireland, closely associated with the fairies. The Hill of Tara ( Cnoc na Teamhrach) is made of a variety of structures, believed to have been constructed separately and arbitrarily before the space was combined into one large complex now known as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland.
The Hill of Tara and the Coronation Ritual of the High Kings of Ireland
Located in County Meath, Ireland, the Hill of Tara rests near the River Boyne which flows into the Irish Sea. The two foremost features are its twin hills, Tara and Skreen, considered to be part of the "greatest orderings of landscape.” Upon Tara sits the Forradh and Tech Cormaic, with the Mound of the Hostages, and together they form the Fort of the Kings. It is said that this was the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, a blend of historic and legendary kings said to have ruled Ireland over thousands of years.
19th century survey map showing the different monuments found at the Hill of Tara. (Public domain)
The ceremonial coronation procession took place predominately within Teach Midchuarta, aka the banqueting hall, a subterranean space imbued with memory. In the procession through this hall, the future king passed the tombs of former kings and queens on his right, with the Hill of Skreen visible in the east as a reminder of the punishment that would befall him if he failed in his vow of sovereignty.
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Upon rising from the underground space, the new king processed into the sunlight and approached the Mound of Hostages, a passage tomb within which archaeologists have discovered grave goods and cremated bones dating from both the Neolithic period and Bronze Age. This continuity would likely have been recognized by the time of the high-kingship ceremony, feeding into to the ancient mythological meaning seen in pseudo-historical and historical works such as Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, and the Irish Annals.
The Mound of Hostages at the Hill of Tara site is an ancient passage tomb in which archaeologists have discovered cremated remains and grave goods from both the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. (Randall Runtsch / Adobe Stock)
The Mound of Hostages ( Duma na nGiall) is a Megalithic passage tomb dating back about 5,000 years. The oldest monument at the Hill of Tara, archaeologists have discovered the remains of up to 500 people, many of which were cremated. The dead were often accompanied by grave goods. The mound itself is about 15 meters (49.2 ft) in diameter, with an entrance on its side that leads into a small 4-meter-long (13.1 ft) passageway decorated with ancient carvings.
Experts believe that the mound served as both an echo of the High King's authority and as a reminder that kingship was as much a political role as a religious marriage to the divine. According to the 11th century Lebor Gabala Érenn, a symbolic marriage to Queen Medb (also known as Maev or Maeve), the fairy queen and deity from old Irish mythology, was necessary as High King, and the Mound of the Hostages was the passage that linked the two worlds. Enacting the High King's inauguration here wove the divine into the ceremony, inviting Medb herself to join the ritual.
Queen Medb as depicted by Joseph Christian Leyendecker in his ‘Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race.’ Marrying Medb was part of the ritual inauguration of the High Kings of Ireland at the Hill of Tara. (Public domain)
Lia Fáil: The Coronation Stone in Irish Mythology
Once the inauguration and mystical marriage was complete, the High King and his followers would ascend to the Forradh, and stand before Lia Fáil to await its confirmation for the newest ruler. Lia Fáil, the Stone of Destiny, is a carved standing stone or menhir made of white granite and used since the Neolithic era.
The stone is supposed to have roared when touched by a true Irish king. According to folklore, this so-called coronation stone was the culmination of the inauguration of the High Kings of Ireland after they had made their way over Tara’s ceremonial landscape, ritualistically gaining their new role from the land itself, the divine, and their subjects.
In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, translating as the Book of Invasions, a Medieval collection of poems about the history of Ireland, the Tuatha De Danann travelled throughout the Northern Isles to learn the skills and magic they needed. They then came to Ireland, bringing with them four magical treasures from the cities they had encountered, including the Lia Fáil Coronation Stone from the island city Falias. In Irish folk legends, stones that speak or communicate with sound are common. When it came to Lia Fáil, its power was said to rejuvenate the new king and ensure a long reign. This was but one of the tests the would-be High King had to pass.
