Keltfacts: Hill of Tara

We would love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our new series Keltfacts. In this blog we are looking into the Hill of Tara, a hill in Ireland which once serves as the centre, burial mound and is now a registered monument.

What’s so special about the Hill of Tara?

Hill of Tara is an English abbreviation of ‘Teamhair’ or ‘Cnoc na Teamhrach’. It’s also named King’s Tara, which is translated from ‘Teamhair na Rí’ in Irish. The hill is a place that used to be a centre of society. It was where ceremonies were held and a burial mound through the centuries.

Even before the Celts, Tara was a special place. Findings and monuments from the Neolithic era until the Iron Age have been found there. There were even speculations about Tara being the capital of the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

Several coronations have been held on the top of the hill, and there have been large gatherings on and around the hill. During a coronation ceremony, the king had to drink ale and symbolically marry the goddess of the land, Maeve (Medb). This ceremony was described in a legal text written around 600 BC, which states that it was held at the Lia Fail (the Stone of Destiny). The last king to follow this ritual was Diarmait mac Cerbaill in the sixth century.

In 1843 the biggest demonstration at Tara took place. About 500.000 to 1 million people joined the discussion about the union of Ireland and Britain.

In Irish mythology, the hill is the capital of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a supernatural race that embodied the pre-Christian deities of the Irish. Legends state that when the first Celts settled, the kings ruled from Tara. On a clear day, you could see important buildings from different cities all around and far into Ireland.

The Hill of Tara in stories and legends

The Hill of Tara plays a central role in many Irish historiography and stories. In 980 there was a battle between the Gaelic of Meath and the Vikings of Dublin at Tara. The Vikings were lead by a son of one of the last Viking kings in Ireland. The Irish were accompanied by Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill, who was a descendant of one of the kings of Tara. The battle ended in a slaughter for the Vikings, who legendarily named it the ‘red slaughter’. With the help of better defences and strategies, Máel lead the Irish into victory. Although the symbolism of the Hill of Tara is supposed to have impacted soldier moral as well. The victory allowed them to take back Dublin from the Norsemen.

The Lebor Gabála Erenn (Book of Invasions) is a collection of texts containing mythical history of Ireland. The Hill of Tara plays an important role for many events described in these texts. At the time of its creation, it was referenced like a history book, a counterpart for the Greek and Roman classical histories. Nowadays however, we regard it as folklore and mythology.

We all heard about Saintt Patrick at some point, one of the most historically famous figures in Irish history. He as well is connected to the stories about Hill of Tara’. In 433 Patrick desired to convert the Irish king to Christianity. A big bonfire was built annually in preparation of Ostara at the Hill of Tara. To require all attention at this fire, all other fires were forbidden. However, Ostara fell with the Christian feast of Easter. Patrick lit a fire on the opposing hill, Hill of Slane, to celebrate this, much to the annoyance of the king.. He sent his soldiers to arrest the person responsible for the fire on the Hill of Slane and for the fire to be extinguished.
The soldiers came back with the news that the fire couldn’t be extinguished. Meanwhile Patrick preached to many people of the King’s court, which led to several of his court-men conversion to Christianity. The king however, stayed with is own faith, but was very impressed by Saint Patrick. Therefore, he let Patrick live and continue with his activities.

Nowadays at the entrance of Hill of Tara a statue of Saint Patrick in front of a church can be found, to honour the Christian belief that started to grow in Ireland after the conflict between the king and Saint Patrick.

Have you ever visited a Celtic monument? Which one would you like to visit, and why?

By Dewi van Zeggelaar

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