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The Mound of Assembly on the Hill of Tara.
The Mound of Assembly, as the Forrad was known, a large flat-topped mound surrounded by three smaller barrows on the ridge of Tara. Photograph by W. A. Green, © NMNI.

The Monuments at Tara

The monuments on Hill of Tara span some five thousand years of Ireland's history, and has many remains, marks left by differing groups of people in the past who all found the hill special. This low hill was selected early in the neolithic, partly for the majestic view across the Plains of Meath and much of the centre of Ireland: a controlling vantage point. There are thirty ancient monuments visible today spread across the hilltop which range in date from the early neolithic to early Christian times. Tara is most famous as the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, both mythical and historical, and so is frequently mentioned in various mythological and historical texts and annals.

The Mound of the Hostages

The Mound of the Hostages, dating to about 3000 BC, lies just within the northern edge of a massive enclosure called Rath na Rig. This, the oldest visible monument at Tara, was excavated by Sean O'Riordain between 1952 and 1954. The monument proved to have a complex history, having been enhanced and extended for long use throughout the Bronze age. The earlier phase around 3,400 BC consisting of a free-standing burial chamber standing on a platform or tertre, a classic early form of this kind of monument well known in Carrowmore and around the northern coast. This free-standing chamber, which seems to have been erected around 3,400 BC, is oriented to the sunrise at Samhain and Imbolc. The chamber was later covered by a cairn of quarried stone, and this cairn later covered with a thick layer of soil, which was filled with burials for over 1,500 years.

It is highly likely that the Mound of the Hostages was used as an Inauguration Mound, perhaps the most significant in Ireland, during the kingship rituals of the Medieval era.

Tara's Woodhenge

O'Riordain's excavations and later geophysical surveys have discovered a huge oval structure dating to the neolithic, consisting of a deep rock-cut ditch 170 meters in diameter, six meters wide and three meters deep, with its centre in the middle of the Rath of the Synods. This ditch seems to run underneath and therefore must be older than the Mound of the Hostages, making it one of the oldest structures on the Hill of Tara. Running around the interior within the ditch was a series of some 300 holes two meters in diameter, thought to have contained massive timber uprights.

Rath Grainne on the Hill of Tara.  Photograph by W. A. Green, © NMNI.
Rath Gráinne on the Hill of Tara. Photograph by W. A. Green, © NMNI.

Bronze age Barrows

Many of the monuments at Tara are barrows—burial mounds from the Bronze age—of various types and kinds. The largest are Rath Grainne and the Sloping Trenches which are sixty meters in diameter while some of the smallest are mere bumps in comparison. During the Bronze age a new group of warlike people, loosely termed the Yamnaya, who seem to be descendents of mesolithic hunter-gatherers, come into Ireland in large numbers. They tend to occupy previously sacred places, as invaders and colonisers are wont to do, and most of what can be seen at Tara, and possibly the majority of Irish mythology relates to this time.

Rath na Rig

Rath na Rig, the Fort of the Kings is a huge oval enclosure than encloses much of the hill top. Excavations revealed a deep V-shaped rock-cut ditch up to 3.5 meters deep. About three meters in from the ditch, a timber pallisade was erected, a structure which would have used an enormous amount of timber. The fact that the bank is outside the ditch is generally taken to indicate that this is not a defensive, but is a ritual or ceremonial enclosure in nature. This massive enclosure, which is thought to date from about 100 BC, had perhaps three entrances.

An old photo of the Lia Fáil with the Mound of the Hostages in the background. Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

The Forrad

The Forrad is a large flat-topped mound which is probably a Bronze age barrow some forty meters in diameter. This mound is surrounded by a high bank which encloses a ditch. The bank is some three meters high and incorporates three smaller barrows into its ring. The Forrad is joined to the large ringfort Teach Cormaic, which dates to a much later time.

The Forrad and Teach Cormaic.
The Forrad and Teach Cormaic.

Teach Cormaic

Teach Cormaic is a large ringfort some seventy meters in diameter, connected to the much older monument called the Forrad. It is highly likely thatthe ringfort, which probably dates from the fifth to the seventh century, was used as part of the inauguration ceremonies that took place here on the hill, when the candidate for Kingship went through a series of rituals and rites related to sovereignty of the land.

The Stone of Destiny at Tara. Photograph by W. A. Green, © NMNI.

The Lia Fáil

The Lia Fáil or Stone of Destiny is a piece of white granite which may have come from the hills close to Newry in Countty Down, about 75 kilometers to the north of Tara. The stone, as it stands today on the platform of the Forrad is some 1.5 meters tall. The stone originally stood close to the Mound of the Hostages, where it may have cast a shadow at sunrise and surely featured in the kingship rituals here. The stone was moved to this present location to mark a mass grave of Croppies after the Rebellion of 1798.

The stone, very obviously phallic in shape, is one of the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann, brought to Ireland in mythical times and used as an inauguration stone. When the legitimaite king stood upon the stone, it would roar its approval.

The Rath of the Synods

Just north of the Mound of the Hostages are the tumbled remains of the Rath of the Synods, which is intruded into by the grounds of the modern church. This monument, named after a famous medieval church synod said to have taken place here, is an unusual example of a ringfort with four banks and ditches. There are only a few such sites in Ireland, and they are thought to imply importance or royalty. This monument came to national prominence when it was chosen for excavation by a group called the British Israelites between 1898 and 1901.

Artifacts dating to the neolithic from the Mound of the Hostages.
Artifacts dating to the neolithic from the Mound of the Hostages.

The Banqueting Hall

Just to the north of the Rath of the Synods, and beside the gate where the modern visitor enters the Hill of Tara, is a long linear earthwork called Teach Midchuarta, the so called Banqueting Hall. This monument, which was imagined to be the foundations of a longhouse, is probably the remains of a cursus or ceremonial pathway, which is aligned north to south, and leads to the Mound of the Hostages. To the west of the Banqueting Hall are the barrows of Rath Grainne and the Cloenfherta, or Sloping Trenches.

Rath Loegaire

Rath Loegaire is a huge enclosure 130 meters in diameter to the south of Rath na Rig. Though the monument has been badly damaged by ploughing, it seems that the ditch was to the inside of the bank, usually taken to indicate a ceremonial rather than a defensive function. About one kilometer further south on the other end of Tara ridge is Rath Maeve, another massive enclosure, possibly a neolithic henge.

St. Patricks Well at Tara, photograph from 1893.
St. Patricks Well at Tara, photograph from 1893.

The Wells of Tara

In addition to the many man-made monuments, there are several ancient and venerated wells at Tara. Local lore says there were seven wells on the hill; some have been destroyed and filled in. The best known of the wells lies just east of Rath na Rig and has many names: The Well of the Dark Eye, Well of the White Cow, the Physican and the Healer. The water is delicious and as some of the names suggest, it is said to have healing powers.

Drawing labelled King Dermot's tomb at Tara.
Drawing labelled King Dermot's tomb at Tara.

Standing Stones

Aside from the more famous Lia Fáil, there are more standing stones at Tara. In the graveyard are two pillar stones, one tall and thin, one short and rounded, which are said to be part of the kingship ritual at Tara. The taller stone, which some believe is the door jamb of the old church, bears a carving which may be a Sheela-na-Gig. As with everything else at Tara, these monuments have been added to the medieval narrative of kingship, and so the new King had to drive his chariot between the two pillars. It was known as the Tomb of King Dermot as the above illustration shows.

The Great Hall at Tara.
The Great Cursus or Banqueting Hall at the Hill of Tara.