12 June 2008


Nowhere in Ireland has richer associations than Temair, the ancient site of Tara. In prehistoric times it was already a major center for ritual, but it assumed even greater importance after the arrival of the Celts. The place featured prominently in early Irish legends and came to be regarded as the seat of the high kings of Ireland. As such, it became a potent symbol and rallying point of Irish unity and patriotism.

Tara is a complex site consisting of at least twenty-four separate monuments. The oldest of these is a passage grave from the Neolithic era (carbon-dated as 3000-2400 B.C.E.), although many of the structures were erected in the Bronze Age or the Iron Age, and not all were tombs. The site also includes a number of Raths (ring forts), earthworks, and ritual enclosures. Most of these were later given colourful names, linking them with ancient gods or kings. These include the Mound of the Hostages – a megalithic passage tomb and probably the oldest monument at the site – the Rath of the Synods. And the Banqueting Hall.

From early times, Tara was regarded as a sacred site because of its links with the high king. The office of high king was usually held by the local ruler and did not signify any great military or territorial power, but it was hugely prestigious. The High King did not reside at Tara, but did participate in its ceremonies. The most important of these was the feis temrach (feast of Tara), which symbolized the ritual union between the king and the goddess of sovereignty. Prospective rulers also had to place a hand on the Lia Fail (Stone of Destiny), a mystic pillar stone reputed to shriek whenever it was touched by the rightful king. In later years, the Christian missionaries sought to exploit the reputation of the site by claiming that St. Patrick’s decisive confrontation with the pagan high king took place on the Hill of Tara.

Lismullin Henge • Gabhra Valley, Ireland
by Jarrett A. Lobell, Archaeology Magazine

Early last year, archaeologists working on the route of a controversial highway near the village of Lismullin, Ireland, stumbled across a vast Iron Age ceremonial enclosure, or henge, surrounded by two concentric walls. The 2,000-year-old site is just over a mile from the Hill of Tara, traditional seat of the ancient Irish kings and site of St. Patrick’s conversion of the Irish to Christianity in the fifth century A.D. The discovery of the massive henge, measuring more than 260 feet in diameter, confirms the long-held belief that the area around the hill contains a rich complex of monuments.

The extraordinary amount of archaeological remains on the Hill of Tara–burial mounds, religious enclosures, stone structures, and rock art dating from the third millennium b.c. to the twelfth century A.D.–makes it Ireland’s most spiritually and archaeologically significant site. Construction of the new M3 highway, meant to ease traffic congestion around Dublin, threatens not only the Hill of Tara’s timeless quality, but also newly discovered archaeological sites in the surrounding valley.

Lismullin, seen above in an aerial shot taken during excavations, and other sites that stand in the way of the new road are now approved for destruction. Although archaeologists and concerned Irish politicians are rallying support worldwide for the protection of the Hill of Tara, the iconic site remains in great peril. At press time, the European Commission had initiated legal action against the Irish government over the M3, charging Ireland with failing to protect its own heritage.

Some Tarawatch Events:

Ireland is unique in having a musical instrument, the harp, as its national emblem. This indicates the primacy of the harp in Irish culture. The sites currently under threat are inextricably linked with the harping and bardic traditions for more than 2,500 years. Tara was the gathering place for thousands of harpers to 142 kings, and the harp was an integral part of the ancient Irish parliament at Tara. The harp has been used in the coat of arms of Ireland since 1270 and is the symbol of the Irish State today. It is found in the seals of the President, Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Government Ministers, on State currency and is the insignia of the Irish Law Courts.

Please help save Tara.