The Existing Remains at Tara

John Healy
Tara, Pagan and Christian | start of essay


The remains still existing at Tara, seen in the light of the lamp of history, are eminently interesting, and well worthy of a visit. I wish I had a luminous map on which I could exhibit them to you; but, failing that, I shall try to describe them as briefly as I can.

Now, suppose you approach the Royal Hill by the great road from the south anciently called Slighe Dala, and still in existence, at least on the same lines, you turn a little to the left at the southern slope of the hill, and first of all you meet the triple rampart of Rath Laeghaire It may have been the private residence of the king; but its chief interest for us is that its outer rampart was certainly the burial-place of the king himself. Laeghaire had in his character some traits which we cannot help admiring—bad traits, if you will, but still noteworthy. He was, above all, a steadfast Pagan, and a great hater of Leinstermen. “I cannot believe,” he said, “for my father, the great Niall, would not allow me to believe, but told me to have myself buried like a Pagan warrior on the brow of Tara, face to face against my foes; and so shall I stand till the day of doom.”

Well he obeyed his sire. He had sworn a great Pagan oath by all the elements, that he would no more exact the Borrumean tribute from the men of Leinster, and he was released by them from captivity on the faith of his oath. But he did try to exact it, and he was slain by the elements—by the sun and wind—on the banks of the Liffey. But the dying king was still true to his promise to his father. “Carry my body home to Tara,” he said, “and bury me like a king.” And so they interred him, with all his weapons upon him, in the south-eastern rampart of his own royal rath, standing up with shield and spear, and his face to Leinster, defying them, as it were, from his grave until the day of doom. I wonder is he still there, or did they do to him what the men of Tir Conall did to another old hero who gave similar directions—carry him off by night from his royal grave, and bury him flat in a marsh with his face down, that he might no more fight from his grave against his hereditary foes.

Now, leaving Rath Laeghaire, continue due north about one hundred paces, and come to the outer rampart of Rath na Riogh—where it was rather—for much of it has been carried away. Within this outer rampart were all the most ancient monuments of Tara. It was also called Cathair Crofinn from the Tuatha de Danaan queen; and most likely contains her grave. A little to the right within this great in closure on the east was “Cormac’s House,” the palace which he built for himself, where he dwelt, and which was the scene of his glories. It had, at least, a double rampart round it to separate the palace from the other buildings of the Royal City, and was of considerable extent. Further on, only a few paces, was the Farradh or Hall of Meeting; the word also means a seat, and doubtless signified the place of the royal seat or throne, where the kings and chiefs of Erin assembled in council round the monarch. Then beyond the Farradh, still to the north, we find on the right or east side the Mound of the Hostages—Dumha-na-Giall—where the royal hostages were kept sometimes in fetters of gold to indicate their quality, but fettered all the same, for otherwise the light-limbed youths in bondage would soon clear the ramparts of Tara, and make their way to their distant homes. On the left, but close by, was the site of the famous Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny. I have already indicated that there is a great controversy about the identity of this stone, and I have signified my own opinion. This stone never could have served the purpose of an inauguration stone, for it is a true pillar-stone, and the king-elect could not be expected to stand upon it. The Lia Fail, we are told, was the stone on which the kings were inaugurated, and on which they planted their feet in symbol of sovereignty. Then, if the prince were of truly royal line, the stone bellowed loudly to signify approval, otherwise it was dumb. This stone, we are told, was taken over to Scotland by Fergus Mor MacEarc, a brother of the high-king of Tara at that time—the beginning of the sixth century—that he might be inaugurated on this ancestral stone as king of the Scottish Dalriada. It was taken from Scone, it is said, in the time of Edward I., and is now under the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey. Petrie’s chief objection to this story is two-fold—first, that we have no reference to this translation in our ancient annals; and, secondly, that the Milesian chiefs would never allow the stone to be carried out of the kingdom.

Well, in reply to the latter point we can only say that most likely one brother lent the stone secretly to the other without consulting his chiefs; and the same thing would account for the silence of the Irish annalists. It is not recorded in the annals of the nation. The story of the translation came from Scotland, and is told only by our later antiquaries. It is a question, though very interesting, not yet by any means settled.

Outside Rath na Riogh, to the north-east, was the well Neamhnach, which still flows away to the north-east. It is chiefly interesting as the site of the first corn mill ever erected in Ireland. Cormac had a beautiful handmaiden, a bondswoman called Carnaid, whose duty it was to grind the corn on the hand quern. He pitied the hard toil of the maiden, and having got some idea of water mills during his foreign wars, he erected this to lighten the labour of the maiden. The well still flows, and until quite recently we believe its waters turned a mill at Tara.

Beyond the outer rampart of Rath na Riogh, still northward, was the Rath of the Synods—Rath Seanadh—where Adamnan, and Patrick before him, held a synod of the clerics and chiefs of Erin. It has been partially defaced by the wall of the Protestant church, a recent structure, wholly out of place on such a site.

Just a little north-east of this point, between the Rath of the Synods, and the southern extremity of the banquet hall, on the very summit of the hill, the five great roads that lead to Tara had their meeting-point. They can still to some extent be traced from the crown of Tara radiating in all directions. It is said that they were discovered on the night that the great Conn was born; but probably it merely means that his father, who had finished their construction, declared them formally open in honour of that event. I cannot now describe them at length, but it may be said that in general they ran in the route of the modern trunk lines of railway to all parts of ancient Erin.

Just beyond the Rath of the Synods still going to the north, we find the great Teach-Miodhcuarta, the mid-court house, or the mead-circling house, as others have translated it, by far the most interesting of all the existing monuments of ancient Tara. Its site can still be distinctly traced from north to south, and the measurements correspond with the accounts of the building given in our ancient books. It was no less than eight hundred feet in length, and from sixty to eighty feet in breadth, with six or seven great entrances on either side. You will at once perceive that this was an immense hall, larger than one of the sides of your largest square, and capable of accommodating an immense number of chiefs and warriors, either at meat or in council. There was a great range of couches all round the walls; the tables, loaded with meat, were in the centre; the lower portion seems to have contained a great kitchen for roasting and boiling, and we are told that some of the large pots could contain several beeves and pigs which were boiled together. When the meal was ready the attendants plunged huge forks into the boilers, which carried out several joints at once to be deposited as they were, without covers we may presume, before the assembled kings and warriors. At that time and long after, knives and forks were unknown; but I have no doubt skeans and daggers were called into requisition, and perhaps did the work of carving quite as well.

I hope I have said enough to awaken in you a keener interest to know for yourselves all about the Royal Hill; and if so, then I have gained my purpose in speaking before you here of “Tara, Pagan and Christian.”