By Elyn Aviva and Gary White
The fame of the Hill of Tara (“The Hill of Kings”) spreads wide and deep through Irish history. WB Yeats called it “the most consecrated spot in Ireland.” In Gaelic, Tara is “Teamhair,” and the name may refer to the burial mound of Tea, ancestor queen and goddess of the Celts, who died on Tara and made it sacred soil. Or it may come from the same root as the Greek “temenos", meaning sanctuary.
Tara probably first came into use around 3500 BCE. Some 130 monuments, including barrows, Neolithic tombs, and circular Iron Age forts, have been identified in the immediate area. It has been a sacred location for millennia, a veritable cemetery of the renowned. Most of the sites remain unexcavated, although unscientific digs in the nineteenth century left parts of the area pockmarked and disfigured.
Although the Hill of Tara is only 91 m (300 ft) high, you can see 40% of Ireland from its summit. On a clear day you can see the glimmering white quartz façade of Newgrange from the so-called “Banquet Hall.” It was from the Hill of Tara that King Laoghaire, purported to be buried upright in armor in a ring fort on the hill, saw the Pascal fire that Patrick may have lit on the Hill of Slane.
Early Irish sagas describe Tara as the home of the god Lug, that great master-of-all-trades. Its greatest prestige was during the time of the Celtic High Kings of Ireland, and legendary kings Cormac Mac Airt and Conaire Mór were inaugurated on the hill, along with 142 other kings over the centuries. Legend reports that the royal contender for kingship had to be accepted by the Lai Fáil, the “Stone of Destiny,” the standing stone erected on the hill. If the Stone of Destiny approved, it would screech out the successful candidate’s name.
Seventh-century documents describe the battles between dynasties to claim kingship of Tara and hence kingship over the whole of Ireland. Tara continued to be the nominal seat of kingship until it was abandoned in 1022.
This article first appeared in: Powerful Places in Ireland, pp.57-59.