A compact clump of tall trees around St Patrick’s church is all that prevents a visitor to the Hill of Tara from enjoying a full circle panorama of the surrounding plains. In all other directions, the hill slopes gently down to the cultivated flatlands that reach to a horizon that is said to encompass half of the 32 counties of Ireland. Though it rises to little more than 500 feet above sea level, its prominence has given it a unique place in Irish history, and indeed pre-history, in which truth, legend and religion have become inextricably mixed.
Within Tara’s 100-acre area, are numerous smaller hills, burial mounds, grass-covered circles, concentric and interlocking, that are the remains of structures built through the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. It was here that the High Kings of Ireland were proclaimed, and the heroes and heroines of epic poetry featured. Its myths inspired the later poetry of Yeats and others. St Patrick challenged the pagan kings and their priests here. Tara’s symbolism played its part in the politics that led to Ireland’s independence. It even slipped into popular culture by giving its name to Scarlett O’Hara’s house in the book and film of Gone with The Wind.
Situated about five miles south of Navan, in County Meath, the Hill of Tara is owned by the Irish Government, and entry is free. St Patrick’s Church was deconsecrated in 1991 and now serves as a Visitor Centre. A 16-minute video presentation tells the story of the Hill, and staff conduct guided tours, which the visitor may join or not, as he or she sees fit.
A marble statue of St Patrick on the slope outside the church grounds greets the visitor on entering the site. Continuing up the slope, one arrives at the Rath of the Synods, named from the periodic gatherings held by the early Irish saints. A large, circular enclosure, this is thought to date from the second century AD and is therefore one of the more recent structures on the Hill. At the end of the nineteenth century, it suffered damage when a group called the British Israelites excavated it in the belief that it contained the Ark of the Covenant. Relics of Roman Britain have been found here, and since Rome never invaded Ireland, these suggest probable trading links between the two islands.
Moving to higher ground, one enters the largest of the hill’s enclosures, Rath na Riogh. This contains other structures which, though smaller, are no less impressive. First is the Mound of the Hostages, a passage tomb built around 2500 BC, in which the cremated remains of more than two hundred individuals have been discovered. To one side of the four-metre-long passage, is a stone decorated with several sets of circular carvings. The Mound is the oldest visible structure at Tara and is named from the High Kings’ custom of holding hostages to ensure the submission of lesser rulers.
Beyond the Mound of the Hostages, yet still within Rath na Riogh, are two conjoined sets of circular banks, The King’s Seat or Forradh, and Cormac’s House. The latter is named after a somewhat legendary king, Cormac Mac Airt, who is thought to have reigned during the third century AD. In the centre of the King’s Seat, also dating from the early centuries AD, is the ancient coronation stone, The Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, which was said to roar when the true High King touched it. Alongside the stone is a monument erected in 1938 to commemorate the more than 300 rebels who died in battle here during the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion and are thought to be buried in the hill.
Rath na Riogh occupies the highest area of Tara. Beyond the enclosure, on the southern slope lies another large circle, Rath Laoghaire, that commemorates the king who reigned here during the time of St Patrick and is believed to be buried here. In the near distance from Tara is the Hill of Slane, where Patrick, in 433 AD, lit a fire to celebrate Easter, so challenging the druids who observed a pagan festival at the same time. Patrick was brought to Tara, where he performed the miracles that persuaded Laoghaire to allow him to continue preaching Christianity to the native Irish. This event led to the establishment of Christian civilization not just in Ireland but ultimately in the whole of the British Isles.
Though the major structures are concentrated around the top of the Hill of Tara, several smaller features are scattered around the base. There are wells, trenches and mounds, the origins and names of which are surrounded by myth and legend. In addition to those clearly visible are many others that have been discovered because of aerial surveys. Leading away to the north of the Rath of the Synods are two parallel banks, more than 200 metres long. These contain The Banqueting Hall, in which legend says that great feasts were held. However, an alternative interpretation suggests that this may have been a ceremonial entrance to Tara. Legend also states that five ancient roads radiated out from Tara to reach into the provinces of Ireland.
The central part that Tara played in the history and pre-history of Ireland gave it a symbolic significance that was exploited by nationalists in the struggle for Irish independence. The 1798 battle was one such event. In 1843, a political gathering here by Daniel O’Connell attracted three-quarters of a million people. The vandalism by the British Israelites brought protests led by, among others, W. B. Yeats, George Moore and Douglas Hyde, who became the Irish Republic’s first President.
Further protests occurred in 2007 when plans to upgrade the existing N3 highway into a motorway within two miles of Tara were drawn up. This led, two years later, to the inclusion of the Hill in the Smithsonian Institution’s list of fifteen of the world’s cultural treasures that were in danger of being lost. Despite the protests, construction of the road went ahead, and the M3 motorway opened in 2010.
The proximity of the motorway does not appear to have had a detrimental effect on the Hill of Tara. The site remains popular with visitors, but their numbers are not excessive. The area is sufficiently large for people to spread out and lose themselves among the intricacies of its many earthworks. The views from the hill are superb, while the atmosphere leaves one with a sense of mystery cloaked in myth, and a feeling that here is a place where great events occurred in the distant past.