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Tara – its political significance throughout the ages
Caroline Guerin McGrath

On the 15th August 1843 some 100,000 people came to the Hill of Tara to listen to Daniel O’Connell speak in favour of repeal of the Act of Union. His words proclaimed the immense social, political and military importance of the location:

“This was emphatically the spot from which emanated every social power and legal authority by which the force of the entire country was concentrated for national defence. On this important spot I have an important duty to perform. I here protest in the face of my country and my God against the continuance of the Union”.

    The choice of this site was particularly resonant in view it being the location of one of the most crucial battles of the 1798 Rebellion, the Battle of Tara. 4,000 Irish soldiers mustered at the historic hill, taking advantage of the panoramic view that it afforded as well as using the old defensive walls and ditches for cover. The English numbered 700 but possessed superior firepower and overwhelmed the Irish, killing 500.

    This site has been paramount in Irish political, social and religious life for millenia. The site dates back to 4000 B.C., consisting of the ceremonial hill itself, as well as settlements, sacred monuments and defensive fortifications. Tara’s Irish name Teamhair na Rí reflects the royal background of the Hill. It features in annals and literature as the site of inaugurations of kings. Kingship in medieval Ireland was a complex and sacred institution, bound up with taboos and proscriptions. The hill (síde) on which the inauguration took place was a sacred place, underlining the supernatural nature of kingship. The inauguration itself was a sacred ritual, which illustrated the king’s primary duties – to promote peace and bounty in the land. The king’s chariot was yoked to two horses which had never been harnessed before and he who was not fit to rule would not be able to control it. Feis Temro (The Festival of Tara) was a ritual held once in a king’s reign, as a means of affirming his kingship.

    The question of whether the concept of flaithes Érenn (“kingship of Ireland”) was a political reality or merely a literary construct is a controversial one to say the least. If the ardrí (“high-king”) was real, the question remains as to whether he had political power over the entire island or was merely a symbolic figure. The list of the High-Kings of Ireland from the Annals of the Four Masters which extends two millenia B.C. has been dismissed as a pseudohistorical construction. However, In Adomnán’s seventh century text Vitae Sancti Columbae, he refers to Diarmait mac Cerbaill being ordained by God as the ruler of all Ireland (totius Scotiae regnator).  

    The concept of high-kingship is a prominent one in Irish literature.  Irish society revolved around the king. He is the most privelaged person in medieval Irish society.  He had power of issuing an ordinance in times of emergency, such as defeat in battle or after a plague.  The concept of justice and peace emanating from the king was a crucial one. The preservation of fír flathemon (“the king’s truth”), the maintenance of the king’s búada (prerogatives) and the avoidance of geasa (taboos) was crucially important for a king’s reign to be prosperous and peaceful. However, law-tracts including Críth Gablach (CG) show that a king (rí túaithe) could exercise authority over other petty-kingdoms (túatha) than his own.  The provincial king or rí cóicid is referred to as rí ruirech (“king of great kings”).  This indicates that the idea of a centralised kinship is not outrageous by any means.

    Tara is depicted as the symbolic centre of Ireland, the ancient “fifth province” of Ireland. Even today, each of the four provinces of Ireland are referred to as a “fifth” (cúige) in Irish. This would the origin of Meath in Irish (Mide, from mid “centre”).

    Whether the power of the high-king was real or symbolic, the status of Tara as a religious, political and military centre has lasted up to recent times. An excavation by so-called British-Israelites in 1899 to find the Ark of the Covenant shows that its importance is not confined to Ireland. However specious their goals, their attention shows that Tara is a site of world importance. The current road-building scheme through the Tara-Skryne valley will destroy much of the integral value from a site which has held continuous significance for over 4,000 years.
© The Tara Foundation, 2006