Lia Fáil, also known as the Coronation Stone or Stone of Destiny, was an important ritual component in the coronation of ancient High Kings of Ireland. (JohnJDuncan / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Intertwining Mortal and Divine Power: The Hill of Tara as a Performative Ritual
The future High King of Ireland had to experience the human past within a landscape thick with divine memory before his kingship could be solidified. The alteration between light and dark, the intentional threat of Skreen, the anticipation of an otherworldly marriage, and the expectation of Lia Fáil to sing, all encompassed both the mystical and political importance of the ceremony, intricately tying the role of mortal power to that of the divine.
The entirety of the ritual was a performance, one the participants, viewers, and gods understood; however it appears likely that the ceremony was born from the unification of the land, thus giving the land a unique significance. When one considers the way in which the space at Tara was designed—each monument individually added over thousands of years—the imagined intention behind each feature's place in the Medieval coronation becomes imbued with a power of continuity and lineage, culminating in the next High King.
The individual monuments would have been quite powerful prior to the early Medieval period, symbolic of the political and/or religious traditions at Tara. However, once they were manipulated into a structured journey their meanings changed to encompass their roles in the inauguration. It was the experience—this imagined procession—through the monuments as part of a whole that held political significance and projected a sacred quality onto this location.
New Discoveries and Battles at the Hill of Tara
Archaeologists have continued to make interesting discoveries when excavating in and around the Hill of Tara. In 1955, Dr. Sean O’Riordan of Trinity College in Dublin excavated at the Mound of Hostages, uncovering the skeletal remains of a young prince dating back to 1350 BC, a contemporary of Tutankhamun. Known as the Tara Boy, what was most surprising was the discovery of a necklace made of faience beads, thought to be from Egypt. This area of research remains relatively unexplored, but there have been several Celtic-Egyptian connections made in Ireland.
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Since 1992, the Tara Research Project, part of The Discovery Programme of the Center for Archaeology and Innovation Ireland, has been using a wide range of different technologies to understand the complex landscape of Tara. Around the Mound of Hostages, archaeologists used x-ray technology and traditional excavation techniques to ultimately unearth what has been dubbed “Woodhenge,” a 250-meter (820 ft) diameter ditched pit circle believed to have been constructed about 5,000 years ago and surrounded by about 300 timber posts.
Digital graphics were used to show how the newly discovered Woodhenge at the Hill of Tara would have looked. These were included in the 2009 series ‘Secrets of the Stones.’ (RTÉ / Voices from the Dawn)
First identified in the 1990s’s, the discovery was covered in a RTÉ (Ireland’s National Television and Radio Broadcaster) series entitled Secrets of the Stones in 2009, in which archeologists and computer-graphics experts made a digital representation of the wooden monument which brings it to life. The program described the find as one of the “greatest archaeological finds of 20th century Ireland.”
In 2010, the construction of the M3 Motorway in the Tara-Skryne Valley, passing less than 2 km (1.2 mi) to the north, was completed. This project was extremely controversial as archaeologists see the area as a dynamic landscape which continues to provide new information as technology evolves. The construction was possible due to a 2004 law which gave the government the option to build roads once excavation was complete. They tried to placate demonstrators by designating the Tara-Skryne Valley a Special Conservation Area in 2009, but the construction of the motorway itself went ahead.
One of many acts of demonstration that took place during protests against the M3 Motorway in the Hill of Tara area. (Uberhonken / CC BY-SA 4.0)
While professionals claimed that some members of the Save Tara movement were “neo-pagans, hippies, enviro-mentalists and other gobshites,” the documentary short film Tara: Voices from Our Past argues that the Hill of Tara is a fundamental part of Irish cultural heritage “being destroyed by those in the government who have been entrusted with protecting it.”
The area has been presented as a candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and while the protests didn’t manage to prevent the motorway, the site remains a popular ceremonial location, with Irish pagans coming together there, especially for the summer solstice.
Top image: Aerial view of the Hill of Tara, in County Meath Ireland. Source: MNStudio / Adobe Stock
By Riley Winters
Updated on March 18, 2021.
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